[email protected]: gaps, co-production and equity
ICT/technologies are increasingly pervasive and embedded in everyday things and objects, constituting a relevant aspect of social identities. Furthermore, ICT use continues to be a highly gendered area of life in all socio-economic and educational backgrounds, and a source of significant social inequality in enduring ways.
This research project aims to explore the embodied relationship between gender and ICT, informed by feminist technology studies, based on the understanding that both gender and technologies are social constructions. Considering that technologies are increasingly pervasive and embedded in everyday things and objects, constituting a relevant aspect of social identities, and that research often reports on “ICT gender gap”, our aim is to investigate how do technologies affect and are affected by gendered practices. The main goal is to study how individuals construct their relations to technologies, with a special focus on how gender makes a difference within this construction. The ‘[email protected]’ is a project with a qualitative methodological approach, based on face-to-face individual semistructured interviews and group interviews with teenagers and ICT teachers, developed in a school context. The interviews are focused on how gender relations are materialized in technology, and on how gendered identities, discourses, and technologies are simultaneously produced. This project explores the interrelations of gender and technologies in an educational context acknowledging that young people’s gendered identities have an impact on future educational and career patterns, particularly in relation to science and technology. The ‘[email protected]’ project aims to improve the understanding of the co-production of gender and technologies, advancing ways to promote gender equity.
Gender and ICT/technologies is an international growing field of research that explores diverse research issues, including self-reported attitudes, preferences and interests and the gender differences between them, as well as focusing on the relationship between individual activity and social norms, differences in power with respect to autonomy and self-determination, initiatives for addressing these, and the production of a gendered identity over time and across space (OECD, 2008).
Research on gender and ICT/technologies in Portugal, however, is very limited and mainly focused on subjects related with education and occupation/jobs (Ferreira & Silva, 2016). The relevance of education and occupation/jobs is in line with international research and reflect main areas of the gender gap in society (OECD, 2012a). However, notwithstanding some relevant initiatives in Portugal that produced significant and groundbreaking literature on gender and ICT/technologies, the academic production, namely Master and PhD thesis do not significantly address this topic. Conferences on ICT do not promote gender related issues, thus contributing to the “deserted landscape” of Portuguese research on gender and ICT (Ferreira & Silva, 2016).
This research draws upon Feminist Technology Studies (FTS) theorizing the relationship between gender and technology as one of mutual shaping. Objects and artefacts are not seen as separate from society, but as part of the social fabric that holds society together; technology is understood as a sociotechnical product – a fluid network combining artefacts, people, organizations, cultural meanings and knowledge (Bijker et al. 1987; Law & Hassard 1999; MacKenzie & Wajcman 1999). The very notion that there is a gender problem is problematized and gender differences in IT use are explored in their social complexity. One must consider that gender is not universal, it is the culturally local behavioral expressions of an internalized individual identity that includes understandings of masculine and feminine, tailored to the specific culture in which a child develops. Gender identity is a pattern in time, it is shaped by the preceding dynamics of physical, social, and emotional experience and becomes the basis of future identity transformations (Fausto-Sterling, 2012).
A critical perspective invites consideration of the subtleties and complexities of the social construction of multiple masculinities and femininities identified in the gender literature (Connell, 2002; Kimmel, 2000; Mac an Ghaill & Haywood, 1998), as well as the multiple representations of gendered adolescent selves highlighted by developmental psychologists (Curry, Trew, Turner, & Hunter, 1994; Harter, 1999; Markus & Nurius, 1986). This research adopts a critical discourse perspective in which gender differences in ICT use are understood as a result of gender-technology and power-knowledge relations, aiming to disclose the tension between agency and structure that is worked out by individuals in particular contexts.
The structural ideas of the research can be visualized in the following mind map (Fig. 1).
Information and communication technologies (ICT) are pervasive in every contexts and spaces and have revolutionized virtually every aspect of our life and work. To participate fully in the economic, social and cultural life people need the competences to navigate through a complex digital landscape (OECD, 2015a). Besides infrastructural barriers, as access to computers and the internet, there are intangible factors, such as cultural norms, which shape the opportunities for digital learning. The gender gap in computer experience is one of the evidences of these non-material barriers. Nowadays, there are still differences between girls and boys in what concerns self-reported digital competences and experience with computers, even in countries where there is gender and socio-economic equality in access to school. These differences do not reflect material constraints, but rather students’ interests and families’ and educators’ notions about what is suitable for them (OECD, 2015a).
