Attack on sexism not an attack on men

A woman in computing is outnumbered five to one. So is computing and IT a bad sector for women to work in, asks Karen Petrie
Computing is dominated by men: the late Steve Jobs co-founded computer and consumer electronics company Apple Inc. Picture: APComputing is dominated by men: the late Steve Jobs co-founded computer and consumer electronics company Apple Inc. Picture: AP
Computing is dominated by men: the late Steve Jobs co-founded computer and consumer electronics company Apple Inc. Picture: AP

I have a problem. I like going to parties, but there is one question I dread that I am often asked: “What do you do?”

The correct answer is that I am a computer scientist. This answer tends to leave the questioner slightly lost for words. Some people say: “Really?” Others nod slowly for a minute and digest this fact before they say: “Okay.” I often wonder if my male colleagues get the same reaction.

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This, unbelievably, is still life for a female computer scientist. We are outnumbered by our male counterparts by more than 5:1, the percentage of women employed as IT and Telecoms professionals declined from 22 per cent in 2001 to 18 per cent in 2010 and only 15 per cent of acceptances to computing degree courses are female.

Bill Gates co-founded Microsoft. Picture: APBill Gates co-founded Microsoft. Picture: AP
Bill Gates co-founded Microsoft. Picture: AP

By comparison just under half (47 per cent) of people working in the UK during the second quarter of 2010 were female.

There is clearly a problem when the gender balance is so off kilter and heading in the wrong direction. It seems the perception of computing is becoming even more male-oriented rather than less.

I spend some time selling computing as a potential career to school children and one way I do this is to try to get them to see the creative angle.

‘Is it hard to be a girl in computing?’

Perhaps inevitably, one of the questions young girls often ask me is: “Is it hard to be a girl in computing?” We really do need to get beyond the stage where that question even has to be asked, but that is the reality.

So is computing and IT a bad sector for women to choose to work in? I can only speak for myself, but I cannot imagine working in any other industry. The main reason is the amazing creativity possible. Not only can I use digital content on a computer, but I can create it. If I decide that I really need a better interface for my calendar then I can design and implement one. I even write my own games.

There has only ever been one incident in my career that made me wonder if I wanted to stay in computing. I was a young PhD student attending my first conference, eagerly trying to talk to every academic to learn as much as I could. I was stopped in my tracks when a leading academic gave me his room key and told me I could spend the night with him.

Thankfully, another senior colleague in the field came to my rescue. The second colleague and I are now firm friends and wrote a research paper together. This incident ended happily, but if my friend hadn’t stepped in, perhaps this could have put me off the field that I now love?

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It is this incident and similar tales from other females that made me take on the chair of BCSWomen (the British Computer Society Women’s group) from 2008-11. I used this role as a vehicle to give talks raising the issues that face some women in computing and trying to get people to talk openly about the difficulties.

The problem with this approach is that it made many of the men in the room feel uncomfortable. They felt I was saying that all men are in the wrong. Eventually I was accused of being a “man hater”. This really upset me; I like most men and I love the one I’m married to!

Gender disparity

I decided to come up with a counter-argument; a simple bit of mathematics which shows that if the percentage of men and women in the room who make questionable remarks to the other sex is equal and the percentage of women in the room is lower than the percentage of men, then the average woman experiences far more sexist comments than the average man.

For example, if there are three times as many men as women, the average woman receives nine times more insults than the average man, even though men and women are equally sexist.

The wonderful thing about this thought experiment (to call it a mathematical model is overkill) is that there is nothing in it about men being worse people or more sexist than women. We still we get women experiencing dramatically more sexism than men in the tech and computing sector, but it is because of the gender disparity and the fact that this multiplies to the detriment of the minority group. An attack on sexism in computing is not an attack on men.

I mentioned this effect to a friend of mine (Prof Ian Gent, University of St Andrews) and he wrote a blog post on the idea and named it the “Petrie Multiplier”. The post has had more than 25,000 views and been tweeted over 400 times, so at the very least it really seems to have started the conversation about gender in computing.

• Dr Karen Petrie is Head of Undergraduate Studies and Senior Lecture in the School of Computing at the University of Dundee