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Increasing the Participation of Women in Tertiary Level Computing Courses: What Works and Why

Linda Selby

Department of Information Technology, School of Applied Management

The Waikato Polytechnic, Hamilton

New Zealand


Alison Young

Department of Information Systems & Computing, Faculty of Business

UNITEC Institute of Technology, Auckland

New Zealand


Darrell Fisher

Science and Mathematics Education Centre

Curtin University of Technology



This paper presents the results of research conducted in the Computer Science/Information Technology departments of two New Zealand tertiary institutions. This research attempted to identify the conditions that affect the under-representation of women in computing courses at tertiary level. The research employed a multidimensional research method with the collection of both qualitative and quantitative data. Participants in the study were staff and students from the departments, associated professional women, and secondary school girls. The main aim of the research was to identify the day-to-day practices and teaching methods that can help to create more inclusive learning opportunities. The research found that there were several factors affecting the inclusion of women in tertiary level courses. These were: (1) a lack of knowledge about computing as a career; (2) the image of computer science/IT; (3) a reported lack of confidence amongst women students despite their obvious abilities and successes; (4) very few women lecturers; (5) a general perception that computing is a male domain, and, (6) an inadequate teaching and learning environment. This paper presents a detailed analysis of the main findings of the research as well as presenting strategies that the participants believe are required if there is to be an increase in the numbers of women in tertiary level computer science and information technology courses.


Concern has been expressed by people in industry and in education about the low numbers of women participating in higher education computer science and information technology courses and the subsequent impact that this has on the industry and society as a whole. While the gender gap in academic achievement and participation in areas such as mathematics has improved slightly in recent years, in other areas, like computer science and information technology, the involvement of women has declined. Women often account for less than one-third of enrolments in higher education computer courses and the level of participation continues to decline as the level of education increases (Klawe & Leveson, 1995; O'Rourke, 1992; Ryba & Selby, 1995; Camp, 1997).

If computer competence were just another occupational or leisure-time preference the gender gap may not matter. However this is not the case. There is nothing optional any longer about computing involvement for any of us (Spender, 1995). The fact is that computers and the electronic media are here to stay and competence and understanding by both women and men is essential. It is important that both women and men contribute to the use of computers as a productivity tool as well as to the building of computer hardware and software and systems upon which increasingly our everyday lives depend. Increasing the active participation of women in higher education computer science/IT courses will in turn bring to the industry a more diverse range of experience, creativity and expertise.

The purpose of this paper is to present the findings of a recent study on women in computing, and to make some suggestions about how the participation rates of women studying in the field could be increased.

Women In Computing Research Project

This study was commissioned by the New Zealand Ministry of Education in 1994 to examine the conditions that affect the inclusion of women within tertiary level computer science and information technology courses. The main aim of the project was to identify day-to-day practices and teaching methods that could help to create gender inclusive learning opportunities, and to provide recommendations on policies and practices that will lead to more women studying in the field. Participants were: (1) staff and students from the Department of Information Technology at The Waikato Polytechnic, and the Department of Computer Science at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand; (2) students from the School of Education at the University of Waikato; (3) associated professional women working in computer related careers at both institutions; and, (4) 4th form high school girls from Hamilton Girls High School.

The research was designed to realise the specific objectives of the study within a multidimensional research paradigm, which involved both qualitative and quantitative methods of data collection. Data collection methods included:

Research Findings

The results of the study showed some important factors that deter women from choosing and continuing with study in the computing field. The following section of the paper looks in depth at each of these findings.

A General Lack of Knowledge by High School Girls about Career Prospects in the Computer Industry

The researcher showed a video entitled Girls Have You Considered Computing (Deakin University, 1993) to two fourth form classes at Hamilton Girls' High School with two purposes in mind: (1) to investigate fourth form girls' attitudes and knowledge of computing as a career; and, (2) to study changes in the students' attitudes and knowledge as a result of viewing the video. A total of thirty six students in two fourth form mathematics classes were asked to write down a response to the question, "What does computing as a career mean to you?" They were then shown the video and asked again to provide a written response to the question. Results indicated that prior to viewing the video, the majority of girls had few ideas about career opportunities with computers. Moreover, most students indicated that they perceived computing as a technical machine-oriented career. After viewing the video, the written responses clearly showed that students had gained a wider understanding of the diversity of careers that utilise computers. Many of the students at the university and polytechnic felt that they knew very little about the industry and the occupations that were available to them once they had completed their study.