A recent research project, Net Children Go Mobile (NCGM), conducted in 2014 in six European countries, also identified gender differences (Mascheroni & Ólafsson, 2014). Participating countries included Denmark, Italy, Romania, the UK, Belgium, Ireland and Portugal. The Net Children Go Mobile project investigated, using quantitative and qualitative methods, how the changing conditions of internet access and use – namely, mobile internet and mobile-convergent media – bring greater, fewer or newer risks to children’s online safety (aged 9 to 16). The results of NCGM, in all 6 countries including Portugal, evidence that boys claim to have more digital competences and reveal more self-confidence in the use of computers and the internet. Other interesting data is the clear rise of girls’ use of new mobile media, such as smartphones to go online. However, there is still a need for research to study if and how the increasing use of mobile devices by girls to go online affects their self-confidence in ICT and their digital competences. Parents’ safety concerns are often one of the reasons for placing more restrictions on girls’ use of the Internet. In restricting girls’ access to the internet more than they do for boys, parents may undermine girls’ feelings of competence, which illustrates the potentially long-lasting consequences of such intangible factors (OECD, 2015a).
There are about five times more men than women among those who study computing at the tertiary level (OECD, 2015b), which may be related to feelings of incompetence (low self-efficacy) of girls and women. For example, in Portugal, the statistics PORDATA - the Database of Contemporary Portugal, show that the number of students in tertiary education courses in Mathematics, Science and Technology by sex have significant differences (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2 - Percentage of students in tertiary education courses of mathematics, science and technology by sex (source PORDATA)
It is interesting to highlight that consistently over the years girls have higher scores than boys at the exams of Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, and Biology and Geology, which are the exams required to enter tertiary education courses in Mathematics, Science and Technology (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3 – Exams’ results of Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, and Biology and Geology, 1st and 2nd phase, by sex (source: Direção-Geral da Educação)
Gender disparities in decisions to pursue further education and choice of career do not stem from innate differences in aptitude of girls and boys, but rather from different attitudes towards learning and aspirations for their future. For example, social contexts that influence how girls and boys choose to spend their leisure time, and gender stereotypes that affect how self-confident they are in their own abilities, are far more decisive in future career decisions (OECD, 2015b).
Although the ICT gender gap constitutes a significant indicator as well as precursor of gender equality, one might question why gender gap in Education and Social Services studies (Fig. 4) are not identified as a problem or something that requires measures to leverage gender equality?
Fig. 4 – Percentage of students in tertiary education fields by sex
The gender gap in Education and Social Services studies is even more significant that in Mathematics, Science and Technology, however there are no significant research and queries on this gap. As an example the Global Gender Gap Report includes as selected contextual data in Education and Technology indicators, the percentage of tertiary-level STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) students and graduates (measures the percentage of female and male students enrolled in International Standard Classification of Education - ISCED 8 programmes). There is no mention whatsoever to the reduced number of male students in Education and Social Services studies.
Another example are the five key “gaps” in the educational outcomes of boys and girls identified by OECD (2012b):
- Reading skills - boys lag behind girls at the end of compulsory education in reading skills by the equivalent, on average, of a year’s schooling;
- Reading for pleasure - boys are far less likely to spend time reading for pleasure;
- Maths performance - boys perform better than girls in maths, although the gender gap is narrower than in reading;
- STEM uptake - there remain significant disparities in the subjects boys and girls choose to study, with girls less likely to choose scientific and technological fields of study than boys;
- STEM careers - even when girls choose these subjects they are less likely to take up careers in related fields.
Again no mention to Education and Social Services carriers, notwithstanding the significant differences reported by OECD’s own studies (Fig. 4). The way the situation is perceived and the way problems are formulated are consequence of the underlying concepts of what is relevant and what is considered to be important. The way one asks the question is the way one perceives the situation. Are Education and Social Services less important to society than Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics? The non-existence of studies about the gap of boys in Education and Social Services courses discloses the dominant gender power relations.
