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Australian Women in IT

Deconstructing the Australian IT skills shortage paradox—and how to turn it into an advantage for women in IT university programs and the IT workplace.
  1. Introduction
  2. WinIT Research Project
  3. No Easy Explanations
  4. Perception of Competence
  5. Recurring Factors
  6. A Male Domain?
  7. Lessons for Educators, Employees, Policymakers
  8. Conclusion
  9. References
  10. Authors

The IT skills shortage in Australia is a complex problem involving human resource management, education, and social factors. A notable part of the problem is the declining participation there of women in IT education and work over the past two decades. A longitudinal study we’ve been conducting since 1995—called Women in Information Technology, or WinIT—of Australian high school students, university students studying IT, and female IT professionals suggests that cultural factors influence both the decision by women to enter the IT industry and the success of female IT professionals. The high percentage (about 40% of all female students) from Asian backgrounds studying toward IT degrees in Australia supports the argument that different ethnic groups view IT education differently. Taking these factors into account, we can now offer recommendations for educators, employees, and policymakers, as well as IT managers, on how to attract and retain more women in the IT work force and support their career aspirations.

There is something paradoxical about the current IT skills shortage in Australia. The country has all the attributes and incentives to be a strong performer in the global IT economy. However, in spite of the well-publicized demand for these skills, the high salaries paid to qualified IT workers, and high youth unemployment, IT work remains unattractive to the majority of young Australians. There is less demand for IT university places than for other professional degrees, including law, medicine, and teaching.

The IT skills shortage is a complex problem raising questions about such issues as employee turnover and burnout and the role of government in supporting IT education, as well as the difficulty of defining what constitutes professional-level IT work. However, a striking feature of the shortage is that women’s participation in professional IT education and work has actually declined during the past two decades, at the same time female participation in the Australian work force has increased markedly. Female students in Australian high schools today lack interest in going on to study toward IT degrees in universities, and the number of female IT graduates continues to be low, varying from 14% to 20% of all university IT degree programs. This decline is even more surprising considering the rise in female participation in the traditionally male-dominated professions of engineering, law, medicine, and science.

The Australian experience mirrors that of many countries in which IT industry figures are equally skewed. According to a study by the U.S. White House Council of Economic Advisers, at the end of 1999, women represented just 29% of the U.S. technology-sector work force, down from 40% in 1986 [6]. Other studies also indicate occupational segregation; in Australia, there is even a significant difference in average salaries between female and male computer professionals [2]. Women are concentrated in the lower-paid job categories, such as data entry and computer operations, and rarely found in top-level positions, including those in the new economy’s dot-com companies.

The issues confronting female high school students, university students, and IT professionals may seem very different. However, these difficulties may together contribute to the overall problem of declining female participation. Understanding these difficulties may help unravel some aspects of the IT skills paradox.

A special feature of the paradox is the high participation—around 40% of all female students—of Asian women in Australian IT education. Even taking into account these overseas students, their participation is not in proportion to the composition of the overall Australian population of just over 19 million. The majority of the country’s population is Caucasian, primarily Anglo-Celtic, and although 1998 government statistics showed that 23% of Australians were born overseas, only 4.8% of them are from Asia (a figure expected to rise to 7.5% by 2041). For countries with similarly diverse populations, cultural factors, such as those identified in our Australian study, may be increasingly significant.

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WinIT Research Project

We are the chief investigators in the WinIT project, funded by the Australian Research Council, part of the Department of Education, to investigate gender and cultural influences affecting female participation in the IT industry. Since beginning in 1995, we have used several methods to explore perceptions of IT by women in school and universities and at work and compare them with male perceptions. Surveys 1995–2000 of more than 200 female senior high school students and 800 university students (male and female) enrolled in the first year of an IT degree program provided demographic data, as well as brief explanations of the students’ perceptions of the nature of IT education and work. The university surveys, including more than 600 male students, provided significant data about perceptions of career prospects in the IT industry. Focus-group interviews included 31 high school students; approximately 130 university students provided more detailed information about female and male perceptions. This ongoing research follows first-year university students through the second and final years of their degree studies. Future research will compare the results with collaborative research studies in Finland and the U.S.

