learning | reflecting | sharing

Category: #ITwomen

What now? Women in Physics, Computing, Engineering, STEM

Screen Shot 2013-12-09 at 23.05.15

Grace Hopper Google Doodle on 9th December 2013,


Yesterday, December 9th, 2013, marked the 107th anniversary of Grace Hopper’s birth. For many years an inspirational figure amongst women in computing, it’s immensely satisfying to see “Amazing Grace” receive wider and well-deserved recognition in recent years for her pioneering work as a mathematician and computer scientist.

Coincidentally (or not?), yesterday also marked the launch of the most recent report on gender and science from the Institute of Physics: Closing Doors: Exploring Gender and Subject Choice in Schools.

Screen Shot 2013-12-10 at 08.16.01

As an educator and researcher in both IT and education — with undergraduate and postgraduate engineering degrees and an MA in gender and technology — as well as a woman, a feminist, and the mother of a daughter studying engineering, this latest report interests me greatly. I’m encouraged by the efforts to understand and explain the persistence of gendered subject choice — and disappointed, though not surprised, at the familiar findings, i.e. that schools tend to educate in ways that conform to gender stereotypes.

Closing Doors is a follow-on report from last year’s It’s Different For Girls, which noted that for more than 25 years the percentage of A-level physics students who are girls has remained at around 20%. Both reports are part of a long record of Girls in Physics initiatives by the IoP, most notably the excellent 2006 report by Patricia Murpy and Elizabeth Whitelegg, Girls in the Physics Classroom: A Review of the Research on the Participation of Girls in Physics.

In Ireland, as in the UK and many other countries, we can trace at least thirty years of research on gender, subject choice, and the under-representation of women in STEM subjects such as Physics, Engineering, Technology and Computing.

In 1983, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) published a report on schooling, gender and subject choice in Irish schools: Schooling and Sex Roles: Sex Differences in Subject Provision and Student Choice in Irish Post-Primary Schools, authored by Damien Hannan, Richard Breen, Barbara Murray, Niamh Hardiman, Dorothy Watson and Kathleen O’Higgins. The report analysed sex differences in subject take-up rates in terms of the effects of provision (what subjects are provided); allocation (how subjects are timetabled and made available); and choice (pupils’ decisions). The researchers found that gender played a role at all three levels. However, taking into account differences in both subject provision and allocation (for example: over one-third of secondary schools in Ireland did not provide Physics to girls — most of these schools were all-girl secondary schools), girls were less likely to choose Physics than boys. The researchers concluded that pupils’ subject choices appeared to reflect the gender bias of wider society (including parents and teachers) regarding subjects such as Physics and higher maths, and careers in those areas.

In the 1990s, research in Ireland continued into gender and subject choice. In 1999, Marian Palmer cited a longitudinal study by Millar, Farrell and Kellaghan (1998) which showed that “Biology on transfer from Junior Certificate Science was more likely by girls than boys” and “girls are far less likely to take Physics as compared to Chemistry”.  Regarding the tendency for girls to take Biology rather than Physics, Palmer also noted an allocation issue that still can be found in some all-girls’ schools in Ireland today: “one girls’ school requires all students to take Biology and then Physics or Chemistry has to be a second science.”

My own research during the 1990s, first in Ireland (Cronin, 1995) and then in Scotland (Cronin and Roger, 1999), noted a lack of evidence for gender differences in ability, yet persistent gendered patterns of participation for STEM subjects (Mathematics, Physics, Engineering, Technology and Computing), and highlighted the potential conflict for young women between feminine gender role identity and the masculine image, discourse and culture of technology:

“As a number of theorists have pointed out, the ideal characteristics of masculinity in western society and the characteristics required for an engineer or scientist are essentially identical (Harding, 1986; Benston, 1986; Kramarae, 1988; Saraga & Griffiths, 1981). While the socialisation process for girls in our society emphasises feminine traits, e.g. emotion, nurturance, cooperation and sensitivity; the ‘technical worldview’, characterised by its emphasis on facts, control, rationality, and distance from emotional or personal considerations, is deeply interwoven with the definition of masculinity. Thus, while men experience validation of their gender identity in choosing engineering as a career, women may experience conflict.” (Cronin, 1995)

In 1999, John Hammond and Marion Palmer found that “higher level Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics and technology subjects are not generally part of the culture of either girls or indeed girls’ schools.” They summarised some of the strategies which had been put in place during the 1990s to address girls’ under-representation in these subjects:

“A recent review of strategies for attracting girls into science, engineering and technology suggests that successful strategies maintain and increase girls’ participation in these areas. Such strategies include enrichment activities through pre-school and out-of-school experiences, use of role models and single-sex environments for the teaching of some subjects e.g. physical sciences and information technology. Other strategies include reviewing teaching practice, classroom environments and considering the nature of school science and technology. International evidence suggests that such interventions need to be part of the ongoing process of education if girls’ participation rates in engineering related subjects and careers are to increase. We are reminded that ‘the world of science, engineering and technology is still, in the main, a masculine domain’ (Vlaeminke, et al, 1997, p. 26).”

So where are we today?

