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Are Girls Excluded From ICT, Or Just Perceived So?

Alexa Joyce

In the early years of the Internet, the typical user was young, male and most likely to be American. In the last ten years, the picture has changed significantly, with women representing a larger proportion of internet users, at a range of different ages. However there is still concern among both governments and the ICT industry that girls are excluded from ICT – is this reality, or just perception?

What do girls do with ICT, and is there any difference compared to boys?

In countries where internet access is common, young people in general are heavy users of ICT tools, particularly in leisure time. Girls are particularly fond of social networking tools, blogs and other tools that enable communication with peers. Increasingly, they are playing games on handhelds or consoles, but also online. This compares to boys, who tend to focus more on games (online or handheld/consoles). Girls are also more keen on creative technologies for artistic expression compared to their male counterparts.

How do girls and boys differ in educational achievement in ICT?

According to our research in the White Paper on “Women and ICT: Why are girls still not attracted to ICT studies and careers?” at secondary school level, there is very little difference between boys and girls in terms of achievement in ICT studies – although their self-perception is different. Girls tend to understate their skills whereas boys usually overestimate their competence.

Girls often report that they enjoy studying ICT. In countries where this is not the case, it is typically due to an over-emphasis on pure programming skills in the curriculum – which is typically less attractive to girls compared to e.g. multimedia skills.

However there is a major issue in transition to tertiary level – most girls ‘drop out’ of ICT studies in favour of other subject areas such as foreign languages. This is in part explained by the fact that girls often study fewer related technical subjects (e.g. maths, physics) than their male counterparts (despite having comparable levels of achievement) and these subjects are pre-requisites for higher education in ICT. They also believe that ICT studies will not give them sufficient opportunities for creativity and team working compared to other fields.

So what’s causing the problem?

Girls, compared to boys, are more influenced by role models in their environment – whether ‘close’ role models such as parents, teachers and family or ‘distant’ role models such as famous actresses and musicians. It is clear that the lack of ICT-oriented role models is a dissuading factor for girls: their role models don’t see ICT tertiary studies or ICT careers as female-friendly and this attitude impacts negatively on the girls that look up to them.

Similarly, their choice of more technical subjects such as maths and physics at upper secondary and tertiary level is influenced by role models’ perception of gender dominance.

Another key issue is that parents, school guidance counselors and teachers lack knowledge of ICT studies and careers: they thus do not encourage students who express interest in such areas, as they perceive ICT as a field where there are good career opportunities for girls.

Finally, girls often express a need to ‘help the world’ with their future careers: ICT is not a field in which they feel they can do this.

How can we address these issues through the education system?

There are numerous areas where improvements could be made in education to encourage girls to participate more actively in ICT, for instance:

  • Integrate ICT better into a variety of subjects, so that ICT skills are acquired in a range of contexts (e.g. using ICT tools as part of language lessons).
  • For countries where girls dislike ICT curricula, revise curricula to encourage acquisition of broader IT skills to include creative technologies (e.g. graphic design, video editing) as well as programming.
  • To encourage further female uptake of ICT at tertiary level, involve more female IT professionals and female IT students in careers activities in schools (e.g. through inviting guest speakers in schools, or visiting local IT company facilities/university departments), ideally involving parents in the process and demonstrating how ICT contributes to solving societies challenges (e.g. environment, healthcare).
  • Organisation of informal ICT activities, such as computer clubs, alongside the school curriculum that give young people the space to ‘play’ with ICT which is not feasible within the usually packed daily schedule.

11 Responses to “Are Girls Excluded From ICT, Or Just Perceived So?”

  1. Your study looked at ICT usage by girls in Internet-rich societies (just EU countries, right?). Do you have any information on what the gender difference is in developing countries? And what cultural differences might be in play?

    I know from my work in Africa, I've noticed that East Africa is pretty egalitarian in technology companies – women hold positions of authority, though mainly in sales and management vs. technical tasks. Its a different story in West Africa, where is seems that ICT is very male dominated. In government schools there seems to be less a gender difference, but I've only seen computer classes, not usage outside of formal schooling.

  2. Your study looked at ICT usage by girls in Internet-rich societies (just EU countries, right?). Do you have any information on what the gender difference is in developing countries? And what cultural differences might be in play?

    From my work in Africa, I've noticed that East Africa is pretty egalitarian in technology companies – women hold positions of authority, though mainly in sales and management vs. technical tasks. Its a different story in West Africa, where is seems that ICT is very male dominated. In government schools there seems to be less a gender difference, but I've only seen computer classes, not usage outside of formal schooling.

  3. I believe that women have overtaken men, numerically, in internet use in the US but not yet in the world as a whole, and in many developing countries there is a considerable gap between male and female use of the Internet. As you rightly say, modes of use differ quite a lot, with women making more use of chat and social networking while men spend more time playing games or browsing. Interestingly, there are similar gender-specific patterns of use of telephones with, for instance, average call time between women being much longer than between men. I guess the wider question here is to what extent these differences are inbuilt and to what extent they are acquired (or imposed).

  4. Yes, the study looked at EU countries (Italy, UK, Netherlands, France and Poland). Interestingly Poland was most pro-ICT of all countries and had higher numbers of girls interested in ICT careers – despite parents lacking knowledge in the field. However parents had positive views of ICT careers, despite their lack of knowledge.

    Discussing with both Cisco and Microsoft staff about the results has been interesting. They informed me that the gender issue is really different in other parts of the world. For instance, Middle East and North African countries apparently have very high female participation in ICT training following/part of secondary education. It may be interesting to get young women to "meet" (at least virtually) their counterparts in these countries to 'catch' some of their enthusiasm.

