Challenge or Chaos: A Discourse Analysis of Women's Perceptions of the Culture of Change in the IT Industry

By Nielsen, Sue H.; von Hellens, Liisa A. et al. | Issues in Informing Science & Information Technology, Annual 2004 | Go to article overview

Challenge or Chaos: A Discourse Analysis of Women's Perceptions of the Culture of Change in the IT Industry


Nielsen, Sue H., von Hellens, Liisa A., Beekhuyzen, Jenine, Issues in Informing Science & Information Technology


Introduction

The IT industry is one of the most significant for any modern industrial state, in terms of supporting domestic services, enabling a nation to engage in global communications and providing opportunities for international trade. However, the supply of personnel to this industry remains problematical, with a long-term decline in the supply of high achieving students, particularly female students. More recently, in response to the dot.com crashes, the decline has been more significant (Throp, 2003), despite a considerable revival in job opportunities, which show that IT is still one of the most significant employment sectors, particularly for graduates (Foreshew, 2003). The new enrollments are down by thirty per cent or more in some IT courses in Australia (Throp, 2003) an according to the study by University of Melbourne's Centre for the Study of Higher Education that was commissioned in 2002 by the Education Minister Brendan Nelson women in engineering and information technology are still regarded as an equity group--with targets of 40 per cent or more participation unmet (Illing, 2004).

This paper reports on the latest findings of a research project into women in information technology. The WinIT project, commenced in 1995 has taken a multi-dimensional approach to the complex problem of declining female participation (von Hellens & Nielsen, 2001). This paper builds on recent work, which explores the career satisfaction of professional women in the IT industry.

A discourse analysis of the interviews with professional IT women revealed a distinctive discursive practice in the women's discourse; that is the representation of what we term 'dualisms'--mutually exclusive attributes, skills and attitudes as closely identified with gender (Beekhuyzen, Nielsen & von Hellens, 2003; Nielsen, von Hellens, Beekhuyzen & Trauth, 2003). These dualisms include reification of skills necessary for IT work, into 'hard' and 'soft', with skills such as programming and technical skills viewed as completely different from management, business and communication skills. This paper explores two of these dualisms--the aptitude and skill with which women cope with rapid and continuous change in the IT industry and the dualism of the public (work) and private (domestic) spheres.

Giddens' notion of identity links the formation of personal identity to the characteristics of modern institutions and is concerned with "the emergence of new mechanisms of self-identity which are shaped by--yet also shape--the institutions of modernity" (Giddens, 1991, p.2). In this paper we explore how women represent their identities in masculinised domains--IT work and academia--and how the challenges to identity formation may partly explain why IT work does not attract more female participation and may even alienate some men.

This paper aims to contribute to the ongoing research into the nature of female participation in professional level IT education and work, by exploring the relationship between gender and information technology, especially in relation to the rapidly changing nature of the industry and its impact on the domestic and work spheres in which women are expected to actively participate. We have indicated in previous papers that the women's discourse shows several contradictions (Beekhuyzen et al., 2003; Nielsen et al., 2003; von Hellens, Nielsen & Beekhuyzen, 2004), and in this paper we wish to explore contradictions in their discourse about coping with the rapid change in the IT industry, and the implications for recruiting and retaining women in the IT industry.

Research Approach

Research into gender and IT has taken two major approaches; that men and women are inherently different or that gender differences are primarily socially constructed. The inherent differences approach comprises two streams of research. The first looks at gender differences in the acceptance of technology. …

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