When Alison Clear attended one of the first professional IT training courses in New Zealand - a one-year course at the Auckland Technical Institute which had been organised in response to fledgling industry demand - Clear says there were 16 people on the course and the gender split was 50-50.
This is in stark contrast to the gender make up in the degree courses that Clear runs as head of the computing department at Christchurch Polytechnic. She says that in a class of 25, there is often only one young woman.
“I had a lunch for my girl students the other day, where we discussed support for being the only girl in class. We talked about ways in which we can support each other and ways we can help high school girls realise that there’s a really exciting career in IT,” she says.
Clear is organising the first NZ_OZWIT conference, for October 10 – 11, to be held in Christchurch. It’s a local version of the successful Australian OZWIT conference that many of her academic collegues across the Tasman are involved in.
“We want to get the women in IT in New Zealand inspired to come along and perhaps be as active in women in technology as the Australian women are,” she says, adding that men are welcome to attend.
The reasons why girls shy away from an IT career are well researched, Clear says. She notes that the gender imbalance is particularly strong in Western countries.
“There’s a sociological issue in that girls don’t experiment on the computer like boys do. If you have computers in schools at primary schools you have one or two computers and the boys tend to be dominant,” she says
“I never want to change the difference between boys and girls, I just want to give girls the opportunity. We have to get in there and say to the girls ‘this is an exciting career and girls can do it’. The image of computing is not really good in the public space either. It’s nerdy, geeky and it’s not like that.”
Clear says that girls tend to be more nurturing and caring, and can’t see how a technology career can support that.
But this is a false perception – IT can made a real difference in improving people’s lives, as Clear herself has demonstrated.
“I went and did a big research project in Peru five years ago where we helped the peasants who were below the poverty line improve their livelihoods by using technnology – setting up computer networks in towns so they could be connected,” she says.
“I go and talk to classes about this because it is caring and it is nurturing and you can use your skilss and your knowledge in IT in a different way.”
Clear says that IT professionals are vital to helping with the rebuild of Christchurch following the two major earthquakes.
“You look at the job stats all the time and the job numbers are growing, particularly in Christchurch. We’re really desperate for people and they can help with the rebuild and there’s that caring and nurturing thing again,” she says.
“Business analysts — they’re screaming for them here in Christchurch. I’ve even developed a new pathway for them in our degree. The industry came to us and said we’re desperate for these people. For us, we can definitely have a pathway like that, so it starts next year.”
One of the advantages of polytech degrees is the focus on industry-led qualifications, Clear says. She works closely with local IT businesses to ensure they are training students who can fill vacancies in areas such as business analysts and software testers. As part of the degree assessment, students must work for a company on a project, and this is the same for computing degrees in polytechs around the country.
“Every polytech has an industry advisory board, mine meet four times a year and I’m always asking what is the next big thing,” she says.
Around 30 people graduate each year, but Clear says the polytechnic could easily double this number and still find jobs for everyone. The hardest job for Clear – and this was the same for the head of similar degrees at Otago and Manukau polytechs spoken to by Computerworld – is keeping the students for the three years.
There are two main reasons why students drop out, according to Clear. The first is that IT is a technical subject and some students come in thinking it’s like “playing computer games.” Clear says she looks for good grades in NZCEA Level 3 maths-rich and English-rich subjects.
The other reason is that sometimes students become so accomplished that the industry can’t wait for them to graduate and offer them a job before they get a chance to complete their degree. Faced with adding to their student loan or making good money in a job, many opt for the latter.
• Information on the NZ_OZWIT can be found here.