The Womanly Art of Computer Programming

By McNair, Fiona | Herizons, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

The Womanly Art of Computer Programming


McNair, Fiona, Herizons


(CALGARY) From the moment Faye West saw her first computer at the 1962 Seattle World Fair, she was smitten. But when the time came for studies at the University of Alberta several years later, she couldn't even major in computer sciences - the discipline wasn't yet offered. In fact, the school didn't even install its first main frame IBM until her freshman year. Now the director of Information Systems with the Alberta Research Council and national vice president for the Canadian Information Processing Society, she has more than 30 years of experience under her belt in a field where men outnumber women by about 10 to one.

"I hate making generalizations about what kind of work women and men do, but I do believe that females bring more of the human touch to the information technology (IT) field and that is really important," says West.

Arguing the field is not a big boy's club, but simply one example of many where women have historically not been a dominant force, West says fostering a comfortable working environment is bound to be a bit slow in developing.

In fact, less than 30 per cent of the IT field is staffed by women according to the Women's Information Technology Initiative (WITT), despite the huge demand for skilled workers. This in part is explained by a Statistics Canada survey which indicated that, from 1989 to 1997, enrolment in mathematical and physical sciences increased only 14 per cent while computer science (CS) saw an enrolment gain of 68 per cent. Obviously the increasingly large reliance on computers has caused this rapid rise, but far more interesting is the fact that women do not seem to be jumping onto the bandwagon.

According to 1998 data from all three of Alberta's universities, CS is simply not a degree many women pursue. Women enrolled in these undergraduate programs range from a 12 per cent low at the University of Alberta to a 32 per cent high at the University of Lethbridge. These results are mirrored at universities across the country.

A University of Alberta study found that the number of women entering science and engineering programs at the U of A rose considerably between 1990-1997, but the number of women pursuing computer science degrees declined by almost half. Women accounted for 46% of second-to-fourth year Faculty of Science students in 1997, but only 9% of CS students during the same year. Additionally, a much higher rate of women withdraw from courses in this area.

Elizabeth Cannon, a professor at the University of Calgary, places partial blame on a junior and high school educational system that does not equally promote such pursuits for female students. …

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