Female students are making up only 20 per cent of Information Technology graduates coming from Australia’s universities, figures have revealed.
According to numbers obtained by ARN, women accounted for just 3,397 of 15,530 students gaining either a Bachelor or post-graduate degree in IT.
The numbers have caused worry among members of Australia’s IT and channel community, many of whom have made efforts to boost their gender ratios within the workforce.
“This under-representation at a graduate level is undoubtedly concerning,” Accenture Technology A/NZ head Peter Vakkas said.
"Australia’s technology industry requires a boost of female talent to promote a fairer and more gender-balanced workforce, reflecting the dynamic and ever-evolving world we live in – and high performance is correlated with gender equality."
“With many of these graduates expected to take positions in the local technology industry, these numbers will not help shift the dial and increase female representation," he added.
Broken down, the figures show 1,166 female students graduated with a bachelor degree in 2017, while just 225 completed a sub-bachelor. Meanwhile, men accounted for 5,638 bachelor and 1,368 sub-bachelor degrees, meaning women make up less than a fifth of all IT undergraduates in Australia.
On the post-graduate front, the gap is much narrower with women making up a third of the 7,100 total. What is striking however is that across all academic fields in Australia, women make up more than half the student population. So what is keeping them from taking up technology courses?
Many of these issues start from childhood, argues Ally Watson, the founder of tech education start-up Code Like a Girl.
“It’s been proved in studies that intelligence is believed to be a male trait," she said. "This gendered belief around brilliance and intelligence does not fade with age. That plays into girls’ self-confidence.
“Parents are the number one contributor encouraging girls to choose technology and IT. They may not always understand the digital world and the landscape. This is changing, but there is still a large percentage who doesn’t encourage them to consider it as a creative career."
Vakkas likewise believes preconceived notions of both IT and technology careers are holding girls back.
“Young people, and especially girls', preconceived notions of what a technology career entails may be derailing their interest in STEM subjects, and therefore impacting university, and later industry representation,” he said. “We need to show them that a career in technology doesn’t just involve being sat behind a computing working on coding.”
His views are echoed by DXC Fruition GM and director Sonia Eland, who has called for a re-branding of the IT industry to reflect its place in the modern world.
“I believe there is a real PR issue: that girls think IT is stuffy and old-fashioned,” she said. “My daughter, who is studying IT at UTS, previously thought it just meant a helpdesk.
“What school girls are not necessarily seeing is that IT is in the item they’re addicted to every day: it’s their phones, it’s apps and messaging. Many of my daughter’s friends did not connect their phones to IT. What we actually need to do is change things in school.”
According to Eland, DXC saw an increase in the number of women on its graduate program after changing its messaging to the word 'digital' as opposed to IT or technology.
“DXC has recognised the importance of behaviour traits associated with women -- because the ones they have are different from men,” she explained “These can be geared towards human-centric design and empathy. These are important for digital success.
‘If you start putting a different frame of reference on technology, using different words, you will start to attract more women.”
If there is anything promising to take away from the figures is that female participation on IT courses has increased proportionally higher to that of men. In total, female graduates increased from 3,011 to 3,397 between 2016 and 2017, a rise of 12 per cent, while male numbers rose by just 8 per cent.
As ARN revealed earlier this week, Australian universities need to produce a six per cent year-on-year increase in the overall number of IT graduates if they are to meet projected industry demands by 2023.
For Watson, a self-described optimist, there are positive signs things are changing. However, she warned, unless more work is done to increase the participation of young girls in STEM subjects, Australia risks undoing progress made to improve gender equality over the last 30 years.
“The jobs are changing,” she said. “Machine-learning and automation are disrupting the future work landscape. If women don’t get onto it or are educated into it, they will lose out on jobs. We will be at risk reversing the progress we have.
“And there is a global shortage of technologists. It’s in Australia’s best interests to invest in its talent, and women are the largest untapped resource. But we have to get that education to the parents, schools and the industry."