Women of Asian background significantly outnumber all other ethnic female students in Australian IT degree studies, suggesting cultural differences may be more important than gender alone.

The WinIT study has also included open-ended interviews with 35 IT professionals representing a range of ages, educational backgrounds, nationalities, and Australian regions [10, 11]. They’ve explored the reasons women enter the IT industry and how they view the factors influencing their actual work performance and prospects for advancement.

One limitation of our research with university students is that most of it has taken place within a single degree program at Griffith University in Brisbane. However, by limiting ourselves to the bachelor of IT degree, we have tried to constrain the problem of defining what constitutes IT education. With more than 450 Griffith University students enrolled in the three-year degree, we have also had access to a larger number of female students. Female enrollment in the university’s software engineering and combined degrees (science and microelectronic engineering) programs are even lower than in the IT degree. Our study has concentrated on tertiary-educated students and practitioners, since recruitment agencies, as well as the Australian Computer Society, have asserted that in Australia, "Entry to careers in information technology is increasingly restricted to those with university degrees or some other form of tertiary qualification" [3].

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No Easy Explanations

Our approach to understanding female participation is to assume there are no easy explanations for women’s lack of interest in professional-level IT education and work. One way to look at this issue is to assume there are inherent differences between men and women that make IT unattractive to women. Indeed, some research on women’s use of IT has taken this approach [12]; it could be argued that inherent factors making women uncomfortable with computers may operate similarly with IT work. However, since female participation in IT education and work has actually declined at the same time the technology has become more pervasive and accessible, pointing to inherent differences as the source of the explanation does not seem reasonable. It is unlikely that women have undergone inherent changes over such a short period. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, women of Asian background significantly outnumber all other ethnic female students in Australian IT degree studies, suggesting cultural differences may be more important than gender alone. Therefore, a number of social and cultural factors have to be considered.

Our research has taken the view that gender and IT are socially constructed. That is, IT is constructed as a domain attractive to certain types of people, primarily as a male domain, in the same way such occupations as child-care and nursing are constructed as female domains. The advantage of this view is that what can be constructed can also be deconstructed and changed. The more women enter professional-level IT education and work, especially in technical areas, the less IT will be viewed as a male domain, similar to changes in other professional fields, including law and medicine.

The social-construction perspective has to account for the particular factors operating in different countries and economic contexts. WinIT research specifically explores low female participation within Australia’s particular cultural, social, and economic conditions. Lessons learned may be helpful for other countries with similarly diverse populations.

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Perception of Competence

A 1998 national study of Australian primary and high school students’ IT skills (in which we participated as researchers) showed female perceptions of competence in IT skills to be quite high at the end of primary school (ages 12–13) but declined during high school. Female students view themselves as less competent in advanced skills, such as writing programs and building Web sites [5]. However, the WinIT study of senior high school students (ages 16–18) found that perceptions of competence influence different groups of students in different ways. For example, Asian students are more prepared than their non-Asian counterparts in Australia to undertake IT education and to view IT as more relevant to their careers.

Most female students have similar views about the work of IT professionals, whom they generally characterize as people working alone with computers and having little contact with other people. They generally perceive computing as boring and difficult and IT study and work as strongly associated with logic or math skills, rather than literacy or interpersonal skills. This impression may be caused in part by the way IT courses are taught in senior high school, generally discouraging students from choosing IT degree studies when they go on to university programs. Boys and girls alike generally view women as preferring work that requires personal contact and communication. They expect boys to be more interested in computers than girls, as computing continues to be considered a male pastime. However, they also believe that women’s participation in IT will gradually increase, possibly because of the characters they’ve seen in films and other media. There was no indication they were aware that female participation has actually declined in recent years.

Computer use outside school was reported equally by Asian and non-Asian female students, but Asian females were more inclined to choose computing and IT subjects at school, despite the negative perceptions. About 18% of Asian females, compared to 8% of non-Asian females, indicated that an IT course would be their first preference at university. The long-term job prospects and usefulness of IT education outweighed the negative perceptions of initial boredom and difficult studies. About 67% of non-Asian females reported being "not interested in" or "didn’t like" computers, compared to 33% of Asian females. Non-Asian women did not see a clear career path in IT and were not prepared to put up with what they expected would be initial boredom and the unappealing nature of IT work.

