(Petaling Jaya, Saturday): On the occasion of the International Women’s Day 1997, I would like to deal with a new area which should concern all Malaysians who want to see full gender equality in our country - the role of women in Information Technology development.
While Malaysia is still comparatively new in the field of IT, and has high ambitions of making the quantum leap into the Information Age, we should learn from the lessons of other countries with a longer history of IT development, in particular with regard to gender equality in the field of IT.
In the United States, for instance, where its computer industry is recognised as one of the central engines driving the American economy into the 21st century and the source of thousands of new businesses, millions of high-paying jobs and vast creative opportunities, women remain starkly underrepresented in top management posts and in key technical jobs within the industry.
According to one survey, women in the United States make up 35 per cent of the high-tech work force, but not one of the 50 biggest computer companies traded on the stock markets has a female chief executive.
This high-tech gender gap has left many women and men shaking their heads in puzzlement as computers, after all, are a brand-new industry with no centuries-long legacy of sexism to overcome. Programming requires brains, not brawn, for success.
With Malaysia moving from the industrial to the information age, IT will increasingly become the dominant profession in the next century and there must be full awareness among Malaysians of the problem of high-tech gender gap and the need to ensure that the high-tech gender gap does not relegate women to second-class status.
Many reasons have been given for such high-tech gender gap in the United States, in particular about subtle barriers blocking women from equal opportunity and leadership in the IT sector.
One is what has become known as the “pipeline problem” - namely, that there just aren’t enough young women with technical skills coming out of universities and into the industry.
This is related to the prevalent attitude that computers and technology are more subitable for boys - which is reinforced by a computer game industry which is overwhelmingly geared to and supported by men and boys.
As video games can be a gateway to computer literacy, an essential skill for economic survival in the 21st century, this is another serious cause of the high-tech gender gap.
Another reason is the “glass ceiling problem” - where women in computing, like their counterparts in other industries, face an unofficial, invisible limit on their efforts to advance.
The high-tech gender gap is also reflected on the Internet. At one time, the Internet was regarded as predominantly a male preserve. At one time, it was estimated that men outnumber women by 9:1 in cyberspace. A 1995 Internet survey in the United States on Internet demographics showed that although the Internet gender gap exists, it’s not the Grand Canyon of 9:1, but slightly below 2:1.
The Internet gender gap in Malaysia may be more serious. The 1995 MIMOS Internet user survey released in August last year showed that the Internet in Malaysia is predominantly male with women representing only 11 per cent of all users.
This gender gap of the Internet is also reflected on the on-line newsgroups and chatrooms, where women prefer to stay away because of the atmosphere they encounter - the “hostility, flaming, one-upmanship”.
Some experts worry that if women simply opt to stay away, they are abdicating any say they might have in how this potentially powerful new medium will work.
Malaysia is now in the midst of building our national information superhighway to catapult Malaysia into the information era.
The Malaysian National IT strategy should include a strategy to ensure that there is no high-tech gender gap in Malaysia and that women in Malaysia are fully represented in Information Technology development - the fastest growing and most important sector of the economy in the new millennium.
It should be the concern of all Malaysians to ensure that with the advent of the Information Age in Malaysia, we do not suffer from a new form of gender inequality - the high-tech gender gap. .