Sowing the seeds for gender-neutral Informatics
Institutional Communication Service
21 June 2021
If you are among those who believe that computers and information technology are the prerogative of the male part of the human species, you may stop reading this article here. Or, if you would like to overturn that view, perhaps you should continue. Yes, it is a fact that more male than female engineers and scientists populate the fascinating world of computers, networks, and information technology. But it is not because they are more apt or better fit for positions in these fields compared to women, or genetically geared for that matter. Quite the contrary, actually. The numbers of women in these domains, however, are still very low. The reasons? Manifold, starting with schooling and the way scientific subjects – namely mathematics – are taught or, more importantly, how they can made appealing to both girls and boys alike.
Despite the global efforts in the last 15 years to inspire and engage women and girls in science, currently less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women. Moreover, according to data provided by UNESCO, only 30% of all female students choose to pursue higher education in fields dedicated to so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). For this reason, the United Nations General Assembly on 22 December 2015 adopted a resolution to establish an annual International Day to foster full and equal access and participation of women and girls in science, as well as gender equality and women’s empowerment. In that year the priorities of the global community were being redefined and the sustainable development goals (SDGs) of the Agenda 2030, involving 193 countries, were drawn up.
On this issue, Professor Laura Pozzi comments: "I believe there is a question of social perception, which brings many female students to avoid or not choose scientific disciplines, even when there are good at them. If we look in high school at how many girls and boys are good at maths, we see that they both have equal ability; therefore, there is definitively no gender bias in terms of performance in this basic scientific discipline. Coming to Informatics, what I would like to say to these young women is that if you are good in maths, then you will be good also in Informatics – the foundation of this discipline is, in fact, maths and logic. However, for some reason, girls often choose other areas of study. Again, it’s probably a cultural issue or a question of social perception".
At USI, with an overall student population of over 200 studying Informatics at all levels (undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate), the percentage of female students is quite low: at the Bachelor’s level it hardly reaches 10%, increasing slightly in the Master’s (around 20%). As far as faculty is concerned, there are currently only four female professors out of 30 in total. "I would very much like this to change – says Laura Pozzi – but nevertheless, in my career in Informatics I have never really experienced any problems of sort, despite being in a minority. The overall environment in computer science is very open-minded and sound, in my experience".
So, what can be done to enable more women to consider careers in the scientific and technology domains? "My colleagues and I engage in activities to show and explain how our discipline caters to men and women alike. For instance, through the Nuovo Futuro initiative, which runs throughout Switzerland, we invite middle school girls on campus to learn what it means to study Informatics. On my side, to these pre-teen girls I show small games of logic and maths. We also show them our robot lab, explaining the basic principles of how we can program them, for example, to make movements. The objective is to prove to these youngsters that informatics is for anyone, boys and girls alike. And it’s fun. Then we have activities at the university itself, where my colleagues and I engage in community-building among female faculty and students. Each year, on February 11, during the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we gather to discuss about what it means to be a woman in the field of computer science. Of course, these are women who, unlike the middle school girls, have already made their choice – nevertheless, I believe it is important that we create and foster a community, as we are still a minority. This is where the discussion around the issue of work-life balance arises, and what I find very important and relevant is that a career in Informatics bodes well for those women who wish to have a family. This is something I always mention to high-school girls, although I understand that for many of them the idea of having children is premature".
Full article attached, published in Ticino Welcome n.70 June-August 2021, p.32-34 (by kind permission of the publisher).