Men have traditionally dominated the information and communications technology (ICT) sector; much work has been carried out over the last decade to reduce this gender gap by examining the barriers that keep women out of the field. But now, researchers have presented findings based on EU-funded research that has shifted focus: from factors excluding women from ICT to those that include and motivate them.
The large-scale project SIGIS ('Strategies of inclusion: gender and the information society'), which received almost EUR 1 million of funding under the 'User-friendly information society' Thematic area of the EU's Fifth Framework Programme (FP5), was the basis for this new work. It was carried out by Knut Holtan Sørensen from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Wendy Faulkner from the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom and Els Rommes of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands.
SIGIS brought together these plus another 20 researchers, and resulted in 48 studies that analysed different strategies to get women into ICT. Using this data, the three researchers' main aim was to shift the focus of the discussion: from the factors dissuading women from entering the ICT field, to those attracting them to it.
'Up until now, research on gender and ICT has mainly looked at how women are excluded from the field,' says Professor Sørensen. 'Instead we study what needs to happen so that women are included. When do women feel it is natural, right and beneficial to use ICT? And what factors cause them to choose an education and career in ICT? We are concerned with what motivates women, not what scares them away.'
Professor Sørensen says it is commonly believed that women lack the expertise or adequate motivation to study ICT, or that the study programme and study environment do not appeal to or suit women - and this results in information campaigns aimed at all women. However, these often have a limited effect, as they target too general a demographic instead of those focusing on women who could potentially be recruited.
As an example, the study looks at an NTNU-run project called the Women and Computers Project, since renamed the Women's Project Ada. It is a large-scale initiative to increase the percentage of women enrolled in study programmes in computer science, communication technology and information science. Although it was a very successful project, the researchers don't think that the campaigns used were 'appropriate', as the idea behind the initial campaigns was to make study programmes in computer and information technology attractive to women by redefining the discipline. In the campaign, they described ICT as 'feminine and non-technical' instead of 'masculine and technical'. One information brochure presented women as drawing circles whereas men draw squares, and put it that NTNU wanted more ICT students who draw circles.
Interviews conducted with women studying computer and information technology showed that they did not appreciate these stereotypes used in the information material - they wanted to be valued for their individual qualities, and did not think that men and women were so different.
The researchers advise against using strategies that build on gender stereotypes, for example the false belief that women only want to work with people, and find technology intimidating.
'Today many gender stereotypes are used as the basis for technology design,' comments Professor Sørensen. 'Many efforts to include women are driven by commercial considerations - companies want to reach more women - but it is still common to market products as if they were made for "all women" or "all men". This works only to a certain extent.
'Women are different and men are different, and often the differences between people of the same gender are more interesting and meaningful than the differences between the genders. The sad fact is that gender is easy to use as a sorting mechanism, such as in quantitative studies, and this can result in too much focus on gender differences. This is unfortunate.'
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