How can we support women working in academic computing roles?

clock • 5 min read
Rachel Pattinson, TechWomen100 winner, manages digital research programmes at Open Lab. Image: Newcastle University

Rachel Pattinson, TechWomen100 winner, manages digital research programmes at Open Lab. Image: Newcastle University

Rachel Pattinson explores how the School of Computing at Newcastle University is supporting women working in academic computing roles

The under-representation of women working in the digital sector is a wicked problem. The WISE campaign's statistics show that women only make up around 16 per cent of the UK's technology workforce, while studies suggest that 30 per cent is the point at which the representation will reach a critical mass. And there's a related issue with the tech talent pipeline, with a recent PwC report highlighting that only three per cent of the young women they surveyed said a career in technology was their first choice.

At universities, it's a similar story. I manage digital programmes at Newcastle University's School of Computing, where 18 per cent of women make up the student numbers in 2019/20, though that has increased from 14 per cent two years previously. Around 20 per cent of our academic staff are female, and women make up the majority of the Professional Services team supporting the department.

There has been gradual progress, supported by Advance HE's Athena Swan Charter which champions gender equality in higher education, and Newcastle University's institutional commitment through our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion strategy. Still, apart from those working in non-academic roles, women remain under-represented - and true inclusion goes beyond the numbers.

Participants at a Not-Equal Network+ event
Participants take part in a Not-Equal Network+ event, exploring social justice in the digital economy. Image: Newcastle University

I asked my Newcastle University colleagues and postgraduate researchers working in computing for their thoughts on working in academic computing, and whether they felt that this was inclusive environment for women in computing careers.

What are the barriers in pursuing academic careers in computing?

Unconscious bias came up when talking with my colleagues, with one saying, "It makes me upset that I may need to work harder to achieve the same things as a man in my academic career." Others talked about precarious and short-term employment contracts in the higher education sector.

Progression opportunities, and seeing other women developing academic careers, are a significant factor for some of the early career researchers I discussed this with: "It's less about ‘getting in' and more about ‘staying in'… it's hard to seriously visualise myself progressing further in an academic computing career without any experiences of what this might be like."

Caring responsibilities can have an impact. Some parents of young children mentioned that care arrangements hold them back from attending academic conferences and networking opportunities. For another, taking periods of maternity leave and "balancing caring responsibilities with my personal motivation to progress my career has been complex to navigate".

Meeting with members of the Later Life Audio and Radio Network
Open Lab's Arlind Reuter and Emily Barker meeting with members of the Later Life Audio and Radio Network. Image: Newcastle University

And "the pandemic has highlighted issues" for working mothers in particular. Home-schooling and working from home have had impacts on productivity and key markers for academic promotion criteria, leaving a female colleague thinking, "I wonder how such factors will be taken into account when it comes to promotion and career progress after this pandemic is over?" Obviously, these issues stretch to the wider higher education sector and extend to all working primary caregivers.

Less focus on challenges, more on support

But other researchers believe a focus on the challenges women face in pursuing academic computing careers is not helpful. For one colleague, this "continually reinforces the need to laud women for being here (why wouldn't we be?)." Another researcher said: "Honestly, I think the barriers are few and far between, and exaggerated because it fits a prevailing (and unhelpful) narrative."

A shift in organisational culture

I also asked my colleagues about the positive developments they had noticed which support women working in academic computing. Some commented on internal staff support networks such as NU Women. Others talked about recruitment practices - according to a colleague who regularly sits on university recruitment panels, hiring managers are "desperate to recruit women" because of the lack of women working in computing, so ensuring positive action in recruitment is key.

Professor Abigail Durrant, the first female professor in the School of Computing, has noticed "a shift in organisational culture in HE over the last decade, with Athena Swan aims and objectives opening out beyond the STEM focus and becoming more sophisticated in recognising, engaging with and addressing equality, diversity, and inclusion more broadly."

Janis Meissner working in the Open Lab makerspace
PhD researcher Janis Meissner working in the Open Lab makerspace. Image: Newcastle University

Benefits of working in an academic computing context mentioned were the flexibility to pursue your own research agenda, exchanging knowledge and the "ability to explore exciting and interesting technology." For Dr Maryam Mehrnezhad, computing research is about agility: "I see computing taking fields like education, medicine and engineering to the next level by offering state-of-the-art solutions." And PhD student Jennifer Manuel highlights that by undertaking digital research she "can work directly with communities to achieve positive change," something that isn't always possible within the constraints of commercial environments.

And for others, the benchmark is "when we don't need to give awards, note, or provide support groups for women, because it's truly ordinary [for women to be working in an academic computing environment]."

While some may feel there are no barriers, with only a fifth of students being women, there is more that can be done to encourage and retain women in computing.

And as Professor Durrant suggests, "We need to work in a focused way to evidence the positive change towards supporting women's career progression in HE, to understand early career researchers' needs and experiences and what important work we still need to do."

Find out more about Newcastle University's School of Computing here.

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