The Image of Computer Science and Information Technology

Interviews and questionnaire data showed that there was an "image problem" with regard to these areas of study. This image takes 2 forms: (1) a `nerdy' and `geeky' anti-social image; and, (2) the inaccurate image of computing as a machine-oriented, mathematical, solitary occupation. It was felt by participants in the research that these images are widespread in the community. The range of computer oriented professions is so wide now that the perpetuation of such stereotypes is unhelpful and in fact likely to continue to be a factor in women choosing to study in other areas. The portrayal of computing as a place for 'geeks' and 'nerds' means that women do not see a place for themselves in the industry.

A Perceived Lack of Confidence Amongst Women Students Despite their Obvious Abilities and Successes

Results from questionnaire data and interviews are consistent with other studies (Shashaani, 1994; Durnell & Thompson, 1997) in showing that although women are achieving as well if not better than their male counterparts, they do not perceive themselves as competent, confident professionals in the same way that the male students do. Statistically significant differences were found between men and women on four questionnaire items relating to confidence. The specific items for which differences were found were: "I feel confident in my ability to use a computer", "I lack confidence when asked to perform a new task on the computer", "I feel I have control over what I do when I use a computer", and, "I expect to do more advanced studies in computer science or information technology in the future". Women in the 106 sample, rated themselves lower in terms of confidence and control over computers compared with men in the sample. Moreover, women in the 106 and SOE samples rated themselves less likely to continue their studies in the computing field (see Table 1).

A Lack of Women Lecturers

The small number of women lecturers in computer science/IT departments means that women students who might be interested in further study have few role models. It further reinforces the image of computing as a male domain. Another important consideration is that it means that input is missing into the development and emphasis of certain areas of the curriculum that might benefit from the ideas and experience of a more diverse range of people. At the time this research was carried out, the University of Waikato, Department of Computer Science had one woman lecturer and 25 male lecturers, and The Waikato Polytechnic, Department of Information Technology had 3 women lecturers and 18 male lecturers. Several students and staff commented on the need to actively recruit more women lecturers as a strategy for increasing the overall participation of women in courses.

Computing as a Male Domain

Consistent with other studies, this research shows that the world of computing is perceived as a male domain. This was evident from an analysis of qualitative responses on the questionnaire and from email discussions with undergraduate students. Students commented on the traditional association with the male dominated areas of maths and science and the ways in which women have been excluded from these. The discomfort for women in the computer culture related to anti-social male behaviour and the perception that the men are more confident and experienced than the women. Many women do not see a place for themselves within this 'masculine culture'. Male role models are very prevalent in every aspect of the industry. In the media, advertisements depict men operating computers and making decisions, whereas women are shown in more passive roles, either observing men at work on their computer, or working under direction at a keyboard. Computer magazines show few women and when they do show them, they are frequently relegated to passive roles, and stereotypical female activities such as clerical workers or sex objects (Jones & Clarke 1995; Ruffin and Clarke, 1992).

The Teaching and Learning Environment

Many concerns were raised by the respondents in the research about issues of teaching and learning. Particular comment was made about the senior students who act as tutorial assistants/demonstrators who often were not trained for the job or aware enough of their role as a teaching assistant. Comments were also made about the need for lecturers to employ innovative and effective teaching strategies and to be knowledgeable about the conditions required for optimum learning to take place. Comments from both staff and students indicated a tendency of some staff to provide differential treatment toward certain students. This was explained in terms of 'like attracts like' rationality. Students reported that staff appeared to feel more comfortable dealing with students who were like themselves. The students were also very critical about the way programming was taught and lecturers and managers reported on the difficulties in finding staff who could teach programming well. Poor teaching of programming meant that many students dropped out, failed or chose another option. Students found it most helpful when lecturers were able to explain how the work they were doing is directly relevant to the workplace environment.

