Women and IT “It is a question of encouragement”

Women and IT;
Women and IT; | Photo (detail): © fotolia

It is still the case that few women in Germany opt to study IT, with the result that they are underrepresented in the growing computer industry. Nonetheless, there are signs that things are changing.

Laura Laugwitz always had an interest in computers, but it was not until she was 25 and had already completed a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology that she plucked up the courage to embark on a degree in IT. Had no-one ever encouraged her in the past? She explains that she did once do an IT course at school. “I was the only girl in the class.” The boys, she says, understood and could do everything really quickly. “Whereas I was just frustrated.” To cap it all, she had a maths teacher she did not like during her final years at school – with the result that Laura made up her mind that she would never study any subject requiring an ability in maths.

There are many young women like Laura in Germany. They love using their smartphones, tablets and laptops, but hardly any of them ever considers playing an active role in the digitization of our society. Women study mathematical and technical subjects less frequently than men, work less often in IT companies, rarely occupy management positions in such enterprises and are also significantly underrepresented when it comes to business start-ups. According to a study conducted by the German Startups Association in conjunction with the Deutscher Startup-Monitor, only eleven percent of all new businesses in Germany were founded by women in the year 2014. The figure had even fallen somewhat year-on-year.

“Girls’ Day”, networks and a manifesto

How can the content of such subjects be made palatable to young women, and how can their talent be fostered at an early stage so that they have the confidence to pursue a course of study and career in IT? Politicians, research institutions and schools are doing their best to encourage more young women to embrace what are known as STEM subjects, that is to say science, technology, engineering and mathematics. There are many different approaches: a “Girls’ Day” was launched, for example, and there are national initiatives such as “Komm, mach MINT” (meaning roughly “Come on, try STEM”) plus career networks like “Femtec”. But is this enough? At the international Cebit IT trade fair in 2015, around 30 women from the digital economy issued a “female founders’ manifesto” which demanded that women be more systematically fostered throughout the entire education system.

After all, the career opportunities for STEM graduates in high-tech Germany are excellent. In Berlin, the country’s start-up capital, there is a shortage of programmers. But that is not all: according to Bitkom, the Federal Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media, the IT industry as a whole is Germany’s second-largest industrial employer after the mechanical engineering sector, providing nearly one million jobs – and word gradually appears to be getting round. The number of women as a proportion of students beginning a course in IT has been rising since 2012. According to Bitkom, around 7,700 women embarked on a degree in IT in the 2014/2015 winter semester in Germany – five percent more than in the previous year. Women thus account for some 22 percent of all first-year students in this area.

Women-only IT degree course

Some women specifically choose a course with no male students. The HTW University of Applied Sciences in Berlin has established the first women-only IT degree programme. “It is not about returning to sex segregation”, explains its director, Juliane Siegeris. Instead, it is a question of equal opportunities and encouragement. “Many young women are interested in the subject and have good logical and mathematical abilities.” But then they compare themselves with their male classmates who apparently do nothing in their free time but sit in front of a computer from their earliest childhood. “Women often think that they do not start off at the same level”, says Juliane Siegeris. This is why the university advertises the fact that its women-only degree course requires no prior IT knowledge. Very effectively. “After just a short time the students realize that they are just as good or just as far on as the men.”

Laura Laugwitz’s experience was much the same. In her case it was the “Rails Girls” who gave her the crucial impetus. The name refers to a loose international network of volunteers who offer free programming workshops for women in many big cities. The idea originated in Finland, and now there are also a number of groups in Germany. Laura went to Rails Girls Berlin, initially as a “newbie”. These days she passes her knowledge on to others. The workshops are popular and quickly booked out – and many of the women subsequently meet on a regular basis to expand their programming skills. “It is great that a few people benefit from our courses”, says Laura, though she does not believe that the Rails Girls groups are enough on their own. “What is needed is a broad-based change in culture.”