Computer scientist Flora Salim became obsessed with coding when she was 10-years-old in Indonesia.
“One of the things that I asked my dad was for a personal computer,” Dr Salim said.
“But it was so expensive back then we couldn’t afford it, so my dad sent me to a coding course.”
Today, Dr Salim is a senior lecturer at RMIT.
Like Dr Salim, there are many women in technology and IT and some of the greatest minds in computing have been women.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, March 8, is “pledge for parity”. IT and computing in Australia is not equal and has moved further from parity.
Over the past decade, the trend has been for fewer women graduating university with IT or related computing degrees.
The number of male IT graduates has dropped as well, but not as quickly, which means the percentage of graduates who are women has dropped.
The drop in women who are graduating with IT and related degrees is not due to a drop in female university graduates; female graduates in all areas in 2014 made a larger proportion of total university graduates (60 per cent) than in 1989 (56 per cent).
Not everyone who works in IT and computing-related fields have university degrees in that area. Many take on vocational education and training (VET).
The proportion of people who complete IT and computing-related courses in government-funded VET, like Tafe, has bounced back recently after a decline since 2003.
Others in the industry take on private vocational education, like the many available intensive coding courses where individuals graduate as web developers or designers.
Yet, in employment, the trend is still downward; employees in the area of Computer System Design and Related Services who are women has dropped since the early 1990’s.
Dr Salim has noticed some decline of women in IT.
“Throughout my time as a student, as well as working in the industry, as well as now working as a female academic I can see that this is the trend, that there’s a little bit of decline,” Dr Salim said.
Dr Salim said there were potentially more women doing technology-related work than the education and employment numbers suggested since computing and technology today are in more industries than in previous years.
Even some accountants, artists and architects knew how to code, she said.
What can put women off a career in IT and computing?
Computing and IT has the boys’ club stereotype.
Third year RMIT Software Engineering student Johana Foster found the amount of men in her course confronting.
“I went to my orientation day and in a room full of guys there were only a couple of other women,” Ms Foster said.
“It actually scared me so much that I deferred my studies.”
She stuck it out in her degree, and when SBS spoke with Ms Foster she was an intern at a software development firm.
Ms Foster was not the only woman at RMIT to feel outnumbered by men, and in March of 2014, she and a number of others formed the RMIT Society for Women in Information Technology (SWITCH).
SWITCH encourages and supports women who are pursuing tech studies to stick with their studies.
“We obviously have little control over how women grow up or how their interests develop,” she said.
“But what I hope societies like SWITCH can do is help the retention rates of those women who are in tech degrees, which will have a direct impact on the number of women in the industry.”
The society acts as a support network to help women in tech degrees, and to show younger women there are people actively trying to bring about change.
Our ladies and wonderful @_bjz_, @TheSpacepony & @diploi rocking it out at #rmitswitch #git and #github workshop. pic.twitter杭州桑拿会所,/hPdSaGpDW7
— RMIT SWITCH (@RMIT_SWITCH) August 19, 2015
The reason for the lack of women in computing is simply because our society does not do enough to change it, Ms Foster said.
“We’ve realised it’s an issue, but with the rate at which the industry is growing, people’s very small steps to an attempted solution just isn’t going to cut it I’m afraid,” she said.
Dr Salim said groups like SWITCH could help women in IT and computing to realise they’re not alone, and to help each other with technological issues in a non-competitive environment.
Women in leadership generally would help women enter the IT and computing industries, she said.
“I think females in general always look for role models,” Dr Salim said.
“It would be good to have people advocating for innovation, and if that [also] comes from women, not just men.”
The IT industry had an unconscious bias, Mathilde Desselle said.
Ms Desselle is the chair of Queensland-based Women in IT (WIT) Life Sciences Chapter.
She said the industry did not realise it, yet the bias was obvious at IT seminars and other events.
“You tend to see the panel of key speakers are all male.”
Such panels are sometimes known as “manels”, she said.
Women need role models
It can be hard for women to picture themselves entering IT and tech jobs if there are not prominent examples of women doing well in leadership positions.
Ms Desselle said one way to encourage women to stay in the IT industry is through mentoring, where experienced and successful women give advice to younger and aspiring women.
“There are not a lot of positive role models for girls and students,” Ms Desselle said.
Connecting mentors with mentees is a service WIT provides to its members.
The effect of having mentors is known to be a benefit. However, many women do not seek out mentors.
A study by Development Dimensions International said many women might be afraid of rejection.
Most women in their survey of women in business reported they had never been mentored, but had never been asked to be mentors either.
A successful transition
For web developer Amy Simmons, moving from journalism into a tech role has been a great move.
She said the year she became a web developer was the best year of her life.
“Transitioning from journalism to web development wasn’t scary at all, especially since the tech community in Sydney is so welcoming and supportive,” Ms Simmons said.
She started coding in 2013 with Rails Girls – a group where women learn to use the popular development framework, Ruby on Rails.
She then did a web development course and has since shared her knowledge about becoming a web developer.
[email protected] sharing her knowledge on being a junior developer #WDI #lifeatGA pic.twitter杭州桑拿会所,/XagofpZNUu
— General Assembly Syd (@SydneyGA) December 9, 2015
She said the stereotype of a web developer was male, but people in the community did not look down on her because of her gender.
“It’s really not about gender, the tech community as a whole is just incredibly open, welcoming and supportive,” she said.
Ms Simmons shared her comments with SBS on the popular open source software sharing platform, Github.
Some of computing’s best minds have been women
While part of the issue is a perception that IT and computing are male-dominated, some of the greatest contributions to computing and have been from women.
One notable contribution was from US Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, who was in charge of a team that made the first programming language compiler.
A compiler converts source code into a format computers can execute and it’s how most computer programs and phone applications are made.
Today the technology is ubiquitous; if you’re reading this article on a phone or computer, your web browser and much of the other software currently running will have been made with a compiler.
“I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it,” Admiral Hopper is widely-reported to have said.
“They told me computers could only do arithmetic.”
Dr Salim said compilers made so much of today technology possible.
Another great woman in computing is Margaret Hamilton, whose code allowed the Apollo 11 lander to safely get Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and Neil Armstrong on the moon’s surface.
“At the start of the Apollo program, the on board flight software needed to land on the moon didn’t exist,” Ms Hamilton is quoted as saying on a NASA website.
“Computer science wasn’t in any college curriculum.”