National Post

Saturday, April 10, 1999

Big woman on campus
Women undergrads form the majority in almost every discipline

Susanne Hiller
National Post

Women undergraduates now form the majority in every discipline in Canadian universities - except one. They're still avoiding computer science programs, scared of becoming the stereotypical lonely techno-geek glued to a screen.

"There is a real lack of information about the careers that come out from a computer science background", says Emma Smith, 28, founder of Wired Woman Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating women about the information technology industry.

"Many women think it looks geeky, boring, and anti-social. We have a very narrow, unrealistic view of what a computer scientist looks like. For example, many people can't believe that a woman with a master's in computer science is doing really neat virtual reality art installations in the National Gallery."

Women outnumber men on Canadian university campuses by the largest margin ever, according to statistics from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Women represented 55.7% of undergraduate students in 1997-1998, up from 50% in 1997. In 1971, 39% of post-secondary students in Canada were women.

"Female enrollment is growing across the country, across all disciplines and in most institutions," says Herb O'Heron, an analyst at the association. "Ninety-five percent of Canadian students are in institutions where women represent 45 to 65% of the student body."

More women are studying in fields traditionally considered to be male disciplines. Women may account for a small proportion of engineering students (between 15 and 25%), yet female representation in all areas of engineering has almost doubled in the last decade.

"Chemical engineering has gone from a quarter to 40% female students in the last ten years, civil engineering from 14% to 23% women," says Mr. O'Heron.

"There is a big shift in this field." Women now represent 50% of enrollment in commerce degrees across the country. Fifty-three percent of students studying law are women. For example, in 1997-1998, more than half the students at Dalhousie University's law school were women.

But female enrollment in university computer science programs - although it's preparation for one of the fastest growing industries - hasn't changed in the last decade, while male enrollment has doubled, says Mr. O'Heron. Only 20% of full-time undergraduate students studying computer science are female.

"Girls are much more career-focused and ambitious than theyusedtobe. They all want to make $100,000 and they wantto be lawyers and doctors," says Ms. Smith, who lives in Vancouver. "But they don't want to get into a weird, undesirable career and are following more traditional role models and television idols. There is no female Bill Gates out there. All female sitcoms are about doctors, lawyers, and people who have careers that are easier to understand."

There is a general lack of information about computer science jobs, Ms. Smith says. The negative image of the nerdy programmer with zero social slills, plus the traditional "war and sports" content of most male-developed computer games and programs, have not made the field overly appealing to women, she says.

The University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University have introduced a two-year postgraduate computer science program designed as a hands-on experience. In an effort to attract more women to apply, half of the 38 spots are reserved for women.

"Women don't tend to think,'Oh I'd love to be a technical director of a software company.' Young girls aren't thinking like that," says Ms. Smith. "We need an Ally McBeal that takes place in a multimedia company."

National Post

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