A thesis on women in computing in New Zealand has produced some worrying conclusions.
Dr Linda Selby, from the Auckland College of Education, recently published her thesis on the participation of women in tertiary-level computer science and IT courses. She also co-wrote a report with Ken Ryba (Massey University) and Alison Young (Unitec) earlier this year on the same topic.
Selby says that since the late 1980s the number of women entering computer courses has been declining.
The general trend is that only up to a third of first-year students are women, and the drop-out rate for women is higher than for men, says Selby. She says the number of women in computing appears to have peaked at the end of the 1980s.
She says her research shows some of the reasons for the low participation include:
• A lack of knowledge about career prospects.
• The image of computer science.
• The perceived lack of confidence of female students despite obvious success.
• A lack of women lecturers.
• Computing being perceived as a male domain.
• An ineffective learning environment.
• The importance of prior computing experience.
In her thesis Selby concludes that departments must acknowledge they have inadvertently established an exclusive mostly male culture.
She says the creation for educationally sound teaching and learning environments in tertiary-level computing will do more than anything else to ensure women choose to participate in computer courses in equal numbers to men.
The news from the universities Computer-world spoke to isn't all bad, however.
While it is too early to look at figures for next year, Canterbury University computer science HOD Dr Bruce McKenzie says he doesn't believe the percentage of female students is declining. But he concedes their numbers don't seem to be increasing, either. He says about 20% of first-year computer science papers are made up of females. He suspects the reasons for the low numbers are shaped long before students get to university. "The mere fact that they don't even start in computer science shows they've been put off a long time ago."
Otago University HOD Brian Cox says the numbers of women doing computing papers is increasing, although quite slowly.
In the first introductory year paper, the proportion of females this year is 43.5%. He says previously the figure has been about 20% to 30%. In the second and third years the percentages vary from 9% to 18%, while the fourth year ranges from 10 % to 15%.
Cox says other traditionally male domains, including medicine, law and dentistry, have changed over time. About five years ago the dental school in Dunedin considered getting rid of female toilets because of the lack of women. Now female dentistry students outnumber male students.