Photo: Ursula Maier-Rabler

6. August 2020

Salzburgian Spirit of Innovation: Ursula Maier-Rabler

Ursula Maier-Rabler (Center for Information and Communication Technologies & Society at the University of Salzburg and advisory board member of ditact) discusses ditact, barriers for women in STEM professions, and how to overcome them in the interview.

The ditact women’s IT-studies is just around the corner. The event, taking place from September 1st to 12th, 2020 at the University of Salzburg in collaboration with numerous partners, offers IT courses exclusively for women. For the 17th time, women have the opportunity to attend courses on various topics such as programming, robotics, IT management, career planning, and many others.

Ursula Maier-Rabler is one of the driving forces behind ditact. She is an assistant professor and deputy head of the Center for Information and Communication Technologies & Society at the University of Salzburg. As a communication scientist, she is an expert in the social impacts of digitalization. As a board member and project manager at ditact, she plays a significant role in shaping this event.

The ditact is exclusively aimed at women. Why is it necessary to organize a separate IT event for women?

This is a topic that is widely discussed, but unfortunately, it is still necessary. I understand the arguments against events like ditact, suggesting that it gives women a special role or that women particularly need IT tutoring. However, this is not the main focus of ditact. The goal is to create an environment for women where they can work without being affected by such prejudices. In the IT field, men tend to dominate. It is difficult for women to assert themselves in such an environment. We want to give them the confidence that they can be just as good, if not better, in IT. At ditact, we create a women-specific learning environment, for example, by having exclusively female lecturers, so that women are visible not only in IT practice but also in IT education. They serve as role models for women.

This approach has proven to be successful. There is only one exception. We have a separate module for teachers, where we also collaborate with the University College of Teacher Education. The teaching of IT starts in schools, so it is important to involve the teaching staff. Therefore, in this “Smart School” module, we address both genders.

What are the barriers for women in STEM fields? Why are women not as represented there?

There are many factors at play. On one hand, it depends on the domestic socialization – the environment in which girls grow up, how much all interests are equally encouraged in the family, including technical interests for girls. The second factor is socialization in kindergarten and school. Efforts are being made to introduce girls to technology, but only on a surface level. Unfortunately, there is still an unconscious gender bias that technology is only for boys. This is often not recognized. Studies show that girls tend to be satisfied with slightly lower performance in mathematics and natural sciences, and that girls, in general, are slightly better evaluated. They are made to feel that they are on the same level as boys. It is only at university that they realize they have deficiencies in these subjects.

School is an influence machine. What female role models do girls see? In schools, the teaching profession is heavily represented as a female role. In general, there are also professions that are predominantly female, such as nursing, social work, or in the academic field, humanities and perhaps biology. Unfortunately, there are few role models in technical professions, such as engineering and careers related to digitalization.

What needs to change?

A lot needs to change. We cannot solely blame girls and women and demand that they change. The field of technology needs to change, the technology education needs to change, and the computer science curriculum needs to change. We need to move away from the traditional, male-dominated curricula that are heavily focused on competition, and instead, emphasize agile and project-based learning, where the goals of the project or education are emphasized. We need to create an understanding that with computer science projects or software development, one can contribute to improving situations and find solutions to problems. This appeals to women more than “I can now program in Java.” There is a significant need for improvement in the educational sector, both in universities and universities of applied sciences.

Do you have any tips for women who want to start a career in the IT field?

It is important for girls and women to seize opportunities to get a taste of the IT field. They should attend events like ditact or, even earlier, participate in programs such as Girls’ Day, where girls can get a glimpse into a software company. It is crucial for schools to convey these opportunities so that girls become aware of them. Schools should also facilitate encounters with companies and practical experiences. Girls will see that female computer scientists or software developers are not “nerds” – unfortunately, this stereotype still exists – but rather ordinary women. That is an important point.

It is also essential to highlight that within digitalization or computer science or related fields, there are various roles and positions. A girl does not have to become a core software developer. Especially in the area of agile project management, there is a need for interface competencies, where one must have a basic technical understanding but also require project understanding and problem-solving skills. IT does not mean sitting in front of a machine all day.

The course program of ditact is very diverse. What topics and what mix are important to you?

It is important that the core of ditact addresses “real” computer science topics. Based on our experiences over the years, we have learned that the broader, more application-oriented, and more social science-oriented ditact becomes, the less seriously it is taken by men in computer science. We need to ensure that computer scientists take notice that we truly have top-cutting-edge computer science topics in the program, including the latest programming languages, developments in blockchain, algorithm development, AI, etc. We have two modules that strongly appeal to those genuinely interested in computer science. It is important to maintain that.

But we also have surrounding layers. There is a module focused on applications, such as geographic information systems or applications in medical technology or logistics. And then we have a module in the program that deals with new forms of IT project management. These are our core application modules. We also have a small module that addresses gender-specific issues in IT to prepare women for IT professions. It covers topics such as how to negotiate a good IT contract. These aspects are also important for the participants.

The ditact has been around for 17 years. The landscape of digitalization has changed a bit since then!

That’s right. That’s why we wouldn’t call it IT studies today. The term digitalization came later. We have evolved from IT to digitalization, both in our topics and in our spectrum. Particularly in light of the fact that more women should participate as creators in digitalization and technology, rather than just being users of technology. I also criticize many STEM initiatives because often only the technical aspects are conveyed. We should produce more decision-making women who sit on committees and decide which projects are funded, which digitalization initiatives are interesting. We need to involve many more women in those areas.

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