Women in IT: Where are the disconnects?

young-female-computer-engineer.jpg.824x0_q71_crop-scale

While we discuss the emerging knowledge- and service industries of the 21st-century almost on a daily basis, the minuscule percentage of women embarking on careers in IT is deeply troubling. Industry struggles to find enough applicants to fill open positions as women are losing out on a personal and societal level by no embarking on beneficial career paths and excluding themselves from Economy 4.0.

Problem Definition

Across Western cultures, very few women choose careers in IT. According to a recent study conducted by COMPTIA (2017), girl’s consideration of IT jobs wanes with age. While in Middle School 27% of girls still consider a career in IT, this number dwindles to a meagre 18% in High School. Only 7% of girls consider a career as a programmer (versus 25% of boys) and only 3% imagine a career as a software developer (versus 23% of boys). In Germany, only 17,4% of new job applications in IT are women according to a recent study ‘Recruiting Trends 2017’. Among the top 1000 IT companies in Germany, this number comes down to 13,2% of female applicants, constituting IT as a highly male-dominated industry.

The cited reasons for the low uptake are manifold. Early childhood socialisation favours boys to be associated with technology as compared to girls. As a result of this stereotypical expectation which is supported by many parents, boys are more encouraged to explore technology and science as compared to girls. Many women also feel uncomfortable to work as a minority in an already male-dominated field. In the social sphere, there are too few female role models available to guide and mentor younger girls. Many schools offer only rudimentary IT classes that do not inform and prepare students adequately for a future career. At the workplace, issues of unequal pay, unequal career development options and widespread gender bias within IT companies keep many women from joining. On top, very little useful information is provided to young women about careers in IT in general. We cannot dream about things that we don’t know about. Although the general ‘acupuncture points‘ to why women do not take up jobs in IT are well identified by international studies, the numerous obstacles have not yet been specified by empirical research and have not been informed by experience gained from practical interventions. What specifically keeps girls and women from embarking on careers in IT?

To dig deeper and go beyond generalised statements, we need to have a look at some of the leading theoretical frameworks in educational sociology and psychology.

Educational Sociology Approaches

Raymond Boudon’s approach follows, as an external methodology, a rational choice approach based on an individual and situated cost-benefit calculus. In our case, young girls and their parents evaluate the costs, payoffs and likeliness of succeeding in careers in IT. The question is if and how young women from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds make different educational decisions after finishing school or college as compared to women from academic- and well-off families. The data gained from studies on the more fragile joints of education systems can inform interventions and communication strategies based on the attitudes and ways of life within a specific social milieu or class. In psychology, rational choice theories such as by Ajzen and Fishbein’s Theory of Planned Behavior include attitudes towards planned behaviour, normative beliefs and perceived behavioural control, analogous to Boudon’s framework. These theories are good at examining the joints of educational trajectories such as transitions from secondary to tertiary and from tertiary to university- or polytechnic education.

Pierre Bourdieu’s Cultural Deprivation Theory, by comparison, looks at the ‘habitus’ which are internalised patterns of socialisation, dispositions, daily routines and the in situ constitution of life-planning. His complimentary concept of ‘doxa’ refers to the attempt of social members to bring subjective cognitive convictions into congruence with given (objective) social settings. In psychology, Cognitive Dissonance Theory (Festinger, 1957) deals with similar scenarios where issues such as forced compliance behaviour, decision-making and effort are investigated. In our case, we are interested to find out how habitus and doxa affect the motivation of young women to become engaged in IT.

Psychological Aspects

Regarding observational learning and learning from social role models, Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory can inform our problem. What are the characteristics of role models in IT that inform and motivate young women? Which are the central predictors provided by role models for a behavioural engagement in IT?

As a motivational theory, Self-Determination Theory (SDT) offers a useful framework to differentiate the concepts of personal autonomy, competencies and social relations in IT careers. These concepts can be related to the profiles of potential applicants. Relating to Bourdieu’s notion of internalised life practice, it would also be illuminating to examine to which extent goals in life-planning (based on social milieu) are constructed by a more intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. There is a fascinating conflict here: given that IT careers are based on the prerequisite of lifelong learning skills, an extrinsic motivation orientation (e.g., a focus on above average salaries) that may prompt some women into taking up IT careers might not be the same motivation that is needed to sustain long-term growth within the field.

Graphic: Top Barriers identified by ISACA Study (2016)

The Acupuncture Points

There are at least five acupuncture points to examine the disconnects between young women and careers in IT. The first point relates to (1) early childhood socialisation towards IT and science by the parents and the social environment. The second point relates to the (2) social scaffolding and inspiration by role models and the third to (3) adequate introductory classes at school to build initializing competencies. The fourth is the (4) opportunities and obstacles signalled to women at the workplace as well as (5) the prospect to sustain employment and grow within an IT career path.

Conclusion

Empirical research on the above-mentioned acupuncture points can inform the rapid building of social prototypes (see my U.Lab review) while, in return, practice gained from interventions can inform additional quantitative data collection. From a Theory U perspective, disconnects can be environmental (How can IT connect us with our environment?), social (How can IT re-unite us with others?) and spiritual (How can IT connect our present Self with our future Self and work?). As Economy 4.0 embraces collaboration and cooperation, it opens the female notion of caring, which appeared as a strong motif in all of the studies. From a caring female perspective, IT can be seen as empowering and re-establishing our connections to nature, to others and our highest future potential. In this light, the flavour of new job descriptions is entirely based on the extent to which new types of work can bridge the disconnects of our time. At the end, the mentioned disconnects go beyond gender. It is not so much that women have an issue with IT, but that IT has been widely cultivated as a predominantly male domain. Mental images and stereotype clichées of the lonely nerd or socially deprived hacker are not helpful to any gender. It is time to create cooperative spaces within IT where gender domination does not obscure the love for creating technology that is beneficial to all.