Mobile Learning Week 2015
UNESCO in partnership with UN Women recently hosted a major international event called Mobile Learning Week to explore how ubiquitous and increasingly affordable mobile technologies can be leveraged to empower women and girls in education.
Several conference sessions focused on gender divides in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The divide is growing in many countries and is seen in developed and developing countries. The question below was posed to Mark West who researches ICT in education as an associate project officer at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris.
Mr. West is the author of Reading in the Mobile Era and the co-author of the UNESCO Policy Guidelines for Mobile Learning. He has been involved in a number of field projects that use mobile technology in concert with other tools and approaches to improve learning outcomes.
QUESTION: IS TECHNOLOGY THE ‘MAGIC WAND’ FOR IMPROVING WOMEN AND GIRLS PARTICIPATION IN STEM CAREERS?
RESPONSE: Of course there are no ‘magic wands’ when it comes to education, but technology is an important tool.
Right now technology is wrongly gendered: ‘toys for boys’; ‘gadgets for guys’. Beliefs that suggest women are not ‘natural’ manipulators of technology perpetuate stereotypes that discourage women from pursuing careers in technology fields.
Troublingly, a number of studies have shown that boys are far more likely to expect having a career in engineering and computing than girls. Similarly, parents are significantly more likely to expect their sons, rather than their daughters, to enter STEM careers, even when boys and girls perform equally well in school. These reduced expectations carry ripples, both in education and in industry. To take just one example, the percentage of female computer-science graduates has almost halved since the nineteen-eighties. What began as a largely ‘gender-neutral’ career has become heavily male-dominated. (And it is worth noting that the male shift was accompanied by increased pay in computer-science fields.) Today women earn less than 20 percent of computer-science degrees awarded in the United States, despite the fact that the country is home to a booming technology sector. Gender divides at leading technology companies are also severe. The global workforce of Google is 70 percent male. And if only tech jobs are accounted for, the gulf is even wider: at Google 83 percent of technology jobs are held by men and at Twitter it is 90 percent. Gigaom has provided an excellent graphical analysis of these trends at this link.
To further complicate matters, the few women who do enter computer science careers show a high rate of attrition. A 2008 study found that more than half of women working in computer industries end up leaving before retirement. In effect the STEM problem is not isolated to schooling (attracting more women to STEM subjects), but a challenge of keeping women who enter STEM careers in their positions, and, beyond this, providing them opportunities for advancement. While this issue has received considerable attention recently (see for example the commentary sparked by Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In), women remain underrepresented in technology fields.
Gender biases tied to technology can give rise to hiring prejudices, whether conscious or unconscious. A recent article in the New Yorker Magazine took stock of a number of alarming findings: “A 2012 study asked top research scientists to evaluate job candidates with identical résumés. The scientists judged female candidates to be less capable than male ones, and suggested significantly lower starting salaries for them. Even more striking was a 2005 experiment in which participants evaluated applications for a job as chief of police, scanning résumés that indicated varying levels of formal education and on-the-job experience. A male candidate who had less schooling would be credited with street smarts, but a woman with an identical résumé would be dismissed for not having enough education. When the qualifications were flipped, so was the justification for hiring the man. The hirers were really just rationalizing a gut decision about who was right for a traditionally male job.” These findings reveal that once a profession is deemed ‘male’, gender biases can become self-perpetuating and, over time, accepted and normalized.
The key to breaking this pattern is to combat the problem of low expectations. Research strongly indicates that if countries can change girls’ and women’s expectations in STEM, the gender gap will narrow. Data collected from OECD countries shows that if the highest achieving boys and girls were equally confident about their ability in STEM subjects, the gender gap we see in performance would not only shrink but, in many instances, invert.
Getting technology into the hands of women is a vital first step. There are huge divides in terms of access: worldwide women are 16% less likely to access ICT than men; in low and middle income countries 300 million more men than women have a mobile phone; and in developing countries there are only 3 women online for every 4 men. It is estimated that over 90% of jobs in the future will require ICT skills, so comfort and proficiency with technology is not just a STEM concern, it’s directly tied to employability.
We urgently need to do three things:
1) Encourage and normalize technology ownership and use by women and girls.
2) Rally against innocuous sounding-slogans like ‘gadgets for guys’ and un-gender technology.
3) Recalibrate our expectations for girls and ensure women have role models and mentors in technology fields.
Collectively, these actions will help bridge the persistent gender gaps we see in STEM.