In the 2013 Leaving Certificate Examination in Ireland, 11.6% of the total student cohort took the Physics exam; only 25% of these students were female. Of additional concern was the fact that nearly a quarter of second level schools across Ireland still do not offer Physics at Leaving Certificate level. Thus, in 30 years (1983 to 2013) we’ve progressed from one-third of schools to one-quarter of schools not offering Physics. These were mostly all-girl secondary schools in 1983. Is this still the case today? Clearly, we need to understand the current situation. And we need to do better.

There are some bright spots, of course. NUI Galway’s School of Physics was recognised earlier this year for its commitment to gender equality. The Institute of Physics made NUI Galway the first university in Ireland to be a practitioner under the Institute’s Project Juno, which aims to redress the issue of the under-representation of women in physics in academia across Ireland and the UK.

What can we do? What should we do? Fortunately, there is a wealth of research from many countries, institutions, organisations, projects and researchers — along with suggested guidelines for how to enhance the motivation, achievement and retention of women in STEM subjects. There are links to some of these resources below.

To wrap up, I note that many recommendations focus on role models and mentoring for girls. I believe such initiatives are powerful and necessary, but by no means sufficient in effecting the level of change that is required. If we want to change the fact that only 15% (approximate) of those studying Physics, Engineering and Computing are women, we need to provide girls and young women with encouragement and support for considering these exciting but nontraditional careers — but we also must change STEM culture itself. We need not only the 15% (women in STEM) to inspire and encourage girls and to change STEM culture, we need men in STEM, the 85%, to work on this issue as well. Women and men studying and working in STEM must tackle this issue together.  It is long past time that we adopted more inclusive curricula and pedagogy in STEM classrooms and labs (from primary through postgraduate), and more inclusive cultures in all classroooms, study spaces and workplaces, as well as in our wider society.


“The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’” – Grace Hopper



Resources from Technology is everywhere, but where are the girls? a webinar which I co-facilitated with Kim Wilkins for STEMx 2013.

Another great place to start is this series of four blog posts written by Theresa Liao: How is gender bias in science studied? Each post contains a wealth of resource material.



Benston, M.L. (1986). Questioning authority: Feminism and scientific experts. Resources for Feminist Research, November 1986.

Cronin, C. (1995). Is the ‘feminine engineer’ an oxymoron? Women’s views and experiences of gender and engineering. U.C.G. Women’s Studies Centre Review (3).

Cronin, C., Foster, M., & Lister, E. (1999). SET for the future: working towards inclusive science, engineering and technology curricula in higher education. Studies in Higher Education 24(2).

Cronin, C. & Roger, A. (1999). Theorizing progress: Women in science, engineering, and technology in higher education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 36(6), pp. 637-661.

Hammond, J. & Palmer, M. (1999). Engineering education at second level in the Republic of Ireland: Provision and developments. International Journal of Engineering Education 15(2), pp. 82-93.

Hannan, D., Breen, R., Murray, B., Hardiman, N., Watson, D. & O’Higgins, K. (1983). Schooling and sex roles: Sex differences in subject provision and student choice in Irish post-primary schools, Dublin: The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

Harding, S. G. (1986). The science question in feminism. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Kramarae, C. (1988). Gotta go Myrtle, technology’s at the door. In C. Kramarae (Ed.), Technology and women’s voices: Keeping in touch. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Millar, D., Farrell, E. & Kellaghan, T. (1998) From Junior to Leaving Certificate. A longitudinal study of Junior Certificate candidates who took the Leaving Certificate examination in 1996. Dublin: NCCA/ERC.

Murphy, P. & Whitelegg, E. (2006). Girls in the physics classroom: A review of the research on the participation of girls in Physics. London: Institute of Physics.

Palmer, M. (1999). Science education in crisis: Science at second level. RDS Seminar: Science Education in Crisis? Dublin: RDS.

Saraga, E. & Griffiths, D. (1981). Biological inevitabilities or political choices? The future for girls in science. In A. Kelly (Ed.), The missing half: Girls and science education. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Vlaeminke, M., Comber, C. & McKeon, F. (1997). Breaking the Mould: An asessment of successful strategies for attracting girls into science, engineering and technology. Department of Trade and Industry, Great Britain.


Empowering the next generation of tech women: #GlobalEd12

I was delighted to join Kim Wilkins (@kimxtom @TeenTechGirls) and Carrie Anne Philbin (@MissPhilbin @GeekGurlDiaries) in presenting a session in the Global Education Conference this week. The week-long online conference is an inspiring model of openness and collaboration, with presenters and participants from across the globe — mostly students and educators, but open to all.

In our session Geek Gurl Diaries: Empowering the Next Generation of Women in Tech we explored the gender gap in computing and technology and shared our experiences and best practices in promoting and changing science, engineering and computer studies to address this gap. Click the link above to view the session (then just click the purple Blackboard Collaborate icon to view). The presentation slides are below:


Kim Wilkins and Carrie Anne Philbin are quite inspiring tech women themselves! Kim is an educator and technology activist in Virginia (USA) and creator of these excellent Tech Girl resources. You can subscribe to Kim’s Tech Girl newsletter for regular updates.