Feminist Technology Studies (FTS) use the term co-production to refer to the dialectical shaping of gender and technology. This concept makes it possible to avoid the analytical pitfalls of essentializing either gender or technology (Grint & Gill 1995, Berg 1996, Faulkner 2001).
The co-production of gender and technology implies the understanding that neither gender nor technology is taken to be pre-existing, nor is the relationship between them immutable (Wajcman, 2007). Gendered identities and discourses are produced simultaneously with technologies, in other words, technology is both a source and a consequence of gender relations and gender relations are materialized in technology (Berg 1996; Faulkner 2001; Oudshoorn et al. 2004; Wajcman 2004). Gender and technology are both performative and mutually constitutive; i.e. gender is constitutive of what is recognized as technology, determining which skills are categorized as technological or not (Bowker & Star 1999).
Often research on the gender gap in ICT turn women into the ‘problem’, isolating their ICT usage from broader social factors which shape their social opportunities and social identities. Focusing on women ICT preferences and skills research can contribute to reinforce power inequalities, overlooking the more complex and substantive reasons why women do not choose to enter technological professional sectors. Gender equality in ICT is not only about equal numbers of men and women, boys and girls, using technology, but it is also about using it purposefully, meaningfully and productively, in ways which enhance individual well-being as well as democracy (OECD, 2008). Since education is a key area in promoting change in society, schools are powerful instruments of gender policy and workforce equity and it is of the outmost importance that they do not reproduce social inequities. Further measures and instruments of gender policy and workforce equity in society are required more widely. The emphasis should not be mainly on how schools and their ICT usage can contribute to bridge the ICT gender gap, but rather on trying to avoid ways of reproducing inequities in schools. Moreover, it is also known that technology might be a driver to obtain more gender equity in society and, accordingly, ICT is “both a tool and a goal” (OECD, 2008).
ICT design strategies should acknowledge the diversity of ‘real’ people, using the gender concept as a continuum rather than a set of binary oppositions (Jenkins & Cassell, 2008), avoiding the risk of exacerbating gender inequality by stereotyping women (Faulkner & Lie, 2007). Instead of ghettoizing girls as a population that needs ‘special help’ in their relation to technology, we should encourage boys and girls to express aspects of self-identity that transcend stereotyped gender categories (Cassell & Jenkins, 1998a), broadening the range of available options in order to open up new space for a diverse range of experiences and identities for both girls and boys (Cassell & Jenkins, 1998b). According to OECD (2008) the emphasis for gender equality in ICT should be on trying to avoid ways of reproducing inequities in schools rather than using schools (and their ICT usage) as instruments of gender policy and workforce equity in society more widely.
2. Research Objectives and Approach
Digital devices are increasingly embedded into everyday things and objects and part of our taken-for-granted environment, intertwined in sociotechnical networks or systems. Research must explore the increasingly complex ongoing process of mutual shaping of gender and ICT over time and across multiple sites (Wajcman, 2007).
This research project aims to explore the embodied relationship between gender and ICT, informed by feminist technology studies, based on the understanding that both gender and technologies are social constructions. Considering that technologies are increasingly pervasive and embedded in everyday things and objects, constituting a relevant aspect of social identities, and that research often reports on “ICT gender gap”, our aim is to investigate how do technologies affect and are affected by gendered practices. The main goal is to study how individuals construct their relations to technologies, with a special focus on how gender makes a difference within this construction.
The ‘[email protected]’ is a project with a qualitative methodological approach, based on face-to-face individual semistructured interviews and group interviews with children, teenagers and ICT teachers, developed in a school context. The interviews are focused on how gender relations are materialized in technology, and on how gendered identities, discourses, and technologies are simultaneously produced. By technologies this project refers to computers and convergent multifunctional portable devices connected to the internet via wifi or 3G/4G, such as smartphones and tablets. These devices are the most used by young people in their everyday activities (Mascheroni & Ólafsson, 2014).
This research projects aims:
- to explore the interrelations of gender and technologies in an educational context acknowledging that young people’s gendered identities have an impact on future educational and career patterns, particularly in relation to science and technology;
- to contribute with knowledge on how gender relations are materialized in technology and how gendered identities and discourses are produced simultaneously with technologies;
- to improve the understanding of the co-production of gender and technologies and advance ways to promote gender equity.