We should point out that in our research, "Asian" is not defined categorically but refers to a range of East and Southeast Asian Confucian-heritage cultures, including China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, and to some extent Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. We suggest Confucian-heritage culture only as a useful category for our investigations, as it represents the majority of Australia’s non-English-speaking-background IT students. Indeed, students from all over Asia make up the largest percentage of overseas (nonpermanent resident) students in Australian high schools and universities. In any case, national/regional cultural factors may be less important in Australia than, say, family influence and the experience of migration. The influence of family encouragement and pressure to pursue IT studies was reported as a significant factor by many Asian students in the WinIT study. This influence may compensate these students for the lack of female role models in high school. The number of female IT teachers in Australia is quite low, and female teachers use significantly less IT at home, as well as at work, than their male counterparts [5].

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Recurring Factors

Factors identified by Australian high school students recur among female first-year university students, including: the perception of lower female competence and the so-called difficult side of IT as a male domain; lack of female role models; different social influences among Asian and non-Asian students; and a poor understanding of career prospects in the IT industry. Confusion over IT as a career may be surprising, but many students (male and female alike) enter the IT degree in Australia because they did not achieve a score high enough to get them into their preferred areas of study. Approximately 48% of male students and 52% of female students do not go on to second-year IT studies. These figures are explained not only by a high failure rate but also because many students use their success in their first-year IT studies as a basis for changing to their preferred areas of study.

The WinIT study has investigated female and male perceptions of competence using a Web-based survey of all students enrolled in a compulsory first-semester subject designed to familiarize them with the software tools, operating systems, and programming environments used in the IT degree. It shows that female students consider themselves less competent than their counterpart male students consider themselves, though their academic results do not show the same difference. This perception could inhibit female students from choosing IT, but, indeed, during their studies, could motivate them to work more diligently.

The survey and the interviews have also revealed that there is an overall perception by both male and female students of the IT degree as difficult and demanding. For example, our 1996 survey of first-year students in three different universities in Brisbane revealed that more than 33% of them felt their courses involved more math and programming than they had expected. Given the fact that the vast majority of survey respondents were men was a further indication of some degree of general confusion about IT as a career and what should be included in the IT degree course. Certainly, many of the male students associated IT studies with designing computer games and valued computers as a means of escapism; the most valuable attribute of the computer, as reported by our survey respondents, is that it doesn’t talk back to you.

Quite early in the degree program, female students are categorized by many other students, as well as by some faculty, as being better at the so-called soft side of the degree, including documentation, organizational analysis, and team management. This stereotype may be an effect of role models, with most of the (small number of) female faculty concentrated in the information systems area. Interviews with female IT professionals have also found that some of them were attracted to subjects taught by female tutors and felt uncomfortable in classes with few or no other female students. One female professor attributed the high dropout rate of female students from the more technical subjects to their not being able to "find other girls to work with and relate to."

Our research takes the view that gender and IT are socially constructed. The advantage of this view is that what can be constructed can also be deconstructed and changed.

Whereas the non-Asian females view computing as having limited career options, the Asian women we interviewed see further career opportunities from IT education, although this expectation does not necessarily indicate a better understanding of the IT industry. Like the high school students, Asian female university IT students frequently mentioned pressure from home to pursue IT, as well as family responsibilities, including the need to provide for aging parents. This finding is similar to those on IT professionals in Hong Kong and Taiwan [4, 8]. These studies confirmed Hofstede’s 1994 comparative research on the different dimensions of Western and Asian cultures [7]. Probably relevant are the masculinity/femininity scale; uncertainty avoidance/long-term perspective; and individualistic/collectivism dimensions. However, this does not distinguish between males and females nor account for the striking predominance (around 40%) of Asian females among all female IT students in Australia. The overall percentage of Asian students (around 20%) in the overall Australian university population is far lower.

