How could you do it? And would it help?

Whenever the topic of a current or future shortage of skilled workers comes up, getting more women interested in the “STEM” fields and encourage them to take up traditionally “male” professions like electrical engineering or mechanical engineering is cited as a solution.

I quite agree that early intervention can go a long way to allow girl to discover their interest in the natural sciences, or at least not be discouraged, and to follow through by studying engineering. However, I have to say that this is only the beginning.

Currently about twenty 20% of those starting their studies in computer science are women. Ten years ago, the percentage was less than 15%. The trend is definitely positive, although we do not know yet how many will actually finish their degree. 15% of those currently finishing their degree are women.

However, if you look at IT departments or software development departments in Germany, and especially if you look at jobs a little higher in the hierarchy than simple programmer jobs, reality turns out to be much less rosy. Here, we are light years away from those 15%. Hence, somehow a great deal of well-educated female specialists are lost to the companies who constantly complain about the shortage of computer scientists and engineers. So, what is happening?

First of all, is still takes a certain amount of courage for a young woman to enter one of those typically male-dominated fields, and that is already true when starting out at the university. At small universities it is still quite possible to be the only woman in a room full of guys. That might not sound very troublesome at first, but in reality and when continuing day-in and day-out it basically means living a life on display.

Back at the small university where I got my degree, literally everyone knew my name, in many cases my birth date, and it plainly wasn’t possible to go anywhere (or skip a class) without everyone knowing immediately. It’s annoying and it’s exhausting, because you end up with a constant nagging feeling of being watched.

Once you’re in the work force, that doesn’t really change. In addition to sticking out like a sore thumb, there now also is the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) suspicion that you were only chosen for a position so there’s at least one woman brightening the statistics.

I recall the case of a female student of electrical engineering. During a demonstration on TV the moderator asked her whether muffin holding the candle which the group had built into their contraption for decorative purposes was her contribution to the installation. That this comment wasn’t well-received and unlikely to make female viewers want to take up electrical engineering doesn’t need mentioning.

In general there’s this widespread problem in the technical field with respect for women as a person. If you believe the advertising campaigns run by some companies and other institutions, female computer scientists are greatly sought after and welcomed with open arms. In my experience, if I, as one of those greatly sought-after computer scientists, then join an IT department it seems like I am expected to leave the female part of me outside at the front desk. I am supposed to laugh at sexist jokes, tolerate bad manners, and not get bored at endless discussions about the latest soccer game. Not to mention the constant maneuvering for dominance and the endless challenges and need to prove my skills time and again. It’s like with every business partner, colleague or customer I have to start from square one and convince them that I actually know what I am talking about and am not someone secretary just passing on messages. In this context the (illegal) question during an interview about whether I was planning to start a family anytime soon, delivered with the nonchalant addition that I should please not be angry with him, isn’t really surprising anymore.

Can women play along with those macho games? Sure. Once you’ve finished your degree at the latest, you have years of experience and know the dance. At the time, it might even be considered a personal challenge, but as the years pass I find it just gets exhausting and old. To but it straight: I shouldn’t have to pretend I am someone else (i.e. male) to be accepted.

Subtle, and largely subconscious, sexism is a big problem, even worse than the straight-out obvious kind, as the latter at least can be answered with the proverbial kick in the butt, while the former usually isn’t even noticed right away. I am a woman. I am a computer scientist. These two are not mutually exclusive. It is quite possible to design state-of-the-art software while wearing mini-skirts, high heels and makeup.

It is necessary to show young women what possibilities are out there, but in the end that’s not what’s really necessary to make the field attractive to them. I know many women who have chosen that read will agree with me when I say: We don’t want special help. We just want to be given the same opportunities and respect, without running into doubts and clichés all the time or being treated like some exotic animal.

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