Carrie Anne is a teacher and digital heroine in London and creator of these excellent Geek Gurl resources — Carrie’s wonderful YouTube videos are well worth sharing with girls.

I joined Kim and Carrie Anne by speaking about girls and women in technology here in Ireland and highlighting some important research on gender and technology. A few key themes emerged in our session:

  • The underrepresentation of women in technology has been remarkably persistent over time and across countries. The current proportion of women undergraduates in computing, for example, is 15% in Ireland and the UK, under 20% in the US. Although the proportion of women studying computing and IT was higher in the 1980s and 1990s, computing and IT are now in the same category as other STEM subjects such as engineering and physics in which women are dramatically underrepresented.
  • Attitudes toward computing and many STEM subjects are highly gendered. Kim Wilkins cited studies from the US which show that girls form positive or negative attitudes towards technology by age 13. Thus, initiatives to break down gender barriers must be in place in primary school and early secondary school, not just at career choice time.
  • Computing — as well as a focus on creating not consuming technology — should be part of education from primary school onwards. But it is not just in school that such initiatives can take place. Local community initiatives such as Coder Dojo, coding clubs for young people, can be powerful opportunities for children to develop coding skills as well as breaking down traditional gender stereotypes about technology. The open, collaborative and peer learning ethos of Coder Dojo attracts many girls as well as boys, as well as many female mentors.
  • Long-standing research in the area of gender and technology indicates that while encouraging girls and women to consider careers in computing and technology is important, it is not enough. Initiatives to encourage girls to study STEM subjects have been in place for many years — and still just 15-20% of our undergraduates in these subjects are female. The social construction of STEM itself must be placed under scrutiny. Thus, efforts to address the underrepresentation of women in computing and STEM must include breaking down gender sterotypes held by girls and boys and creating a more inclusive STEM culture which encourages diversity of participation by age, class and race as well as gender.

Our thanks to all of the #globaled12 session participants with whom we engaged in a lively chat session both during and after our presentation. We would love to continue the conversations and develop further collaborations — please contact Kim Wilkins, Carrie Anne Philbin and/or myself (details above).

Additional resources:

Marder, J. (2012, April 25). Why the engineering, computer science gender gap persists. Scientific American.

Varma, R. (2007). Women in computing: The role of geek culture. Science as Culture, 16, 4, 359-376.

Cronin, C. and Roger, A. (1999). Theorising progress: Women in science, engineering and technology in higher education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36 (6) pp. 637-661.

#ITwomen… not so hard to find after all

I’ve just compiled a Google doc #ITwomen with the names of nearly 60 women in IT — current and potential speakers and conference presenters. Hopefully, the list will grow; you are invited to add to or amend the list to keep it current. [September 2014 update: the #ITwomen list now has the names of over 150 women and a growing set of resources for planning inclusive conferences.]

Here is the story behind the #ITwomen list

Last night I received notice of an upcoming IT conference (on web, cloud computing and social media) to be held here in Ireland. I clicked through to see the list of speakers. Quite impressive: 20 speakers, mostly from Ireland but also the UK and the US. Startling and disappointing, however: only one of the 20 speakers is female. I’ve worked in IT for many of the past 30 years. During that time the proportion of women has fluctuated. But to host an IT conference in 2012 with only 5% representation of women on the speaker panel?

I contacted the organiser of the conference to express my dismay:

“This event looks great but am I right in seeing a line-up of 20 speakers — 19 men and 1 woman?!  When organising events like this, it’s important for us to think about how powerfully that speaks to people. Are we reinforcing or challenging the stereotypes that people hold about IT? More diversity improves what we do in so many ways: the environments in which we work, what we design and make, and how many new, talented people are attracted to work in IT and tech fields.”

In ongoing correspondence since last night, the organiser told me that they “had tried” to get more women speakers and that they weren’t the only conference in Ireland that has had trouble finding women speakers. He said he’d be happy to receive recommendations and suggestions.

About a dozen names popped into my mind immediately, women in IT whom I know here in Ireland — Sharon Flynn, Mary Loftus, Heather James, Karlin Lillington, Martha Rotter — as well as women outside Ireland who speak at international conferences — Josie Fraser, Jane Hart, Jane Bozarth, Kim Wilkins, Jane Boyd and of course danah boyd. And that was just in the first two minutes! But rather than set to work coming up with my own list, I decided to ask Twitter:

The response during the next few hours was terrific, but not altogether surprising. This kind of crowdsourcing of ideas is open to anyone who understands the power of networks and social media and is willing to ask openly for feedback rather than rely only on our own personal contacts.

I’ve compiled all of the suggestions into one list #ITwomen, an open Google doc. (You can also search #ITwomen on Twitter.) It contains the names of women in Ireland, the UK and further afield (labelled ‘International’ in the list). In addition to individual women, a few specific lists of women in IT and women speakers were shared; these are at the top of the document. Please feel free to add or amend the document to keep it updated.

Finally, thank you to all who responded and retweeted earlier. It’s been a pleasure to be in touch with each of you today. We created this resource together and hopefully it will make a difference. It’s about time. Thank you.

Image source: CC BY-2.0 Matt From London