The WinIT research study of university students has also identified additional factors. Unfortunately, disparagement and discrimination are widespread in IT programs, though there is a notable difference in the way Asian and non-Asian women experience gender-based discrimination. Asian women feel their opinions are not valued as highly as those of male students and that they are largely ignored by all non-Asian people, as well as by male Asian students. As a result, they feel isolated and ignorant and band together for guidance and assistance. On the other hand, non-Asian women feel they are the focus of sexual harassment, both verbally and via email. They also feel they receive unwanted positive discrimination in the form of easier assessment that is patronizing and offensive to their sense of achievement. One form of condescending behavior toward non-Asian female students is a type of categorization based on intellectual achievement and physical appearance. Inclusion in the "pretty and smart female" group means privileged acceptance into the male-dominated setting in which superior performance is not always appreciated.

Overall, the surveyed Australian university IT students consider IT a male domain in which women are best at the soft side of IT work, though women still view themselves as able to succeed in spite of the barriers.

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A Male Domain?

Interviews we carried out in 1999–2000 of female IT practitioners in Australia revealed the effects of operating within a male domain. This work environment traditionally includes extensive non-work socializing with male colleagues (such as attendance at sporting events) as necessary for career progression. More specific findings included the underrepresentation of women in technical positions and in IT management. In order to increase their chances of success in IT university programs and in IT employment, Australian women worry about the field’s lack of formal qualifications and the need to place work ahead of family commitments in order to succeed. Differences between native-born Australian women and women born overseas involve the factors influencing the choice of IT as a career and work satisfaction [11], just as they do in choosing the IT degree in a university. Moreover, the influence of national culture is reflected in company policies and their effect on individual employees. For example, an Australian employee working for a Scandinavian multinational firm believed that a culture of equality was inspired directly by policies established at company headquarters.

Some of the women we interviewed appeared unfazed by being female in a male-dominated career and didn’t cite an uneven playing field, whereas others reported they were "second-class citizens" in their IT workplaces. Despite these differences, many of these women had developed a way of viewing IT that enabled them to remain in the industry. Identifying and interviewing women who had left the industry might have provided different views. In any case, there are contradictions in how women reported their experience. For example, one successful systems engineer said she would not encourage her young daughter to enter IT, citing the pace of the work and the need to continuously update one’s personal IT knowledge and skills as incompatible with family life. Another woman intimated that she could not imagine how she could remain in the industry if she decided to have children. Even women describing their careers in a positive light reported their work had suffered when their children were young to the extent that less-qualified men were promoted ahead of them.

A few of these women expressed their experiences in terms of a "raised bar" to prove themselves, a hostile educational and work environment, and unwanted sexual advances. Others in both academia and industry reported women leaving their organizations after experiencing what they viewed as inappropriate behavior by male supervisors.

However, none identified the technical side of IT as a problem. The literature on IT skills suggests the industry needs more "feminine" skills, such as interpersonal communication. Indeed, there are many contradictory aspects to the notion of so-called hard (male) and soft (female) skills. The WinIT study has found that women are considered valuable by their employers and colleagues for the broad view many of them bring to their work, as well as their ability to pay attention to technical detail. Moreover, the notion that women are good at soft skills, such as interpersonal communication, has been contradicted by at least one female Australian senior IT recruitment consultant who considers men much more active and successful at business networking. It seems possible that the stereotypes of feminine and masculine are assigned rather arbitrarily or to fit prevailing social stereotypes.

The women in the study generally enjoy satisfying careers in the IT industry. They do not identify themselves as different from other women but resist stereotyped ideas about suitable careers for women. Two significant factors in the backgrounds of women deliberately choosing and enjoying their IT careers are attendance at all-girl schools and support from parents (at least one of whom worked in a technical area). These factors seem to have influenced them to choose IT regardless of social attitudes.

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Lessons for Educators, Employees, Policymakers

WinIT research indicates that a complex mixture of factors influences female and male perceptions of IT education and work, including lack of role models for women, confusion about the nature of IT education and work, problems in study and work environments, and contradictory ideas about feminine and masculine attributes and skills.

We cite three major implications from our findings for educators, policymakers, as well as for anyone else who might be in a position to influence young people in their choice of study and career.

Correct pervasive misconceptions about IT work. Although the work environment presents problems, IT work remains one the best prospects for young people in terms of salary, intellectually stimulating and rewarding work, and career path. The problem for IT educators and employers is how to communicate these promising prospects, especially to young women weighing their career options. A career in IT is promoted less in high schools than are other technical areas, such as engineering, mathematics, and science. But a school’s influence is crucial. One woman we interviewed said, "You sort of base that [which degree/which job] on what your teachers tell you at school and what sort of career you are looking at." IT teachers and vocational guidance counselors need to be better informed in this regard.

