Women to get boost in computing field

by Stephen Forgacs
Staff writer

The University of British Columbia launched a major project this month to increase the participation of B.C. women in information technology careers.

Called SWIFT (Supporting Women in InFormation Technology), the project stems from research undertaken by Prof. Maria Klawe who was recently named to the IBM/Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Chair for Women in Science and Engineering at UBC.

As one of five chairs established by NSERC across the country, Klawe will focus on building a provincial action network for B.C. that will bring together schools, post-secondary institutions, industry, government, the news media and community organizations to address educational and cultural factors that discourage women from entering and succeeding in the information technology field.

"There are many cultural reasons for lower participation rates of women in this employment sector," Klawe said. "Perhaps the most important is society's `computer nerd' image of information technology professionals.

"Most people think of these professionals as socially challenged individuals who learned to program before puberty and who spend their adult lives alone programming in darkened rooms. This image is reinforced by the macho computer culture found in many high school and university computer labs. As a result, most females do not see themselves as wanting, or being capable of, a successful career in information technology."

Klawe, who is also UBC's vice-president, Student and Academic Services, will work with existing educational programs as well as with other groups involved in similar or related initiatives across North America.

An important component of the SWIFT project is Klawe's E-GEMS research. E-GEMS (Electronic Games for Education in Math and Sciences), created in 1992 by Klawe, brings together researchers in computer science, mathematics, education and creative arts, with teachers, students and game developers to investigate how electronic games and other interactive multimedia activities can be used to improve math and science learning and motivation for girls and boys.

The SWIFT project will operate with a $1-million budget over five years.