Women buck trend by taking charge of university's IT crowd

UNIVERSITY computing departments are generally regarded as bastions of masculinity, but it still comes as a surprise to find IT academics are often mistaken for clerical staff simply because they are women.

It is true that almost every British university computing department is still run by men. However, one Scottish institution is attempting to break the mould.

Edinburgh Napier University's school of computing is unique in Scotland for having more than half of its top jobs occupied by women even though less than 10 per cent of its students are female.

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Three women breaking down the gender barriers in this traditionally male sector at Napier are Dr Hazel Hall, Professor Emma Hart, and Sally Smith.

Dr Hall is an expert on social networking sites, and was named the Information Professional of the Year at the Online Information Conference 2009 in London.

Mrs Smith, head of the school of computing, spent eight years working in industry before moving into teaching. She was recently made a Fellow of the British Computer Society, and fronted the official launch of the school's games laboratory in October.

Prof Hart rose rapidly to her current academic status after studying in Oxford and Edinburgh, and earning her PhD at Napier. She says she can see why, on the outside looking in, people may perceive computing and information technology to be a men-only profession.

"In the past I've been at conferences with more than 500 people attending, and certainly around 95 per cent of them are usually men," she says.

Each one has experienced some degree of discrimination in their professional lives, whether or not they realised it at the time.

Dr Hall says: "I had a funny experience when someone found out I worked at Napier in the school of computing, they asked me what sort of admin role I had – they just assumed that I worked in the office."

Mrs Smith adds: "I worked in engineering for a while, which was very male dominated, and when I was there the other professional engineers still had posters of scantily clad women up (on the walls].

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"It didn't feel like a nice environment, and I had to say something. I found that a little awkward, and I think they thought I was being a bit snooty and that I wasn't 'one of the guys'."

However, she believes things have changed since then. They all agree that the university has supported them by being flexible to their individual needs, which is often a reason why women shy away from careers in IT.

Mrs Smith has two young children. She says: "I've been really well supported here, as I have been given opportunities to drop hours while raising a young family. That's quite common in industry as well, whereas before you either had a full-time job or you didn't work.

"There were very few women when I first got started, but now there's a lot more flexibility; employers have definitely become a lot more flexible, I don't think there are any barriers anymore."

Prof Hart agrees: "The workload differs too: you can be up and down.

"You know when you've got to prepare a paper so you just have to set time aside, but then that will level off at other times."

In fact, the women all agree that the biggest challenge they have faced is getting younger females to follow in their footsteps.

Mrs Smith says it would add to her job satisfaction if girls started thinking hers was the kind of job they would like too.

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"I joined Napier in 1992 and we immediately wheeled out on a road tour to encourage women in," she says. "The government has been throwing money at us for years, and it's making no impact.

"It's definitely not a problem of them having a successful career if they pick this subject, it's just getting them to pick it in the first place."

Prof Hart says she recently ran workshops at Heriot-Watt University, in a bid to encourage primary six classes to think differently about computing.

"They were being taught how to program robots, and from watching them it seemed like it really appealed to the girls as well as the boys, because they could actually see what was happening. It was a kind of computing that they had never thought of," she explains.

Computing is not the only traditionally male dominated area that is being tapped into by women. The Institute of Physics conducted a survey over a five-year period, and found the proportion of female physics lecturers has risen from 10 to 21 per cent.

It is well known that girls are out-performing boys at school, so why shouldn't they also achieve in the workplace?

Sheila Cooper, executive director of the Girls' Schools Association, says: "Our professional association has been at the forefront of promoting education for girls, and our schools produce year-on-year high-flying women across a range of professions.

"Our schools pride themselves on encouraging their pupils to choose whichever career path they wish to follow.

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"Along with providing academic education, we believe we should also prepare girls for alternative, equally informed, choices and equip them with the skills and knowledge to cope with life, work and whatever they may encounter along the way."

Napier University has an impressive record of promoting female success.

It was the first university in Scotland to appoint a female principal. Professor Joan Stringer, previously principal at the Queen Margaret University College, took over from Professor John Mavor when he retired in January 2003. And the dean of the faculty of engineering, computing and creative industries is also a woman – Dr Sandra Cairncross.

Edinburgh Napier has a dedicated centre for encouraging women into sectors still dominated by men. It is called the Scottish Resource Centre for Women in Science, Technology and Engineering. However, the university may become a victim of its own success. Dr Hall says: "We used to have an even higher proportion of women in our department, but what's happened is that some of them have been promoted out.

"So, not only do we have a high proportion of women, but we have a high proportion of successful women."