Why do we need more women in IT?

When it comes to balancing the gender ratio, it's a good idea to ask “why?” before charging ahead with “how?”

As the father of two tech-nerd daughters and husband of someone who writes Java code for a living, I've been in favour of the idea of getting more women into IT. My assumption was that it would be A Good Thing. Until recently I hadn't questioned that assumption. Now I am doing so.

Women are under-represented in IT, no question about it. They always have been. Female programmers like my wife are notable for their rarity. But women are also under-represented in the taxi-driving and refuse-collection industries. By contrast, women far outnumber men in the public sector.

Should we be encouraging more men to be nurses, primary school teachers and social workers? More women to be taxi drivers? Perhaps we should, but why? What are the underlying assumptions?

One assumption is that IT is a good career choice: lucrative, rewarding, stimulating. It can be those things, but often it isn't. Just look at IDG Connect's report into bullying in IT. Working in this industry can be a stressful, tiring, boring and depressing experience.

I wouldn't go back to coding for money if you paid me. It's just not worth the pain. It's a job for young people, those who haven't yet discovered how the corporate world works and where they fit into it. A friend's son just left Google after three years as a programmer, because he wants a life and is feeling burnt out. He's 27, and far from being the only one. Almost everybody I know who works in IT these days is permanently overworked and stressed.

Another underlying assumption in the 'women in IT' debate is that girls don't get involved with computing because they see it as being above them. Having spoken to a number of teachers and parents, it seems that in at least some cases the opposite is true: they don't do it because they feel it's beneath them. I wonder if those girls might be right.

I was there when home computers first appeared. I was 10 years old. There were no prejudices about who could or couldn't use them, because there was no precedent. Many boys – including me – were instantly hooked. We spent weeks of our lives trying to write simple, blocky computer games, or get animated balls to bounce around the screen. Many girls – including my sister – glanced at those primitive counting machines and said the equivalent of, "Meh, come back and show me when it can run Minecraft or The Sims."

In hindsight the girls' evaluation was the more sensible. How much of my life did I waste writing sprite collision detection routines on a BBC Micro? How many days, weeks, months were frittered away optimising config.sys and autoexec.bat files to get memory-hungry PC games to work?

And I'm still at it. I've just spent days getting a modern Linux distro to run well on a 1995 Pentium PC. Why? Surely there are better uses of my finite time on this planet. But I'm like a dog chasing a thrown stick. When it comes to computers I just have to experiment, fiddle, tweak, program and problem-solve.

I'm not alone in that. Most of my male friends have a similar… well, I might once have called it a drive, but perhaps it's more of an affliction. Yet most women and girls seem far more pragmatic. They see these machines for what they really are – tools, a means to an end.

I'm also aware that the current focus on getting girls into IT can have a detrimental effect on boys' motivation and self-belief. They can't fail to notice the demands for more female programmers. Not more skilled programmers, just more female ones. I don't have any sons, but I don't feel that my daughters should have preferential treatment over boys just because of their gender. As well as being unfair, that would affect their belief in their own abilities: how much of their success would truly be their own, rather than the result of an uneven playing field?

The only differentiator should be ability. Yet, as I've discovered from teaching coding to children, there doesn't seem to be a gender difference in programming ability.

So why aren't there more women in IT? Is there a concerted effort on the part of men to keep them out? I don't think that idea withstands scrutiny, but I could be wrong. My wife hasn't experienced misogyny in her IT career. If anything the opposite is true. The only programmers who wouldn't welcome a more gender-balanced working environment are those who feel insecure because they aren't very good at their jobs.

Which leaves the possibility that large numbers of women have looked at IT as a career and thought, "You must be bloody joking!"

That might be the correct rational response, for both women and men. I've always assumed that IT was a sensible career choice because it's been good for me. It might not be so great for others, though. In any case, the situation is very different for those starting out today compared to 30 years ago.

My daughters might decide to work in IT when they grow up, or they might not. But it will be their choice. They won't be put off by gender perceptions or prejudice. And they won't be pushed into it by well-meaning adults who think that women must follow a certain path just because it happened to work out well for their own careers. Or, even worse, to make the male/female numbers balance.

Instead of saying "We must get more women into IT," a better rallying cry would be "Anyone, regardless of gender, should be able to pursue the career of their choice without prejudice." You want to be a nurse? Great. A programmer? Wonderful. Your reproductive organs should be no impediment to any career.

That's a much harder goal to achieve, I know. It's also a more honest, fair and equitable one. And if you really want more women in IT, the solution is simple. Just make IT a nicer industry to work in – for everyone.