The research will take place in the school cluster Sebastião da Gama, in Setúbal, Portugal. This school cluster has seven schools: two preschool and 1st cycle, three 1st cycle, one 2nd and 3rd cycle, and one 3rd cycle and secondary, with a total of 135 classes and about 3.000 students. Students age range from 4 years old to 18/20 years old. The educational system in Portugal is divided into preschool (for those under age 6), basic education (9 years, in three cycles) and secondary education (3 years).
The researcher works as an educational psychologist in this school cluster, and the research will take place in the context of her professional activities. As such the researcher will not be an outsider who talks and proposes activities to the students, the research data will be collected within a familiar context for the students.
The research phases (Fig. 5) include focus groups, class activities (games with words and pictures related to ICT and gender) and semistructured interviews. The focus groups will inform the structure and content of the class activities, and the semistructured interviews with ICT teachers will contribute to further explore the gendered representations associated to ICT and to identify educational practices that promote gender equity. The class activities will engage mixed-sex groups in games with words and pictures to explore how gendered identities and discourses are produced simultaneously with technologies.
Fig. 5 – Research phases
The students of 9th grade in Portugal are mostly 14/15 years old, and at a time of their lives when decisions regarding education and career have to be done. After ending the 3rd cycle students have to choose a secondary course from general and professional programmes. The focus groups with these students besides informing the structure and content of the class activities, will explore the impact of gendered identities on educational and career patterns. Gender roles are a decisive aspect of these decisions (Gottfredson, 2002) and by these ages young people are particularly aware of the gendered aspects of their lives (Archer, 2012).
Pre-school and 1st cycle children are aged from 4 to 9/10 years old and this research will explore their representations on stereotypical gender-related activities and behaviours. The cross analysis of the results of the research activities with pre-school and 1st cycle children with teenagers of the 9th grade will contribute to further understand how gender relations are materialized in technology and how gendered identities and discourses are produced simultaneously with technologies.
ICT teachers have a privileged insight on young people digital practices and this research will explore their ideas and experiences with both girls and boys using technology. Their views will be complementary to the results of the focus groups and class activities with children and young people. The semistructured interviews with ICT teachers will also contribute to identify educational practices that promote gender equity in ICT.
This research project adopts an advocacy/participatory approach (Creswell, 2003) given that it will be conducted as an iterative process including reflection and action, having students involved with the research process and using findings to advance ways to promote gender equity in ICT.
By gender equity we are not referring to equal numbers of men and women using technology, but as expressed by OECD (2008), to greater levels of self-determination for all genders, a much greater range of opportunities for being gendered and more equal distribution of power.
The research project chronogram is planned for 18 months (Fig. 6). This research proposal is presented in July 2016, although the research project initiated on April 2016, given that it was necessary to ground the research questions and the research design on a literature review and exploratory work.
The research design is not linear and there are intersections of the research phases. This research project started in April 2016, with an exploratory work analysing the institutional repositories of Higher Education in Portugal, conferences and journals on ICT and Education, and aiming to characterize the Portuguese research on gender and ICT and to identify the main areas of study and possible gaps. This analysis concluded that research on gender and ICT/technologies in Portugal is very limited and mainly on subjects related with education and occupation/jobs (Ferreira & Silva, 2016). The relevance of education and occupation/jobs is in line with international research and reflect main areas of the gender gap in society (OECD, 2012a). However, the conclusions of this exploratory work identify that Portuguese research on gender and ICT is a “deserted landscape”, which supports the importance and relevance of this research project.
The research phases field work and data analysis are interconnected given that the focus groups with 9th class students will inform the structure and content of the class activities.
The final phase of the research will be focused on producing a conceptual framework on the co-production of gender and technologies which can advance ways to promote gender equity.
This project aims to disseminate its conclusions by producing publications both to academic and to a wider audience:
- Participation in 1 national and 2 international conferences
- 2 papers in an indexed journal
- 1 eBook - research report
- Training course on gender and ICT
- e-Learning course
- target training audience: teachers from pre-school to secondary education
- objectives: how to avoid reproducing inequities in schools and how schools and their ICT usage can contribute to bridge the ICT gender gap
- Participatory platform to disseminate research results, to foster discussion on the topic and to host the e-Learning course
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