IT – still a man's world?
The UN agency for information and communication technologies (ITU) has organized a debate on the low level of female participation in this discipline. At EPFL, as well as at other Swiss universities, female students account for only 15% of the total. Anastasia Ailamaki, the professor in charge of the Data-Intensive Applications and Systems Laboratory, was invited to attend. She gives us a few avenues to explore.
Why are so few young people, particularly women, currently attracted to degree courses in ICT?
The world is changing rapidly, as is the way in which the sciences are perceived. By the end of the eighties, everyone wanted to study ICT. In the collective imagination, it was something new and full of prospects for the future. At that time, women already had a very strong presence in the industry. Now, the computer has become such an everyday item, and so easy to use, that its many facets are overlooked. Most people think that being an IT engineer means becoming a programmer or developing websites. Of the algorithms that enable us to solve a problem, some are indeed highly abstract and unknown to the general public. The other image that does our industry no favours and is highly prevalent at the moment is that of the “geek”. You envisage a long-haired loner spending all his time in front of a screen – not a very attractive idea for young people, especially girls. Actually, I believe that women often have an educational advantage that helps them to become even better engineers than men. They are given responsibility at a much younger age, particularly in traditional societies where they look after the home, their brothers and sisters, etc. The ability to do several things at once, and make sure that everything is going well becomes second nature. Being an engineer is not a matter of performing tasks, but rather of being versatile: knowing how to find information, resolve problems and ensure that everything goes smoothly.
What do you think can be done to encourage girls to follow in your footsteps and change this image?
The key to changing the collective imagination is education. For example, the timetable in the first year of an ICT degree is filled with courses in maths, physics, programming languages and other technical subjects. There are no courses that focus on what makes ICT a science. To remedy this problem, we are working with the new Dean of the faculty and the other professors to prepare a special module that addresses this issue. Most universities worldwide are thinking along the same lines at the moment. Feedback by word of mouth will of course help some years from now in changing more widely the popular perception of computer engineering. Yet it might also be a good idea for experts to set up this kind of course for secondary school students. We could easily imagine the same sort of content for young people of 15 years of age.
Why did you do your degree in this field, and what advice would you give to young people who are currently making their choices?
I chose to study ICT because it’s difficult! It’s a very personal matter, but I’ve always loved a challenge. I wanted to become a chemical engineer at first, but then someone told me about the new IT department that was opening at the University of Patra in Greece. That was in 1985, and I had never seen a computer before. The prospect of a new challenge then prompted me to make it my first choice. I then became caught up in it – I was captivated by its air of mystery. At EPFL, working with young people, as well as my highly qualified colleagues, enables me to reassess myself every day: it’s what makes me move forward. How many people can say that they are still learning every day after working in the same field for 25 years? I think that young people should be advised by those who love what they do, instead of listening to people who talk to them about their profession in a negative way. This will enable them to see the full potential of the career that is opening up to them.