    I hope that we get a chance to extend this research to other areas: it would be fascinating to compare and contrast results across a wider area.

  5. Also, important to mention: there is now a pan-EU partnership of companies, soon to be expanded to partnership with Ministries of Education and national IT associations, to tackle the issue of eSkills and access to ICT careers in general. The multi-stakeholder group, including European Schoolnet, has produced the eSkills career portal (http://eskills.eun.org) which will be the home for actions in this area. A large-scale outreach campaign will be launched in the next weeks for 'eSkills week 2010' funded by the European Commission.

  6. Clayton R Wright

    Environment, particularly role models and the status of women in the community, seem to play a crucial role in whether women in developing/emerging nations become involved in technology or not. As Wayan has indicated in another discussion and based on my international work, women in east Africa seem to have a greater tendency to take up ICT skills than those in west Africa because of the different perception regarding the place of women in society.

    But I must hasten to add that if women are shown how ICTs can impact their daily lives (by providing health advice, sources of materials that can be used to make goods, the price of goods in local markets, etc.), they are more likely to be interested in using ICTs – particularly simple devices such as mobile phones.

    Thus, as Brooke Partridge described, professional development is one of the steps in the path to ICT success, but also one must consider factors such as access to technology, the cost to obtain and operate the technology, the simplicity of use, the presence of an environment which accepts technology as part of one's daily life (Silicon Valley being a prime example), the presence of role models (people mimic others and also become inspired by them), the equal place of women in society, and the willingness of the individual to follow an uncommon path.

  7. The debate in general looks mostly at women's participation in ICT _sectors_ . (This situation makes a bit of sense, given that the discussants are women working in ICT-focused organizations.) In many OECD countries and in almost all developing countries, however, ICT sectors make up small segments of national economies, even when telecoms are included. (As a cherry-picked example, software exports in India–a giant of software development–will contribute only 2% to GDP in 2009, according to NASSCOM.)

    From the point of view of economic development in non-OECD countries, it might be more relevant and more effective to look at participation by girls and women in ICT-related activities overall, rather than their entry into what is typically a small sector. Such a focus would be particularly valuable inasmuch as in most developing countries there are far fewer tertiary than secondary degree holders. And in many poor countries [e.g., Bhutan, Rwanda, among others] secondary and tertiary graduates are frequently underemployed. To some extent, graduates who possess ICT skills have a competitive advantage in the job market even when they are not entering the ICT sector per se.

    So, while I agree with the discussants that role models and parental support are critical, it might be valuable to ask what–in terms of developing-country schools and ICT programs–might be done at the policy level to increase participation by girl students in ICT activities? A few suggestions follow, some of which also address the nurturing of in-school role models:

    – All school-based ICT programs should target equal levels of participation in professional development by women teachers and men teachers. In the national ICT in education program in Syria in 2008, for example, more than 50% of teachers participating were women; these teachers were chosen by school principals, but those choices were influenced by a clear directive from the MOE to encourage participation by women.

    – Girls' proclivities for using ICT for communications and socially based activities should be incorporated into the design of ICT activities in schools. Again in Syria (what can I say? It's a well-run program) project-focused groups include one or two students whose primary tasks revolve around representing their teams in online forums. Clearly, Web-2.0-style social tools greatly expand the potential for such activities — however many ministries of education need to be introduced to the importance of these tools in education.

    – Ministries should make efforts to identify both male and female candidates for ICT teachers and ICT coordinators, when such roles are created in schools. ICT teachers are often technical specialists, with little experience and no training as teachers; far better to draw on teachers across the curriculum, which tends to open the position to more women, creating "local role models," and facilitating the integration of ICT into non-tech school subjects per Ms Joyce's (cogent) suggestion.

    – Our interest in tech integration across the the curriculum notwithstanding, its' ALSO critical to address girls' and women's participation in ICT programs in TVET programs. Vocational education plays a strong, strong role in many developing countries, supporting full employment better, in some instances, than academic-track schools. In addition, in some countries — such as Indonesia at present and Rwanda in 2005 — vocational schools offer more robust ICT programs than academic-track schools do. (In Indonesia, the TVET ICT program includes a dedicated country-wide broadband intranet that is way better than what's normally available in secondary schools.) I visited a vocational school on the island of Biak, in Indonesia, recently. That school has a strong ICT program, enrolling about 30% of the school's total number of students. In its first year, participation by girls was about 20 percent. In the second year, the program's local consultant selected a woman teacher as the head of the ICT effort. By the third year, about 55% of students enrolled were girls. (This kind of blew me away, actually, as the consultant had not impressed me as liberal kind of guy, the local culture is not, uh, gender neutral, and the island of Biak is pretty under-developed.)

    Which, of course, brings us back to the importance of role models…

  8. As a educational writer and blogger, I'm seeing a really big upsurge in the number of women taking to technology in my field. Most of the really good blogs that I follow are by women. That could well be because there is a much higher percentage of women arond the world involved in teaching, but at least in terms of 'using' the tools that ICT provides it seems like women are really coming through in this area.

  9. If you go to an Internet Cafe in China which typically boasts 100's of PC's, you will find a large # of girls (although outnumbered significantly by boys). China iCafe's are social hangouts where gaming reigns king. Both boys and girls play games. Both boys and girls use cellphones actively at young age as it massively facilitates communication perfect suitable for teens … very short-messaging. So with the right environment AND application, assuming no inherent discrimination, I do not see why females couldn't become as much a user of ICT as males.

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