Gender and Technology in the Liberal Arts: Aptitudes, Attitudes, and Skills Acquisition

Article excerpt

Introduction

There is a widely held view that graduates in liberal arts are at a disadvantage upon first entering the workforce (Krahn & Bowlby, 2000). They experience lower levels of initial post-graduate employment and lower starting salaries, when compared to their non-arts peers. One reason advanced for this differential is that liberal arts students lack appropriate information technology skills. This view can be seen as a version of the hypothesis which posits a "digital divide": a group of people, whether by race, class, gender, or socio-economic position, who are not taking full advantage of the benefits of the information age.

Our research, conducted under the auspices of Human Resources Development Canada, explored this question through an extensive survey of students graduating from bachelor-level postsecondary programs in three Canadian universities. Comparing the IT skills and attitudes held by liberal arts students with those of their non-arts peers, we found the "digital divide" was neither validated or a useful way to describe the differences between the two populations (Butler, Chao, & Ryan, 2002; Butler & Chow, 2004). The students as a whole demonstrated a very high level of skill in core IT areas (basic computer skills, electronic communication, word processing, and the Internet); the arts students had lower skill levels in several other areas, some of which were precisely the areas of interest for employers (whom we surveyed and spoke with through focus groups).

Our Technology Edge project continued, in 2003 and 2004, to develop, pilot, and evaluate learning materials, which were integrated into the curriculum of post-secondary liberal arts courses, and which demonstrated the effectiveness of integrating computing skills training into the academic curriculum. As part of the exploration of various ways that students interact and learn, these training materials attempted to address gender differences that are expressed in different learning styles. (For this research, we take gender to mean the biological, cultural, and formative social differences that exist between the male and female sexes.)

We had discovered significant gender differences, in both skills and attitudes, among arts students in our first student survey. It was important for us to learn how gender inflects students' attitudes toward their own aptitudes, and how it relates to both the computing skills the students already have, and the skills they plan on acquiring in the world of work.

As the Canadian university system supports over 580 000 students annually (Statistics Canada, 1999), and both the absolute number and proportion of women is increasing in the university system (Statistics Canada, 2004), we feel these issues are crucial to the widespread development of effective post-secondary IT training strategies.

Tables 1 and 2 summarize full-time and part-time post secondary enrolment, in Canada and each of its provinces, for the years 1995 through 1999 (the latest year for which complete data is available). The provinces of New Brunswick, Alberta, and British Columbia are highlighted; it was in those jurisdictions that we conducted our detailed survey of students' skills and attitudes. Gender issues affect not only the students in post-secondary, but also the instructors. Not only are more women attending university, but there are also more female faculty members. Sussman and Yssaad note several factors that are contributing to an increasing proportion of female academics in the university system:

Women have increased their presence among full-time university faculty during a period of shrinking public funding, rising enrolments and increasing tuition costs. The trend has been fuelled by the rising educational attainment of women generally, as well as a growing academic work force reaching retirement age that consists mainly of men (Sussman & Yssaad, 2005). …