“It’s not the girls who have to change, it’s all of us!”- Alain Gut says in interview, part 1

How does digitalisation affect women and men? Does it bring the opportunity to balance out existing gender-specific inequalities in the labour market? We talk about this in an interview with Alain Gut, responsible for Public Affairs at IBM Switzerland.

When reviewing numerous reports and strategies of research institutes, but also of the federal government, one thing stands out first of all: The gender perspective is rarely included in analyses of digitalisation. However, the advancing digitisation of our society is based on digital innovations. These are developed and produced in information technology. With a share of 15 percent, women are massively underrepresented in computer science today. This was not always the case: their share has declined since the 1980s and has stagnated since 2000 (cf. position paper ICT Switzerland 2020). Today, information technology (IT) is shaped by a relatively homogeneous professional group. According to the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs SECO, there are clear signs of unmet demand for skilled workers in most IT occupations. Above all, the large number of vacancies coupled with low unemployment and the heavy dependence on recently immigrated foreign workers indicate that the demand for skilled workers is difficult to meet. High qualification requirements – and the associated comparatively high specificity of IT occupations – make the search for suitably qualified specialists even more difficult. Enabling, encouraging and inspiring more women to work in ICT fields is an issue that IBM Switzerland has been tackling for years. Alain Gut, in particular, has been committed to promoting more women in ICT fields for years. We spoke with him.

Alain Gut is committed to more women in ICT professions.

Mr. Gut, you are the Director of Public Affairs at IBM Switzerland. The topic of more women in ICT also moves you on a personal level. How much leeway do you have at IBM – to place this “social problem”?

At IBM, women have been contributing to the advancement of information technology for almost as long as the company has existed. While many companies proudly date their advancement programmes to the 1970s, IBM has integrated female employees since the 1930s. Promoting female employees is thus in the company’s DNA. IBM Switzerland has been around since 1927, and since then it has strived to ensure diversity in its recruitment and advancement of employees. The focus is on finding female experts or university graduates. I regularly discuss this with the staff in the HR department and document it with the position papers and findings from my association work. Since I am also on the board of ICT vocational training, I have regular contact with those responsible for apprentices. Here, too, IBM Switzerland has been actively contributing to Switzerland’s successful dual education system for decades. We also frequently report female IBM employees as “role models” for various initiatives.

The question is often “how” can we get more women into STEM (mathematics, information technology, natural sciences and technology) professions and no longer “why”. Do you think society is even aware of the real “why” question yet?

I think society is not aware of why women are needed in STEM professions. According to a study by the University of Basel, gender segregation in the professions is very pronounced in Switzerland compared to other European countries. This means that women work predominantly in occupations typical of women, men in occupations typical of men. However, gender segregation is problematic for several reasons: typical female professions – for example, care or child-rearing – have a low social status, offer few opportunities for advancement and are paid lower wages. Furthermore, society and the economy lose a great deal of potential if young adults learn exclusively gender-typical professions and thus do not fully develop their skills. Conversely, strongly gendered occupational fields such as IT or nursing professions, which suffer from a shortage of skilled workers, would benefit from a softening of segregation. It is absolutely necessary that key technologies as well as innovative product developments are conceived by mixed workforces. A one-sided perspective poses a social and economic risk.

You have been active on this topic for years, even outside your position in various associations. In your view, has “something” changed over the years? In the position paper of the Swiss Federal Commission for Women’s Affairs Shaping digitisation in a gender-responsive way even states that the proportion of women in IT has fallen again since the 1980s and has stagnated since 2000. Do you think the cause of this could be a socially cultural one?

In the industries that are gaining in importance with digitalisation and in which STEM disciplines are in demand, women are still heavily underrepresented. The figures show a bleak picture. For example, women are continuously underrepresented in computer science apprenticeships in Switzerland. For about twenty years, women have accounted for only 11 to 12% of degrees in this field. Actually, we have all known this for a long time and have therefore been trying for years to get girls interested in STEM subjects. The SATW website lists almost 600 STEM offerings, many of them explicitly for girls. And many of these initiatives have the same problems. They rely on volunteers, are more or less desperate for funding, lack sustainability and depend on enthusiasts. Many conferences and events are dedicated to the topic. Journalists, experts, scientists write article after article, study after study. What does this mean for all efforts to get girls into STEM subjects? Stop? Combine forces? Abolish coeducation, since many initiatives prove that girls are very successful in STEM subjects separately from boys? Probably better not, maybe then the results would be even worse.

