Term Paper: Women and the Information Technology

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[. . .] They are seen as loners and losers -- two things few women find appealing.

Some feminists argue that lack of female interest in IT is strongly related to issues of education, equity in access, employment barriers and policies (Davey, 1995). Once women have equal access to the knowledge and tools of technology, they will become proficient in their use and there will be an increased interest in IT. According to Davey (1995): "This argument, however, is a little too simple. Working within traditional liberal structures, it locates the problem with women. It assumes that women need the same type of access and it also assumes that given this access, the balance will occur. What it fails to take into account though, is the male culture and values that are inherently associated with computer and communications technology."

According to Wajcman (1991:19), "this reluctance to enter into typically male dominated fields is to do with the sex-stereotyped definition of technology as appropriate for men" (Davey, 1995). Wajcman (1993:203) believes that the male dominance of technology secures itself by the active exclusion of women. As a result, women's contribution has been minimal and thus, so has their inventiveness. Rather than recognizing equal access to technology, the focus should be differentially privileged access, and on increasing the number of women in the conception and design phases.

Cockburn (1985:20) sums up the argument by stating that it is important "to understand the different relation the sexes have to technology, it is important to recognize the relevance of technology to power and to the emergence of power systems in the past (Davey, 1995)." According to Wajcman (p. 37), in order "to understand any specific process or product, we must ask: who developed it, and why; in whose interest?"

Statistics show that the approach to technology education may be to blame. What seemed like an attractive career option in the 1980s is no longer an attractive option for young women. "In the early 1980s, women were turned on by technical careers because they were new and challenging," explained Susan Metz, executive director of the Lore-El Center for Women and Engineering and Science at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ (Robb, 2003).

However, since then, the number of women earning computer science degrees has declined steadily, according to the Women's Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development (Robb, 2003). Studies suggest women are losing interest because of how colleges approach technology education. According to a recently completed four-year study of 100 Carnegie Mellon students pursuing computer science degrees, there is a major gender gap in teaching technology these days.

The study, Unlocking the Clubhouse, Women in Computing, was a four-year study of 100 Carnegie Mellon students pursuing computer science (CS) degrees to learn what they thought of the CS curriculum, method of teaching, and how the choices of men and women differ. It revealed that women want a broader picture of the technology field. Unlike male students, who focused on mastering technological skills, women wanted to know how technology fit into a company's bigger picture and how it played a part in daily life. According to the study, this is evidence of a gender gap in technology education and shows that men and women relate to technology differently.

Girls are under-represented when it comes to technology and education" (Shaw, 1999). Gender difference is seen in society, and extends to family and school. Technologies are still not equally accessible to male and female students. Thus, as girls enter adolescence, large numbers of them tend to lose interest in science, math, and computer science. Girls are narrowing the gender gap in science and math, but not in technology. Girls' test scores and course enrollments have increased in these areas, with the exception of computer science.

Experts believe that teachers and the educational system help to cause the gender gap in computer use. A common argument states that the gender separation in the use of the Internet starts as early as kindergarten. Boys gravitate toward computer games and mechanical toys, while girls are more likely to play with dolls or be involved in more social games. Instructors often treat boys differently than girls causing unequal expectations.

In addition, girls in adolescence frequently experience weakening self-perceptions (Miller, Chaika, & Groppe,1996). Many girls in adolescence undergo changes that negatively affect self-image and future choices. As a result, girls may refrain from asking questions and sharing answers. Poor self-image also discourages some girls from taking classes in math, science, and computer science.

The percentage of women has been slowly but surely rising in most formerly male-dominated professions. According to the Census Bureau, women have received more bachelor's degrees than men every year since 1982 (Robb, 2003). In terms of higher degrees, the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession reports that in 1970, women made up only 10% of first-year law students, but by 1999 they comprised 49% of the freshman class. In many ways, women have conmen a long way.

However, in the IT industry, women are seriously lagging behind men in terms of pursuing IT careers. While the number of women online may outnumber men, the number of women being trained in the field has decreased. "When it comes to today's computer culture, the bottom line is that while more girls are on the train, they aren't the ones driving," says Pamela Haag, director of research for the American Association of University Women's Educational Foundation Commission on Technology, Gender and Teacher Education (Robb, 2003).

The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) Taskforce on Workforce and Education's study, Building the 21st Century Information Technology WorkForce: Underrepresented Groups in the Information Technology Workforce, revealed that while women comprise about 40% of the total IT workforce, when data entry is eliminated, only 25% of computer professionals are female (Robb, 2003)

To get girls 'under the hood' of technology, they need to see that it gets them where they want to go," Haag continues. "And for a large part of the population, that process must start in the classroom." However, this process has yet to begin. Unlike other professions where women are underrepresented, the situation has been worsening, rather than improving.

While women comprise 55% of those studying toward bachelor's and master's degrees, only 21% are pursuing IT degrees (Robb, 2003). In 1984, 40% of all computer science degrees were awarded to women, but only 29% in 1996. According to the College Board, only 17% of those taking the Advanced Placement test for Computer Science were women.

Some experts believe the lack of strong female role models is another reason for the gender gap in IT between males and females. Dr. Janese Swanson Ed.D suggests that speakers in schools and IT programs must include both genders in nontraditional careers (Swanson, 1999).

One major barrier to getting more women interested in pursuing an IT career is one of perception. "Girls tend to imagine that computer professionals or those who work heavily with information technology live in a solitary, antisocial world," says the AAUW report Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age (Robb, 2003). "This is an alienating -- and incorrect -- perception."

Research shows that many girls think of technology as belonging to the "male" world (like football and toying with car engines) (Swanson, 1999). At home, three times as many girls as boys said they did not use their computers at all. Five times as many boys as girls used the technology more than anyone else in the family. Parents purchased technology twice as much for their sons as their daughters.

Many initiatives are underway to provide a more accurate and human face of high-tech professionals, and show that women are present in these fields (Robb, 2003). These programs are targeted at computer science alone, as well as many other types of science or technology.

Hollywood's Women in Film organization, for instance, produced two television public service announcements, with sponsorship from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, to encourage women and minorities to pursue IT fields. One announcement was directed at teenage girls and the other was directed toward adults, encouraging them to mentor children.

On an ongoing basis, the Labor Department's Women's Bureau has joined forces with NASA in hosting conferences and events throughout the country to attract women to technology professions. Through this program, four Girl Scouts were invited to act as reporters the 100th space shuttle launch, interviewing women working for NASA. Their reports were then web cast by NASA.

Still, beyond transforming the image of the field, ongoing guidance is needed to help someone along their career path. "You need to find a mentor, even if it is a man, who can advise you on career steps and growth along the way,"… [END OF PREVIEW]

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