Women in IT: Susan Webb

Susan Webb enrolled in a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science at Edith Cowan University along with 20 other females and 130 males. By the time Webb graduated in 2003, the number of females had dropped to four. This led Webb to undertake a PhD about the declining participation of women in IT. Webb tells Computer world that it "ain't easy" to be a woman in IT and you need to have a thick skin...

What first got you interested in technology and how old were you?

I honestly don't know that I am that "interested" in technology, I just seem to have an affinity with it. This started when I was about 14 or 15 and I did computing at high school. Back then, around 1985, the technology we were using was pretty primitive - such as punch card readers for input devices! I was the only student who got their computer program to actually work. Later, when I joined the workforce as a bookkeeper, computers were being used increasingly and I just seemed to pick things up quickly. It wasn't long before everyone was coming to me for help with their problems. This later saw me employed as a casual lecturer teaching computer applications to adults in a college similar to a TAFE.

What particular areas of technology are you interested in?

I am more interested in the social side of technology, teaching people to use technology more productively and securely. I was planning to go into computer security and did quite a lot of study in this area, but then my PhD topic hit me from out of the blue, and that is the direction that my interest lies in now.

What appeals to you about studying IT?

Studying IT was never something I planned to do, it just sort of happened, and then once I started I discovered I was really good at it. (I won the faculty medal for the highest undergraduate average in our whole faculty!) I have been on both sides of the fence too, having both studied as well as taught IT. I think what is really appealing about IT is the vast range of options it gives you in terms of what type of work you might want to do when you finish.

What is your PHD on?

My PhD is on the declining participation of women in information and communication technology.

Who have been your role models from the IT industry and why?

The women from WIT (Women I IT) who were involved in organizing the Go Girl event in WA (see story: http://www.computerworld.com.au/index.php?id=1094909963) have become great role models, but that is only a recent thing.

I was always aware that there were few females in IT, and very few in high-profile positions. I guess I was always impressed that Carly Fiorina was running a major IT company, and her name was in the IT news quite regularly. Since I started my research, I have learnt a lot about the early pioneers of women in technology, and I guess Ida Lovelace is a bit of a hero for writing the first computer program when she didn't even have an actual machine to write it on. She also had a fairly chequered history which makes her interesting to me.

Why do you think there is a shortage of females studying IT and working in IT?

My thesis proposal answers this in about 120 pages, but I would have to say that I think perception is the biggest barrier. Many people think that IT is for geeky boys, and that it is boring and hard, and very technical. There are many reasons for this perception, and hopefully events such as the Go Girl expo in Western Australia will help change this, at least for the girls who attend. I am also hoping to identify other interventions as part of my research.

Where do you see your career in 10 years?

In 10 years, I would like to be working overseas, in either Ireland or the US, lecturing in computer science.

Do you feel there are difficult aspects to being a female working in a male-dominated industry like IT? If so, what are they and how have you handled them?

Where do I start?

I have had problems with lecturers making assumptions about female students, as well as other students cracking jokes about the few girls in the class. The boys I was studying with were never happy that I kept beating them in assignments and exams. At the beginning of first year, there were maybe 20 female students out of 150 students. By the end of first year, this had dropped to about eight. By the time we graduated, I think there were only about four of us left. The environment was just not a pleasant one for females who were not as thick-skinned as I am. I just ignore people when they get sexist, and I am not the type to be intimidated by that type of behaviour.

What do you think the stereotype of an IT professional is?

The stereotype is definitely the young, spotty male who has a hard time communicating with anything other than a computer, and most likely wears glasses. The mainstream media doesn't help this image at all either. There is a television ad on TV here in Perth for a computer company, and the "star" of the ad is a very geeky looking guy who calls himself "Bill 'Rusty' Gates", who has red hair, glasses, wears a shirt, tie and pocket protector, and speaks with a bad American accent. My daughter and I both groan loudly when any of those ads come on.

What is the reality?

Most people that I know who are successful in the IT industry can not be pigeon-holed because they are very diverse. The successful ones are generally quite outgoing, and are good at communicating, especially listening. Basically, to do well you have to be a people-person, and you have to be able to see beyond the technology to how it is to be used most effectively. Unfortunately, the pool of IT graduates is getting smaller and smaller, and the types of students being attracted to IT are not diverse enough at the moment to ensure the future of the industry.

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