Comment: Science should be wooing women

29 Mar 2005

Of all the challenges facing the third-level education sector, probably the most worrying — and at the same time least visible — is the gross gender imbalance that exists in the computer/engineering area. The problem is to some extent masked by the large preponderance of women in other disciplines such as teaching, nursing and medicine, where they now outnumber their male counterparts. The truth, however, is that in the computer/engineering area the problem is only getting worse. Not only are ICT courses failing to attract female candidates but there are attracting even fewer than they used to.

Latest figures from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) show that whereas in 2001, women accounted for 32pc of those taking IT courses, today that share has fallen to 16pc. At the same time the total number of students taking such courses has halved. The loss is even more significant considering that overall, girls are achieving better Leaving Cert results than boys: 65pc of girls get 400-plus points.

The decline appears to have two dimensions. Firstly, as we know, the tech downturn, for all its brevity, was disastrous in public relations terms for the ICT sector and by extension the college courses from which it draws its talent. The message, no doubt reinforced by concerned parents everywhere, was that IT was too unstable and not a suitable career. Second, when weighing up their career options, a growing number of female school leavers are reckoned to be turning their backs on ‘aggressive’ male-dominated industries in favour of more empathetic careers, such as social work, nursing, medicine and teaching.

There are also structural problems to be overcome, such as poorly equipped computer and science labs in schools, particularly girls’ schools. It used be the case, perhaps still is, that if you were male the chances are you could takes subjects such as applied maths, chemistry and physics in school but if you were a girl all you could hope to do was biology and, if you were lucky, higher-level maths. Little wonder that women pack third-level biology courses but are few and far between in electronic engineering and other ICT courses.

As reported on page 16, the HEA is now looking at ways to address the gender imbalance. One of these is to establish and fund new blended courses that combine information systems with, say, humanities. Blended courses are not a new concept. In other disciplines, they are well rooted in fact. Business and law at University College Dublin and business information systems at University College Cork are just two examples. While blended degrees run the risk of being dismissed in some quarters as ‘mongrel’ offerings, proponents argue that they do fit with the requirements of the ICT industry in that there is a need for people with a broader skillset, not just pure technical skills.

Education of stakeholders will also play a crucial role. It is impossible to overstate the influence parents have on the career choices of their children. And the brainwashing starts very young. Some readers may have listened to a recent radio report from a primary school in an affluent north Dublin suburb. When asked about their career choices, it was hardly a coincidence that most children said they wanted to be lawyers and only one chose science. So parents and school children need to be properly informed about ICT careers in terms of job security, pay levels and career path, not forgetting job satisfaction. Nor should it be assumed that all career guidance counsellors in schools are well briefed on the potential opportunities. Just as a career in banking covers a broad spectrum of roles, so too does ICT, and students need to be made aware of this.

Back in 1999, the report of the Review Committeee on Post-Secondary Education and Training Places recommended that Ireland be within the top quartile of OECD countries in terms of participating in post-second level education and training. So far, this objective, which was adopted by the government in 2000, has not been achieved. In the case of graduation rates at degree and advanced research degree levels, Ireland is ranked 11th out of 17 OECD countries and 14th out of 27 countries respectively. With the ICT industry now accepted as being key to Ireland’s economic future, increasing the participation rate of women within ICT courses is not only desirable — it is a national imperative.

Attracting more women to the fold will not be easy but the stakes are certainly very high.

By Brian Skelly