Interventions for ICT

Jenine Beekhuyzen talks about the under-representation of women studying and working in Information and Communication Technology careers.

About the author

Jenine is an active researcher, lecturer and consultant, working for a variety of universities as a researcher and expert in qualitative research design and analysis using Nvivo software. She is a co-editor of Tech Girls are Chic, not just Geek!, and a volunteer organiser for TTYA.

Contact Jenine at: jenine@griffith.edu.au

Interventions for ICT: Balancing out the genders

The under-representation of women studying and working in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) careers is a long-standing problem. Whilst ICT continues to be increasingly accepted and integrated into everyday life, gender stereotypes prevail in the media turning female students away from ICT as an occupation. The lack of understanding of what an ICT person does in their day-to-day work is also a barrier. There have been many attempts over the last decade to address this gender imbalance through a variety of interventions, many of which have been deemed largely successful. But if they are so successful, where are the females in our industry?

Within Australia, there have been a number of interventions aimed specifically at encouraging middle-school girls into ICT study and careers. One such event is the annual Technology Takes You Anywhere (TTYA) in Brisbane, Australia attended by schoolgirls from up to 30 schools in south-east Queensland. It aims to inform schoolgirls and their teachers and parents, about ICT study and career options and increase the girls’ confidence and interest in an ICT career. The event, run on a scant budget (only a few thousand dollars), is managed and delivered by a volunteer committee of industry, government and educational representatives. It relies on volunteer presenters, sponsorship by local ICT organisations and higher education providers, donated prizes and promotional items. The onus this places on a small community of interested persons and sponsors has curtailed the expansion of the event.

The experiences of those running interventions such as TTYA, and the research analysing the data collected from school girls, suggests that events go a long way towards breaking down stereotypes and dispelling fears associated with tinkering with computer hardware and software, demonstrating the opportunities provided by ICT and helping girls to know what opportunities an ICT career can give them.

But are such events sustainable in the long term? I’ve personally been involved in presenting and organising TTYA for nearly a decade. It’s hard work but I know it is important to do, and I have been fortunate to be in a position to contribute for this length of time. But when the venue can no longer support the event, sponsorship money is tight (can we still blame the global financial crisis?) and the organisers are somewhat burnt out, what do we do?

There are a number of things at play here. First, there needs to be a passionate group of people with an interest in organising and running an intervention. Next, they need the financial means to do so (venue, sponsorship, prizes etc.). Then, there needs to be presenters and those willing to volunteer their time on the day to inspire the girls. Lastly, there needs to be an evaluation of the intervention to attempt to measure the outcomes and successes. Without any of these resources, the intervention cannot occur. Without an evaluation of the intervention, funds cannot easily be sought to run the intervention again.

Craig’s doctoral research [2] investigates how these types of intervention programs should be evaluated. She asks, What effect have all these initiatives and strategies (like TTYA) had? She argues that it could be interpreted that with the continuing low number of women in computing education and the profession, these strategies have had limited or no success at all. However, she offers an alternative view of measuring the successfulness of these programs, that the percentage of women in the discipline may have been worse still, if these strategies and the intervention programs associated had not been conducted. This article agrees with the latter statement. As Dr Craig and her Victorian research team say, at least we are changing the perceptions of “one girl at a time”. But what happens when these interventions also wane? This is a question that as researchers we are still trying to answer however we have some suggestions that can help.

The research of the WinIT (Women in IT) team at Griffith University found that there is very little in the school environment that supports a strong ICT culture. Currently we cannot compare this with the development of other vocational sub-cultures as there has been very little investigation in this field. There has been almost no research, apart from Tsolidis [3; 4], carried out into the development of sub-cultures in schools in relation to career aspirations. The TTYA intervention and other similar events show early signs of the development of a sub-culture of young women interested in ICT education and careers.

In their forthcoming article in the highly ranked international Information Systems Journal, the WinIT team present recommendations that can be put into practice in order to maintain the sustainability of interventions to increase female participation in ICT. Their recent research reinforces findings from an earlier study, [see 1]:

  • there needs to be adequate and realistic funding to run these projects/interventions;
  • there needs to be a co-ordinator to build and maintain good relationships and networks;
  • interventions need to incorporate increasing use of evolving technologies for mentor/student communication;
  • mentoring projects/interventions need to be incorporated into the school curriculum; and
  • sustainable interventions need a project champion with power and status to overcome bureaucratic difficulties.

These recommendations are aimed at educators conducting interventions at any level (school, community, state, national). For those attempting intervention programs it is important to note that it can be difficult to carry out evaluations of interventions while allowing the participants to focus on their interests. Time is limited, and events do not always unfold as planned. It is also difficult to recruit girls who are at the stage of making final decisions about where and what to study, as they are often focussed on intensive study to achieve the highest possible university entry scores. In our experience, recruiting younger girls is easier and we (the WinIT team) believe it is important to continue to contact them before they have started to firm up their career choices. The contacts need to be maintained so that their early interest is not undermined by negative influences as discussed above. This is especially important as there is no strong ICT-oriented sub-culture in schools.

While the enthusiasm of the girls, teachers and parents attending TTYA events is always extremely positive, we did consider that these programs might be ‘preaching to the converted’ and not reaching those whose attitudes we wish to change. That is, an unknown number of the girls and teachers who attended these events may already have a keen interest in ICT. For example, the 2004 TTYA event was held outside school hours and it would have required the sacrifice of a significant amount of time for the teachers, parents and students to attend, especially those who travelled a considerable distance. However, the tremendous response during the 2005 TTYA event that was held within school hours does not totally support this idea. From 2008 to 2009, there also was a heartening increase in students studying ICT at school (47.5% to 59%) and those intending to pursue ICT study or career options (36.1% to 46%). Perhaps most importantly, the girls who participated have become better informed to make choices. As one student commented in their feedback on TTYA, “now I know what ICT can do for me”.

For a summary of intervention programs in Australia and guidelines for evaluating intervention programs, see:
Craig, A., Fisher, J. & Dawson, L. (2011) Women in ICT: Guidelines for evaluating intervention programmes, European Conference on Information Systems, Helsinki, Finland, 9-11 June.
Contact: annemieke.craig@deakin.edu.au

For details and evaluation of Technology Takes You Anywhere and Tech girls are chic (not just geek!) and an extended version of this article, see:
Clayton, K., Beekhuyzen, J. & Nielsen, S. (2011) Now I know what ICT can do for me! Information Systems Journal, November, Vol. 21, Issue 6 forthcoming.
Contact: jenine@griffith.edu.au

WinIT research website: www.winitproject.com

For free copies of the book Tech girls are chic (not just geek!) for Australian schoolgirls, please see: http://www.techgirlsarechic.org/orderForm.php or contact the Editor, Jenine Beekhuyzen at: jenine@griffith.edu.au.

Bibliography

  1. Beekhuyzen, J., von Hellens, L. and Clayton, K. (2006) “Mentoring Australian Girls in It”, in Gender Research Encyclopaedia, E. Trauth (ed.). Pennsylvania, USA: Idea Group Publishing.
  2. Craig, A. (2008) “Attracting Women to Computing: A Framework for Evaluating Intervention Programmes”, in: Faculty of Information Technology. Melbourne: Monash University.
  3. Tsolidis, G. (2006) Youthful Imagination—Schooling, Subcultures and Social Justice. New York: Peter Lang Publications.
  4. Tsolidis, G. (2008) Australian Multicultural Education—Revisiting and Resuscitating. Netherlands: Springer.