Gender and Computing at University in the UK

Gender and Computing at University in the UK

Ruth Woodfield
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-87828-991-9.ch099
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In the late 1970s, women’s progress and participation in the more traditional scientific and technical fields, such as physics and engineering, was slow, prompting many feminist commentators to conclude that these areas had developed a nearunshakeable masculine bias. Although clearly rooted in the domains of science and technology, the advent of the computer was initially seen to challenge this perspective. It was a novel kind of artefact, a machine that was the subject of its own newly created field: “computer science” (Poster, 1990, p. 147). The fact that it was not quite subsumed within either of its parent realms led commentators to argue that computer science was also somewhat ambiguously positioned in relation to their identity as masculine. As such, it was claimed that its future trajectory as equally masculine could not be assumed, and the field of computing might offer fewer obstacles and more opportunities for women than they had experienced before. Early predictions of how women’s role in relation to information technology would develop were consequently often highly optimistic in tone. Computing was hailed as “sex-blind and colour-blind” (Williams, Cited in Griffths 1988, p. 145; see also Zientara, 1987) in support of a belief that women would freely enter the educational field, and subsequently the profession, as the 1980s advanced. During this decade, however, it became increasingly difficult to deny that this optimism was misplaced. The numbers of females undertaking undergraduate courses in the computer sciences stabilised at just over a fifth of each cohort through the 1980s and 1990s, and they were less likely to take them in the more prestigious or researchbased universities (Woodfield, 2000). Tracy Camp’s landmark article “The Incredible Shrinking Pipeline” (1997), using data up to 1994, plotted the fall-off of women in computer science between one educational level and the next in the US. It noted that “a critical point” was the drop-off before bachelor-level study—critical because the loss of women was dramatic, but also because a degree in computer science is often seen as one of the best preparatory qualifications for working within a professional IT role1. The main aim of this article is to examine how the situation has developed since 1994, and within the UK context. It will also consider its potential underlying causes, and possible routes to improvement.

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