Gest post by Milagros Sáinz, Director of the “Gender and ICT” research group of IN3-UOC, in occasion of the International Women’s Day
Women embody a great share of enrollments in university studies in most western countries. For instance, in countries like Spain women are the majority in most university degrees and represent more than 60% of the enrollments in university degrees related to health sciences and humanities. But they remain underrepresented in studies and occupations with a large hard technological component, such as computer science and engineering. It is striking to observe how despite the numerous working opportunities that the production and design of ICT offer to both men and women, most women are not interested in working professionally in this field. Paradoxically, women that are highly identified with the prototypical view of ICT professionals and with an interest in this particular field tend to play a secondary role in the design and production of ICT technologies (the ‘hard’ aspect of the field). That is, they are in occupations where ICT is the tool rather than the target of their work, such as office and other clerical jobs (the ‘soft’ facet of this field).
Several factors seem to dishearten young women from entering engineering or the ICT field. Research drawing on social role theory concludes that the perception that computer science and ICT are technology-oriented rather than people-oriented may also cause women to express less interest in the field than men. In addition to this, girls’ lower self-perception of competence in ICT technologies seems to discourage them to pursue ICT studies and occupations. The fact that some educational systems (like the Spanish one) contain specific subjects associated with the teaching of computer science is a powerful tool for the analysis of why girls feel less competent in computers than boys. Hence, it is necessary to analyze to what extent in subjects where computing is taught and used as a complementary teaching tool, girls and boys are equally motivated to use computers and other technologies in the classroom.
Some other discouraging factors include the stereotypical masculine portrayal of engineering and ICT occupations, their lack of identification with this portrayal, or the dearth of female role models in these fields. In line with the previous lack of female role models, women’s contributions to several technological fields have remained invisible. For instance, few people (particularly schoolchildren and adolescents) know that Ada Byron (Lovelace after her marriage) have been often described as the world’s first computer programmer. Her notes on the engine include what is recognized as the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine. Similarly, they ignore the name of Heydy Lamarr an Austrian-American inventor and film actress. Together with George Antheil, she co-invented the technology for spread spectrum and frequency hopping communication. This new technology became important to America’s military during World War II because it was used in controlling torpedoes. Those inventions have more recently been incorporated into Wi-Fi, CDMA and Bluetooth technology. Several other examples can be mentioned to illustrate this invisibility of the inheritance of women to technological production and development. Therefore, interventions in primary and secondary school contexts as well in different mass media should be carried out in order to change all the stereotypical portrayals of men’s and women’s contributions to technology and particularly to ICT.
I graduated in Psychology at the University of Salamanca and received my PhD in Social Psychology (European Doctorate Degree) from the National University for Distance Education (UNED) in Madrid. I am currently working as a senior researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) in Barcelona. In 2007 my doctoral work was awarded with the First Prize INJUVE for Doctoral Dissertations by the former Ministry of Health, Equality, and Social Issues. I was a pre-doctoral research fellow at Stanford University (California, United States) and the Technical University in Berlin (Germany). Some years later, I was also a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Social Research of the University of Michigan (Michigan, United States). Since January 2015 I am the director of the research group “Gender and ICT” of the UOC.
My research interests are related to family and school influences on study choices; gender role development during adolescence; gender stereotypes about ability self-concepts, achievement and task-choices; gendered construction of careers of occupations; and secondary school teachers’ and students’ attitudes towards technology and technological subjects. In addition, I am also interested in cross-cultural research on educational outcomes. For further information about her and the Gender and ICT research group, please visit our blog.