What Women Who Shun IT Really Think about IT

I caught up on some reading over the holidays. In particular, [begin link /who.staff.joanne.html]Joanne Cohoon[end link] sent me an article entitled “[begin link /pdf/Weinberger_IEEE.pdf]Just Ask! Why Surveyed Women Did Not Pursue IT Courses or Careers[end link]”, by Catherine J. Weinberger. Although published in the Spring 2004 issue of the IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, it was new to me.

In this survey, college students in non-IT majors (including women-dominated majors such as biology, communications, English, psychology, and sociology, as well as economics, a major popular with both genders) were asked about their reasons for avoiding IT majors (which were defined as computer science, computer engineering, and electrical engineering) and careers. Here are some excerpts from the paper:

“The most common reasons given by women students for avoiding IT majors or careers are that the coursework is uninteresting, difficult, and time consuming, and because they would not enjoy the work in associated careers.

“About one-third of the women,and none of the men, expressed concern about the classroom climate in IT courses. This suggests the presence of a gender-specific barrier,whether or not these concerns are based on accurate perceptions.

“The workplace environment is also perceived to be a greater barrier to entering careers in computer engineering, computer programming, or electrical engineering than to any other listed careers. On the other hand, other careers are more likely to
be perceived to have low pay (teacher, social worker), to require too many years of schooling (lawyer, pediatrician, surgeon), to require working too many hours per week (lawyer, pediatrician, surgeon), and to be difficult to combine with raising a family (lawyer, surgeon).

“This survey turned up several points on which students were surprisingly unconcerned. Very few students (and equal proportions of men and women) feared that choosing IT majors would lead to social ostracism. Very few students were concerned that IT college majors would not prepare them to do socially useful work. And very few of the women in this survey ruled out IT careers because they felt it would be difficult to combine these careers with raising a family.

“These findings might move the discussion away from questions about balancing family with career. Research about the determinants of interest will clearly be a fruitful avenue for understanding how to increase participation. Study of the formation and accuracy of perceptions of the difficulty of IT coursework is also clearly in order. The coursework required to prepare for IT careers is challenging in nature, yet it is surprising to find that the coursework required to become a computer programmer or engineer is perceived by many young women as more difficult than that required to become a surgeon.”

This is just one survey, of course, but it reminded me yet again of the importance of research in guiding our efforts to increase girls’ and women’s participation in computing.

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