Only every sixth IT specialist is female, and only every seventh application for an IT job comes from a woman. To change that, the #SheTransformsIT alliance was founded on the occasion of the federal government’s digital summit. This is an association of 50 leading representatives from politics, business, culture, science and civil society. The summit takes place on Monday and Tuesday, and the alliance is concerned with making an impact beyond the day. It not only wants to bring more women into boardrooms, but also to combat clichés and stereotypes beyond the workplace that add to the list of the industry. One of the first signatories is Ira Diethelm, Professor of Computer Science Didactics at the University of Oldenburg.
SZ: Professor Diethelm, there have been initiatives for more women in scientific MINT professions for a long time, including well-known campaigns such as “Girls Day”. Why is the SheTransformsIT alliance still needed now?
Ira Diethelm: Computer science is different from MINT. We are the I in MINT (mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and technology). But we have a different status because the other MINT subjects are compulsory at school. In contrast, computer science is only available as an optional area in many federal states. That means: We depend on children choosing the subject.
Can’t the problem simply be solved by making computer science a compulsory subject?
This is the first step. This is already the case in some federal states such as Saxony. But that is not enough. It’s not just school, parents and advertising also keep girls away from IT.
What do you mean? Programmer is a well-paid, crisis-proof, successful job practically everywhere.
In theory, girls have the same options; nobody forbids them to buy a computer, for example. But it is often suggested to them, be it in school books, advertising or by relatives, that technology is not for them. It starts in the toy department. It’s not just about getting women excited about IT, it’s also about not getting obstacles in their way.
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Which stones are they?
Up until the mid-1980s there were just as many women in science courses as there were in computer science. Then there was a kink, computer science dropped significantly to the rest of the MINT subjects. If you look at the advertising from the time for the C64, you can clearly see that it was only aimed at men, at boys. That made an impact. Since then, more boys than girls have had experience with computers because they are more likely to be given away to boys – still – and that has an impact on student numbers and on the girls’ self-image.
How can that be changed today?
SheTransformsIT, for example, wants to encourage the advertising industry to speak out against stereotypical advertising. This is the case in other countries such as Great Britain. There, for example, the British advertising supervision has banned clichéd advertising for the e-Golf from the TV screens.
Are there still teachers today who tell girls that computer science or technology is not for them?
Unfortunately there are, but that is not true. The ICILS study, quasi the Pisa study for computers, regularly shows that girls rate themselves worse than boys, but perform better than boys in terms of skills worldwide. It is simply a fairy tale that boys are better at using computers; unfortunately, girls only rarely receive feedback that they are good at it.
You train IT teachers and you also train teachers further. What do you do so that the students can inspire instead of telling them that IT and technology are not for them?
For example, we have developed gender-sensitive teaching material that should help ensure that everyone is interested in the lessons. It starts with gender-sensitive language and doesn’t stop with the examples. As a teacher, do I have a robot programmed that is good at car racing? Or do I focus on a microcontroller that collects environmental or health data? Health is a topic that everyone can relate to. However, the material does not bear the gender neutral label. Unfortunately, that would put some off again.
When women finally make it to university, many drop out again. How are you going to stop them?
We noticed that many female students find the Christmas phase difficult. The shower of relatives, which suggests that computer science is not for women, makes them doubt their suitability for the course. That is why we are now doing specific projects that are intended to strengthen the bond with the degree. For example, the students program their own smart home device with the mini-computer Raspberry Pi, which controls light via the Internet, for example. If you show the family that you can program what one or the other has dearly put under the Christmas tree, that is more convincing than good grades that are not yet available for Christmas.