Carron Shankland MBCS, Professor of Computer Science, University of Stirling and Chair of BCS Academy’s Women in Computing Research Group, looks at tackling gender inequality in higher education through Athena SWAN - how it works and how you can get involved.
Two years ago, I wanted to send a message out to my undergraduate class advertising the annual Lovelace Colloquium, an event mainly for young women in computing. It’s rather antisocial to spam a whole group, therefore I set about the slightly tedious task of filtering the women from the class lists, and I found just three in our final honours year. And another three in the third year. But, hallelujah, four in the second year.
I was genuinely shocked at these low numbers. Although I stand in front of these classes all the time, I hadn’t really absorbed that the proportion of women in our degree programme had fallen to something around 10 per cent of the total.
This is not just a feature of my university. Women are under-represented in computing in the UK, at all levels, across industry, across the academy, across training in schools and colleges. BCS produce the ‘Women in IT Scorecard’ each year, highlighting the numbers.
For example, the proportion of females accepted to higher education courses has declined in IT and computing-related courses to just 12 per cent. But female students are outperforming male students in IT-related GCEs and GCSEs: 15 per cent of female students achieving grades A/A* grades in GCE (compared with nine per cent of male students), and 32 per cent of female students obtaining A/A*grades in GCSE (compared with 17 per cent of male students).
Similar patterns are repeated in the IT workforce. Women represent 17 per cent of IT specialists, and that level has been fairly stable for a decade. In the academy 22 per cent of lecturers are female. There’s a two-fold problem: clearly there aren’t enough women coming into computing, but there aren’t enough women in senior roles either. Women represent 10 per cent of IT directors, and 13 per cent of computing professors.
Addressing these problems requires effort from many different groups. In higher education in the UK, one of the main drivers for change is the Athena SWAN charter. The charter was established in 2005 by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research.
In May 2015 the charter was expanded to recognise work undertaken in arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law, and in professional and support roles, and for trans staff and students. The charter now recognises work undertaken to address gender equality more broadly, and not just barriers to progression that affect women.
Signing up to the charter is just the first step: institutions make an explicit commitment to uphold the principles of the charter. The first principle is the acknowledgement that academia cannot reach its full potential unless it can benefit from the talents of all.
You might argue that women are not involved in computing because they’re just not interested. The data suggests otherwise: participation levels for women in computing are higher in the Middle East, North Africa, and South and West Asia. This is a societal problem with a huge negative impact on our discipline. We can’t effectively build the systems of tomorrow if we are only drawing from a very limited pool of expertise and experience.
More diverse teams have been shown to perform better across a range of measures including productivity, sales, profits, working environment, staff turnover and employee satisfaction. So diversity is not just ‘nice to have’ and morally right, it also makes economic sense.
The ECU operate a system of awards at bronze, silver and gold levels, indicating progress towards gender equality in higher education. Institutional and departmental awards interleave. The institution as a whole applies first (for bronze), then departments (or schools or faculties) can apply across all levels. When a majority of departments have awards, and at least one is a silver or gold award, the institution can apply for silver, and so on.
Awards must be renewed every four years: this ensures that working towards gender equality is an ongoing process, not a one-off, tick-box exercise. To apply, institutions and departments must show they have collected and analysed gendered data across a range of key career transitions (e.g. student numbers, degree attainment, job applications, staff numbers at researcher / lecturer / senior lecturer / professorial level, promotion rates).
They must also reflect on the working environment as a place where everyone has an equal voice and which encourages every student and every member of staff to fulfil their potential. This process allows gaps in data, in policies and procedures, and in support to be identified and an action plan to address those gaps to be drawn up. Having achieved the award, the next four years is spent carrying out the action plan.
Of the 105 computer science departments in UK institutions, 24 have Athena SWAN bronze awards, either on their own or as part of a larger faculty group. There are no gold awards, but there are three silver awards: Computer Science at University College London, School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh, and the School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Queen’s University Belfast.
Many of the remaining 78 are preparing applications. Initiatives carried out as part of Athena SWAN typically include mentoring and training for women to develop their potential, training for managers to ensure unbiased decision-making, and policy development to support maternity leave and flexible working. Departments also recognise the importance of using female role models in recruitment materials and in outreach activities such as public lectures and school visits.
The BCS Academy with the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing and the BCS Women in Computing Research group are supporting departments to come together to share best practice through the CygnetS network. CygnetS is just a hatchling at the moment, but it will allow us to create a, mainly online, community to share information and experience.
What initiatives really work in getting women into computing? How can careers be best supported while maintaining family life (still primarily a women’s issue)? What other organisations can we work with to achieve greater visibility of female role models?