Women, software engineering needs you

The University of Auckland's Associate Professor Catherine Watson, Dr Rashina Hoda and Dr Kelly Blincoe explain why women deserve a seat at the engineering and technology table

Recently a number of stories have hit the headlines on women in software engineering. As much as we welcome discussion about software engineering, some of these articles are, unfortunately, promoting damaging misconceptions. 

In our roles as teachers of software engineering at tertiary level, we feel compelled to stand up for the women working, or aspiring to work, in the engineering and technology sector. 

We are here to tell you that women deserve a seat at the table, and the reasons why.

The perfect place to start is to say, in our collective 24 years of teaching software engineering students, we have not witnessed any difference in ability across genders. Programming (or writing code) is an important aspect of software engineering and women are as equally qualified for these technical tasks as men.

However, there is a perception that software engineering is all about writing code, but it is so much more: It is about working in teams, designing products that meet needs, and collaborating with customers and product users. In fact, a recent survey of software professionals conducted by the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering that runs the Software Engineering program at the University of Auckland, found that the top requirements of hiring managers for software engineering positions are mainly non-technical. They want skills in communication and problem solving, the ability to work in teams, professionalism and ethics. These skills are required of all software engineers, male and female, to be successful in the industry. But only 18-20 percent of software engineering students are women. Does this mean fewer women have the required skills as has been implied by many of the recent opinion articles?

We argue this is certainly not the case. Rather, girls, at a very young age, are often encouraged to pursue more “nurturing” interests. A recent study found that by the age of 6, girls begin to question their own intelligence and, as a result, are less likely than boys to gravitate towards activities that are perceived as being “difficult”. 

Further, girls are less likely to be encouraged to take subjects at school like physics and mathematics that are required to gain entry into a professional engineering program at university. Gender stereotyping influences career decisions at a very young age and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The view that women do not possess the skills required to be a software engineer can make women feel that they do not belong in this field. However, we need women to become software engineers. Software products are used by all members of society. In the same way that it is frowned upon for any non-diverse group to make public policy decisions that impact all of society, it is ridiculous to accept that software-related ideas, decisions and design should be created predominantly by men.

There is a sizeable cohort of highly talented females out in society who would make excellent engineers, but due to society's expectations they are not encouraged. 

According to a report by the National Science Foundation of America, professions such as medicine and law, traditionally regarded as catering to the academically able, have seen the gender ratio improve from 10-15 percent women in the mid-60s, to above 45 percent in the 2000s.  Unfortunately, when it comes to computing, the number of women peaked in the early 80s at above 35 percent but has been in a steady decline since then to the current level of 18 percent. Clearly, this is not a question of academic ability; rather it suggests there is an environmental issue at play.

Currently, at the University of Auckland, women students make up just over 26 percent of the engineering student cohort. We want to see this number increase. It’s not only an equity issue, but one of economic well-being for the entire country. The STEM subjects, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, are critical to the national economy, and yet we are struggling to meet the industry demands for graduates with a background in these areas. There is a sizeable cohort of highly talented females out in society who would make excellent engineers, but due to society's expectations they are not encouraged. 

This bias is affecting the national economy, and our ability to create a professional engineering cohort that truly reflects society.

It is for this reason that the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Auckland runs many successful outreach programs targeted specifically at women students. These include Engineering Her Future and Enginuity Day. These efforts have made an impact, and over the last 10 years we have increased the number of women in Engineering in UoA by nearly 50 percent. 

So please if you know a child that is inquisitive, wants to know how things work, likes to build things, likes to take things apart, and wants to make the world a better place - then encourage them to reach their potential. Don’t put limits on their potential, due to irrelevant things like gender, race, or cultural background. 

And to bring it back to where we started – software engineering: Please keep encouraging women to enter software engineering because that may be just what she needs to choose a career in an area others have told her she doesn’t belong. 

Associate Professor Catherine Watson, speech processing expert, has five years’ experience as the Software Engineering program director, and more than 14 years’ experience in engineering education; Dr Rashina Hoda, agile software development expert, industry coordinator and senior lecturer in Software Engineering, has  eight years’ experience in engineering education and has collaborated  with the software industry for more than 11 years; Dr Kelly Blincoe, requirements engineering expert, has lectured in Software Engineering for two years and previously worked as a software engineer in the industry for eight years. Their industrial and academic software engineering experience has been acquired in Canada, India, New Zealand and the US.

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