Will compulsory computer science in primary and secondary schools solve the problem?

Probably not in the next few years. My suggestions for a solution are: Teach in a gender-appropriate way, soften segregation and strengthen girls’ self-confidence. To inspire young women for STEM professions, we need not only (female) role models, but above all a change in thinking. In the family, at school, in teacher training colleges, in career guidance and above all in education policy! We can thus draw the following conclusion: It is not the girls who have to change. We all do!

We have talked about other main reasons why fewer women start an ICT career. You mentioned that mathematics can be an important factor already in childhood. What would she change in the mathematics curriculum to get more girls interested in STEM subjects?

It is very important to have gender-appropriate teaching not only in computer science, but especially in mathematics, so that both genders have the same prerequisites. A study conducted by Prof. Stefan Wolter of the University of Bern has shown that today’s mathematics teaching is based on a very strong competitive mindset, which suits boys, who like to compete with others, much more. Girls, on the other hand, usually like this less and therefore often lose out in class. A recent study by Michela Carlana of the Harvard Kennedy School investigated how strongly teachers unconsciously associate girls with literature and boys with mathematics. If it is assumed that girls are less talented in mathematics than boys, the girls are actually worse at mathematics at the end of their schooling than the students who were taught by a teacher without prejudice.

So primary schools are already laying the foundation?

In any case, the importance of mathematics as a prerequisite for an interest in computer science was also clearly shown by the Zurich longitudinal study “From School to Work” from 2019. Young people who achieve high grades in mathematics at the end of lower secondary school are more likely to choose a STEM profession than those with lower grades. Higher cognitive skills and better German performance are also related to the choice of a STEM occupation, even if they are less relevant compared to performance in mathematics. The goal of primary schools must therefore be to promote equality between women and men, girls and boys. It thus has a pedagogical mandate so that equal opportunities for both genders can be guaranteed. The universities of teacher education and the education and training departments of the cantons are obliged to develop and implement the necessary concepts and measures in the training and further education of teachers.

The second part of the interview will be published shortly.

About the person

Dr Alain Gut has been Director Public Affairs at IBM Switzerland since January 2019. Prior to that, he was responsible for the Public Sector for seven years and for three years as a member of the Executive Board for the software business in Switzerland and Austria. Previous employers include Tata Consultancy Services, Microsoft Switzerland and UBS. Alain Gut studied business informatics at the University of Zurich and holds a doctorate. He is involved in numerous commissions and committees, primarily for the topic of IT in education, but also for cyber security, mobility and data policy. Since the beginning of the year, IBM Switzerland has been a partner of the Institute Public Sector Transformation at BFH Wirtschaft.

BFH empowers girls

The Bern University of Applied Sciences BFH promotes a fascination for technology and IT among children and young people. To this end, we organise numerous events and are involved in projects. You can find an overview of these here.

Specifically, we offer the coders_lab with the Teclab in Burgdorf, where girls and young women have the opportunity to discover various ICT topics free of charge, take their first steps in programming and get to know female role models. Our goal is for girls to consider ICT professions and training as a real option. To this end, workshops are held regularly, the next ones already on 13 and 20 November. On 13 November, the girls will learn about different types of hackers and go in search of clues themselves by decoding messages and trying their hand at being a hacker on the internet. On 20 November, it’s all about codes. The girls will learn how a QR code works and programme an Arduino. More workshops are in the works and are planned for early 2022. All information and registration can be found here.

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AUTHOR: Jasmine Streich

Jasmine Streich is a research associate at the Institute Public Sector Transformation of the Business School at Bern University of Applied Sciences. Her research work focuses on digital accessibility and the transformation of the public sector.

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