A way to encourage young women to pursue IT as a career is to expand industry/high school interaction, using tertiary-level IT education as a facilitator. This interaction could involve creation of an IT-focused mentoring program for female high school students before they decide on tertiary education, as suggested by a 2000 report published by the American Association of University Women [1]. Such programs may encourage more girls to enter IT tertiary education while rectifying occupational segregation and the concentration of women in lower-level jobs in the IT industry. It could provide female role models and realistic advice on how to make the most of this exciting industry, as well as introduce both male and female high school students to the variety of IT career options and what is good about the IT industry. Most important, such a program would highlight what is good about being a woman in IT. Worldwide, there are many examples of such programs, including in Australia and the U.S.; there should be more of them. (The WinIT mentoring study of about 100 high school students beginning this year will be expanded to several other high schools next year.)

Don’t tolerate a hostile environment. Some of the negative perceptions of IT education and work reflect actual problems in the IT environment. For example, many of the women we interviewed reported feeling uncomfortable in a male-dominated environment. Harassment and disparagement should not be tolerated by IT educators or by IT corporate management anywhere. Such an environment might include stereotyping women as less able to handle the more technical aspects of IT study and work and relegating them to certain types of relatively low-level IT work (such as preparing documentation) with less status. There are no physical or psychological reasons why women should not have access to the same variety of IT work as men.

In Australian society today, women still generally bear most of the responsibility for domestic arrangements, even when both partners work. If this social circumstance has resulted in women being more attentive to the soft side of work, their attentiveness should be reflected in the IT enterprise. However, as constituted today, primarily as a technical enterprise, IT education and industry does not appear to meet the needs of society. Negative social effects, including structural unemployment, as well as system failure, may result from such a social construction of the IT industry.

Tolerate balanced work and home responsibilities. IT work is often organized in a way that makes it difficult for IT employees, male and female alike, to balance their personal and work lives, especially when they have family responsibilities. Today, this counterproductive situation mainly disadvantages women, but as men take greater interest in child rearing, they will be equally disadvantaged.

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Widespread social views, even when based on false premises or that inhibit positive behavior, tend to become self-reinforcing. The IT skills shortage and problems in the IT enterprise in Australia, such as system failure, user resistance, and negative social effects, are likely to be reinforced if a more diverse population is not inspired to participate in ways more in keeping with wider social and economic goals.

The causes of the IT skills shortage in Australia are complex, involving many human resource management issues. Nevertheless, the field can still be made more attractive to all kinds of people. Changes in the wider social and economic environment need to be taken into account, including the increasing participation of women in the work force, dual-career families, and the ethnic diversification of the work force along with the national population. For countries with diverse populations, cultural factors, such as those identified in the WinIT study, may be increasingly significant.

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    1. American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age; see

    2. Association of Professionals Engineers, Scientists, and Managers, Australia. Women in Professions Survey Report. Melbourne, 2000.

    3. Australian Computer Society. Careers in Information Technology. Adelaide, 1998.

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    5. Commonwealth Department of Education, Training, and Youth Affairs. Real Time: Computers, Change, and Schooling, Meredyth, D. et al., Eds. National sample study of the information technology skills of Australian school students; see publications/RealTime.pdf.

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    10. Pringle, R., Nielsen, S., von Hellens, L., Greenhill, A., and Parfitt, L. Net gains: Success strategies of professional women in IT. In Proceedings of the 7th IFIP Working Group 9.1 (Computers and Work) Women, Work, and Computerization Conference (Vancouver, Canada, June 8–11). Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 2000, 26–33.

    11. Trauth, E., Nielsen, S., and von Hellens, L. Explaining the IT gender gap: Australian stories. In Proceedings of the 11th Australasian Conference on Information Systems (Brisbane, Australia, Dec. 6–8, 2000).

    12. Venkatesh, V. and Morris, M. Why don't men ever stop to ask for directions? Gender, social influence, and their role in technology acceptance and usage behavior. MIS Quart. 24, 1 (Mar. 2000), 15–140.

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