Table 2 shows a summary of comments by students regarding teaching and learning in the computer labs.

Table 2 Educational Factors Concerning the Labs As Reported by Students


-more demonstrators are needed (11)

-the demonstrators are not helpful (9)

-the demonstrators don't always know what they are doing (4)

-there was a need for better access to demonstrators (2)

-many demonstrators were only helpful to the guys (2)

Teaching and Learning Aspects


-extra classes and assistance for those who need help (9)

-more flexible access to labs (6)

-the need for more tutors (4)

-2 hour lab slots instead of 1 hour (3)

-more unscheduled time needs to made available (3)

-peer learning is hard to achieve and not encouraged by staff (2)

-no allowance is made for people already proficient (2)

-games and music programs are too noisy and disturbing and should not be allowed in the labs (2)

-we need smaller classes (1)

-we need more real life problem-solving (1)

-leave out unnecessary Boolean algebra, logic gates, circuits and incorporate another language like C++ (1)

Suggestions for Improvements in Teaching


-more encouragement of skill sharing between high and low achievers

-more cooperative work eg. working in pairs

-less book-based learning

-less separation of theory and practice

-the need for better text books that contain good notes with examples of real code

-documentation and notes need explanation and to be annotated in real language

-the need for interactive learning methods.

-it would be helpful to place examples of common errors and ways around them on the walls, programming bugs included

What Works and Why?

This section of the paper presents some methods and strategies that could help overcome the problems identified in this research. The suggestions that follow were advanced by participants in the research.

Strategies for Improving the Flow of Knowledge about Computing Career Opportunities

Strategies for IImproving the Image of Computing

Strategies for Increasing the Confidence of Women Students

Strategies for Increasing the Numbers of Women Lecturers

Strategies for Showing that Computing is not just a Male Domain

Strategies for Improving Teaching and Learning


Successful competition in international markets in a highly technological world requires the development of the maximum potential of each individual member of society, irrespective of whether the individual is male or female. Currently it would seem that we have a large pool of competent, intelligent and creative women who are choosing to use their talents in other fields of endeavour. This particular research identified some of the reasons for women's under-representation in the field and provided some useful strategies that could go some way toward addressing these inequities. It is time that computer science and information technology departments started to make some real changes to the climate, the pedagogy and the 'culture' of their learning environments. The fact that women have practically no voice in the creation of major technological innovations that control our lives is surely to the detriment of the industry and society as a whole.


Camp,T. (1997) The Incredible Shrinking Pipeline. Communications of the ACM. Vol. 40 No 10 (October).

Clarke, V. (1990). Sex differences in computing participation: Concerns, extent, reasons and strategies. Australian Journal of Education. Vol 34, No 1 52-66

Clarke, V., & Teague, J. (1993 ). Girls have you considered computing? Melbourne: Deakin University. (video).

Durnell, A., & Thompson, K. (1997). Gender and Computing: A decade of change? Computers and Education, Volume 28 Number 1. January.

Klawe, M., & Leveson, N. (1995) Women and Computing: Where are we now?

Communications of the ACM January Vol 38 No.1 29-32.

O'Rourke, J. (1992). NSF proposal: The CRA Distributed Mentor Project: Mentoring Undergraduate Females in Computer Science and Computer Engineering. Smith College, U.S.

Ruffin, C., & Clarke, V. (1992). Sex Role Message and the Computing Media. Paper presented at the twenty-first annual meeting of Australian Social Psychologists, Orewa, New Zealand.

Ryba, K., & Selby, L. (1995) A Study of Tertiary Level Information Technology Courses: How Gender Inclusive is the Curriculum? Research Report, Ministry of Education, Wellington, NZ.

Shashaani, L. (1994). Gender differences in computer experience and its influence on computer attitudes. Journal of Educational Computing Research, Vol. 11 (4) 347-367.

Spender, D. (1995). Nattering on the Net: Women, Power and Cyberspace. Spinifex Press, Melbourne, Australia.


(c) Linda Selby, Alison Young, Darrell Fisher


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