ÜThere is a lot of talk about the numerous unfilled positions in the IT sector. But what most people don’t have on their screens: there were often good female candidates for the respective posts, who decided after a certain time to leave the company in question. Or the whole industry. According to a study by the EU Commission, by the age of 45 more than 90 percent of women with a university degree in information technology are no longer working in the IT sector – an alarmingly high number that makes it clear how unattractive this sector still is for many female employees is.
Many companies do not yet seem to be aware that female specialists not only have to be recruited, but also retained. But the problem starts much earlier. The number of participants in the nationwide computer science competitions, which are funded by the Federal Ministry of Education, show how early girls decide against information technology. While the proportion of girls in grades 5 and 6 is around 50 percent in the very low-threshold computer science course, which 430,000 students took part in last year, it drops to 35 percent in the upper grades. In the youth competition in computer science with its 35,000 participants, only 23 percent are women in the last round, and in the performance area – the national competition in computer science with around 1600 participants – the proportion of girls in the final round drops to seven percent.
According to this, the interest in computer science is apparently equally high among boys and girls at the beginning, but the situation changes drastically within a few years. The competition team got to the bottom of this development in a scientific study for which more than 3,000 participants were interviewed. The results also point far beyond the competitions to how computer science reaches young people – or not.
The “nerd” stereotype
An important factor for girls is therefore their own social self-image, which with increasing age increasingly conflicts with their interest in computer science. Of course, common stereotypes also play a role here: The “nerd” stereotype – few social contacts and all day at the computer – has a negative effect on interest and participation in competitions for all respondents, but this is more pronounced among girls. The stereotype surrounding success, associated with intelligence and wealth, generally has a positive effect on interest and participation, but less so among girls.
These and similar stereotypes run through all age groups and are difficult to break, especially in adulthood. Programming is still an activity with a clear male connotation, especially since being a man is associated with technical competence anyway. According to the study, points of contact are needed as early as possible in order to win girls over to computer science anyway and to refute such prejudices. Schools are asked to teach young people without clichés and without judgment – and not just those who are already interested in IT due to their environment or initial gaming experience.
In the long term, this will not be possible without a mandatory subject informatics that is firmly anchored nationwide. Community learning settings and co-creative work can also help girls to overcome social hurdles. But gender stereotypes do not only have to be fought in schools. Parents also play a formative role here and can strongly influence their children’s choice of study and career. You have to be aware of this responsibility and encourage girls in particular to defy stereotypes.
There is a lack of role models
Because one thing is certain: Without girls and women, the challenges that the German IT sector is currently facing can no longer be mastered. It has long been proven that diverse teams achieve better results and work more efficiently and creatively. Companies should actually be motivated to create a working environment in which everyone feels comfortable and in which women are heard and paid just as much as men. However, this is currently not the case in many companies. It is up to the companies to recognize blind spots in their own structures and cultures, to make them visible and to change them. That’s not always easy, because mostly – as in schools – it’s subtle, unintended mechanisms that stand in the way of women in computer science. A culture change is needed, not only at the team level, but also socially.
Realistically speaking, it will not be possible to prevent the fluctuation of women in IT anytime soon. One approach against this: The project “Become a computer science teacher” wants to attract women from the IT industry to teach at German schools. Because only every third teacher for the subject computer science is female. Girls already lack role models and reference persons at school, a factor that also has a negative effect on interest in the subject, according to the study. And regardless of gender: I know from my own experience how valuable a good teacher can be – without my maths teacher, I wouldn’t have ended up in the tech industry either.
Christine Regitz is President of the Society for Computer Science (GI), the largest computer science society in the German-speaking world.