Where are the girls? The gender digital divide and professional IT Print E-mail
By Janice Todd   

Introduction

‘I don’t think of myself, first and foremost, as a woman but as a geek.’
Marissa Mayer, First female engineer hired at Google, (Swartz, 2008)
 
Around the world many women and girls “are excluded from participation in science and technology activities by poverty and lack of education (at all levels), or by aspects of their legal, institutional, political and cultural environments” (UNESCO, 2007, p. 15). In our society, however, gender itself “no longer appears to be a source of disadvantage in terms of access and use of computers in schools” (Johnson, 2004, p. 1). In fact, children in the 5 to 14 year age group access the internet and use a computer in almost equal numbers (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006a). Yet, by the early to mid-teens, evidence suggests that a gender difference has opened up (Livingstone and Helsper, 2007; Bain and Rice, 2006/07) and, without intervention, “technology inequities occur from the moment teenage girls enter the room” (Farmer, 2008, p. 28).

Older girls avoid the study choices which lead to careers in IT. One quarter of the 2008 HSC students studying 2 Unit Information Technology and 9% of the students studying Software Design and Development 2 Unit were girls (Board of Studies NSW, 2008). Of the 11,171 students Australia-wide who began studying IT at undergraduate level in 2007, only 17.7% were female (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, 2008).

Unlike the traditional male-dominated professions of law, science, medicine and architecture, which attract increasing numbers of women, IT is an unappealing career choice for most young women. According to Australian Labour Market statistics, 85% of the people working in ICT are men (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006b) and, while the number of male ICT workers grew between 2004-05 and 2005-06, the number of females fell by 8%.

Why is there a gender digital divide?

Although Johnson, in a small study of upper primary school students, concluded that “Girls are on a par with boys in terms of their self-efficacy, and their comfort with using computers” (2006, p. 8), she observed that the computer experts identified in each class were male. From a young age, boys dominate computer usage at home and at school, creating ‘boys clubs’, intimidating girls (Leech, 2007, p. 9) and sowing the seeds for a gender-imbalanced IT workforce.
 
The cause of this dominance may be partly biological. Teenage boys, for example, tend to be better at mathematics and spatial tasks than girls (Terlecki and Newcombe, 2005; Stenstrom, Stenstrom, Saad and Cheikhrouhou, 2008). Their dominance of computer gaming, where they outnumber the girls 2 to 1 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006a) appears to have a biological explanation. McKay (2008) describes a testosterone surge in utero which causes the male communication cortex to be much smaller than a female's – an explanation for the male propensity to solve problems by retreating “into the cave of his mind” (McKay, 2008, p. 213) and, also an explanation for the teenage boy's obsession with computers as observed by Margolis and Fisher (2001, p. 35).
 
It's unlikely however, that biological differences account for girls' under-representation in IT. McGrath Cohoon (2003) notes that their participation varies over time and place. It can be increased by limited study choices and economic necessity. In the republics of the former Soviet Union, for example, the problem does not exist (Gharibyan, 2006). Margolis and Fisher describe the phenomenon of the “counterintuitive persisters” (2001, p. 95), girls who are complete computer novices, mostly from international backgrounds, who are so motivated that they succeed in computing science majors, despite societal “expectations and assumptions about who can and will succeed in a competitive computer science program” (Margolis and Fisher, 2001, p. 96).
 

The reasons for under-representation of girls in professional IT are more likely to be found in the social conditions, stereotypes and misperceptions that surround the discipline of computer science.

The reasons for under-representation of girls in professional IT are more likely to be found in the social conditions, stereotypes and misperceptions that surround the discipline of computer science. Research (Beyer, Rynes and Haller, 2004; Weinberger, 2004) shows it is not girls' ability that keeps them from studying IT but rather a complex set of interrelated causes which includes their lack of confidence with being able to do the coursework, their belief that it would be an unfulfilling career choice, the perception that the courses ‘are not interesting to me’ (Weinberger, 2004, p. 31) and their concern about the male-dominated classroom climate. Similarly, Leech (2007, p. 5) concludes “the problem stems largely from misinformation about the potential careers in IT; an uninspiring, irrelevant curriculum; and a pedagogical approach unsuited to girls' learning styles”.
 
Education’s curriculum and pedagogical approaches are simply reflecting beliefs and stereotypes which already exist in our society and which must be constantly questioned. We can situate girls’ avoidance of professional IT within wider gender discourses. IT joins disciplines such as mathematics, engineering and the sciences which traditionally exclude the feminine. Rowan (2007, p. 61) draws attention to the “necessity of continuing to document and circulate performances of 'girl' and 'boy' in contemporary schooling which transgress normative understandings of gender and … CIT”.