The participation of women in science and, more recently, in information and communications technology (ICT) has engaged researchers for more than twenty years. Despite extensive research and numerous practical interventions designed to address the relative dearth of women in ICT, the problem persists. Evidence from around the world suggests that despite female predominance in undergraduate enrolments (59% in Australia, 55% in America, and greater than 50% in many European Union countries), women are reluctant to pursue ICT study at tertiary level (Rees, 2001). In addition, research literature indicates that irrespective of discipline, the proportion of female undergraduates in the discipline, and country, women leave scientific careers in disproportionate numbers at every stage (Henwood & Miller, 2001, p. 239). For ICT, which already starts with a disproportionately small number of first-year female students, this trend is particularly disturbing.
Initial approaches to address the under-representation of women in ICT at tertiary level centered upon notions of equality and affirmative action. Since ICT has always been perceived as incorporating access to powerful forms of knowledge and providing highly remunerative employment opportunities, the lack of significant numbers of females in the discipline was seen as inequitable. To alleviate the problem, a number of intervention programs aimed at women have promoted information on technology-related careers, provided experience of computing work and have highlighted female role models. Other programs focused on helping women develop skills, attitudes or background knowledge that women were thought to lack. However, the goal of these programs was to produce equality--or sameness--between women and men, and thus focused on changing women in ways that would make them more like men (Gilbert, 2001). A basic flaw in this drive for equality of outcome was assuming the male as the norm. Similarly, the affirmative action measures, while commendable and essential in fostering gender equality, were not sufficient. Indeed, in many programs these actions only served to reinforce the conceptions of ICT as a masculine domain--they were aimed at encouraging women to participate in a male-dominated culture, rather than challenging the notions of it.
Despite many such initiatives worldwide, women continue to be underrepresented in the ICT discipline. This suggests that an alternative approach and a shift of focus is needed. Rather than encouraging women to act like men, ICT needs to be reconceptualized into an environment that women would naturally embrace. A first step in this reconceptualization is to understand the ways in which perceptions of the technology, in terms of its societal realization and its educational programs, affect the choices women make. A subsequent step would be to effect a female-friendly adjustment to all areas of ICT including education. An important aspect of this two-step approach involves the systematic collection, analysis and publication of relevant gender-disaggregated statistics. Such a task, in the area of tertiary computing education, motivated this project: its investigative stage is reported in this paper.
The aim of the project was to develop and evaluate strategies to improve progression and retention rates of female students enrolled in computer science courses at Victoria University. The approach was to firstly investigate the perceived problems from the students' perspective--the study was to focus on problems related to the learning environment, particularly on direct and subtle gender-related problems encountered in the classroom, and special needs of female students. Secondly, based on the collected information, an integrated strategy targeting the female students was to be developed; and lastly, the strategy was to be implemented and evaluated.
Gender-related issues in ICT education
The under-representation and poor retention of female students in ICT courses, including computer science, both in Australia and overseas, has been well recognized. …