A professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton is trying to change misconceptions about careers in computer science in an effort to attract more women to the field he loves. 

Andrew McAllister has worked in computer science for 32 years, and says in that time he has seen a sharp decline in the number of women entering the field.

This year only 77 of the 530 students in the undergraduate program at UNB are women.

"We need diversity in the IT computer science community the same way we need diversity across our entire country." - Prof. Andrew McAllister, UNB

"This fall we had 163 new students join our undergraduate programs, only 15 of them were young women and that's less than 10 per cent," he said in an interview Wednesday on Information Morning Fredericton.

"Back in the 1970s and 1980s it was roughly half and half."

McAllister believes societal perceptions are to blame for the decrease and says research has shown there are three main factors that influence young women when they are considering a career in technology or computer science.

He says the first factor is the rise of gaming culture among young men.

"There is the thought that computers have become a bit of a toy for young men ... and girls might think that if they haven't done that they are somehow at a disadvantage."

McAllister says that wasn't an issue in the 1970s and 1980s because no one had a personal computer and therefore the playing field was even for men and women entering the field.

Professor says 'geek mythology' not real

He says another misconception is that anyone enrolled in computer science is a "geek," something he says couldn't be farther from the truth.

"Our students are outgoing, gregarious ... people might be surprised to learn that the president and founder of the UNB drama club is a computer science student," McAllister said.

boys and gaming

UNB computer science professor Andrew McAllister says the popularity of gaming culture among young men is part of the reason fewer young women are entering the field. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

"It really is not true that girls would come in and be surrounded by super-geeks that they wouldn't get along with."

The final hurdle to get young women interested in computer science, is the perception that careers in the field lead to a lifetime of sitting behind a computer without any interaction with people.

McAllister argues computer science is about using information to make a difference in the lives of others, and cites an example where a computer scientist went to a neo-natal unit and quickly saw opportunities to better use the data collected by the many machines and monitors babies were connected to.

"They were able to put together some software as a team, that among other outcomes was able to identify various infections up to 24 hours earlier than had been the case previously just based on being able to look at all of this data on  an ongoing basis instead of intermittently."

Field suffers without diversity

McAllister and his colleagues regularly visit high schools and elementary schools trying promote their field of study and to bust the myths that exist.

"It's not more difficult than any other field of study, it's not something where you're going to be closeted with a bunch of geeks, it's not something where you're going to be shacked up with a computer for the rest of your life and there are a tremendous number of opportunities," he said.

"We need diversity in the IT computer science community the same way we need diversity across our entire country."

​McAllister points out the the IT industry is key to New Brunswick's economic success and that for any industry to be successful you need a workforce comprised of both women and men.