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Women Doing IT for Themselves

By Hilde G. Corneliussen, author of Reconstructions of Gender and Information Technology

Women’s pathways into IT

Information technology (IT) is still a male dominated field across most of the western world. Riddled with gender stereotypes and images of men still makes it challenging for many young women to imagine themselves pursuing a career in IT. Even in Norway, a country recognised for its high level of gender equality, less women than men study and work in IT.

In my book, Reconstructions of Gender and Information Technology: Women Doing IT for Themselves, the most important question I explore is how women still find a way into a male-dominated field such as IT, despite gender stereotypes producing gendered barriers. Based on interviews with nearly 80 girls and women engaged in information technology education and work, I discuss the barriers and challenges experienced by women, and, more importantly, the turning points and positive drivers that made them decide to study IT.

Studying the journey from childhood to an IT career

Analysing women’s chronological narratives from childhood to the decision to pursue a career in IT has unveiled several pathways narrated by the women. Associating IT with male gamers and hackers, few women identified early on with those images. Only a handful of women showed an interest in IT in their early teens. Most of the women rather explained their decision to study IT with reference to their strength in another discipline, ranging from arts to science and mathematics, working as an alternative platform for the women to build their self-efficacy. Also a wide range of interests had sparked women’s choice to study IT, from controlling technology to an interest in society, or even in the world: “technology is a large part of the world” (p. 109).

Reflecting that technology is practically everywhere today, the women illustrate how nearly any field of interest could work as a motivation for studying IT.

Few of the women had however experienced support or encouragement for choosing IT at school, thus for many this also meant coming late to this career. For some women this illustrated a failure to be recruited at an earlier stage: “If I had known about the possibilities before, I would have sat down and started programming right away” (p. 70).

Outsiders on the inside

Many women experience that their identity is challenged when entering male-dominated fields such as IT. Will I fit in a world where I only see men, several of the women had asked themselves. In the book I discuss this as an experience of being “outsiders on the inside”, as they experienced a doubt about their competence, investment and interest in IT. One of the women, although being one of the best in her programming class, still found that it was difficult for her to fit in with her fellow students, who didn’t understand “how it is possible that I find it important with nicely manicured nails, and in addition I find programming both fun and easy” (p. 76).

The paradox of interest 

Most of the women’s pathways to IT have been shaped by their lack of knowledge about IT, lack of support and encouragement, and lack of images of IT experts they could associate themselves with. Interviews with school representatives, however, illustrated how the image of Norway as a superpower of gender equality can work as a barrier for encouraging girls to think about IT. The strong sense of gender equality in Norway has produced a postfeminist assumption that all gender barriers were already cleared away, leaving only interest and individual free choice as the explanation to women’s low participation in IT. Such postfeminist attitudes left little space for schools to engage in active work to encourage girls to think of IT. I discuss this as a “paradox of interest”, in which, paradoxically, girls are more likely to be invited and encouraged to learn about IT when they have already expressed such interest.
My aim is not to reduce our focus on gender equality, but rather to raise awareness of how the gender equality norm in this case has become what Sara Ahmed calls a non-performative policy; by naming its goal it appears to have solved the challenge. The circular negative effect of this paradox leaves out one of the most interesting groups I encountered through my research: the young women who had never imagined themselves studying IT and yet had come to love it and described themselves as ‘hooked’ once they got to know it, like this quote illustrates: “I cannot explain the joy I got from having an introduction to programming” (p. 58).

Read more about how women found their own pathways into IT in my open access book: Reconstructions of Gender and Information Technology: Women Doing IT for Themselves

Hilde G. Corneliussen is Research Professor of Technology and Society at Western Norway Research Institute. Her research and scientific publications are mainly on how to make technology more inclusive for groups at risk of being excluded from the digital transformation, including Gender-Technology Relations: Exploring Stability and Change.