Women Want Computers To Be Less ‘Nerdy’ and More Fun

Making Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) less ‘nerdy’ and more fun can help increase the number of women who use computers. However more needs to be done to make women feel wanted in ICT design and development jobs. These are some of the findings of a major study known as SIGIS (Strategies of Inclusion: Gender and the Information Society).

SIGIS, made possible by a grant of €928,000 from the Information Society Technology (IST) Programme of the European Union’s Framework Programme, set out to discover ways to bridge the gender gap that has resulted in women being excluded from the use and development of the communication and media technologies.

The study, carried out by project partners in five countries – the UK, Norway, The Netherlands, Ireland and Italy – analysed public sector, non-governmental and commercial initiatives to include women in the Information Society.

“SIGIS research offers strategic insights into the way gender and ICT is understood and managed in various organisations, government, communities and industry sectors across Europe,” says project co-ordinator, Professor Robin Williams of the University of Edinburgh. “The 48 case studies also detail the changing gender dimension of ICT development and use and chart the evolving socio-economic context of the Information Society.

“The results form a knowledge base that project partners are using to develop analytical tools to help policy makers, designers, relevant practitioners and communities in the voluntary and commercial sector improve their efforts to get more women integrated into the design and use of the technologies of the Information Society.”

Peter Walters, UK National Contact Point for IST within the EU’s 6th Framework Programme, recognises the importance of the study, saying: “Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) are becoming more and more important in our society. Traditionally, boys and men have dominated access to computers and computer science education and to technical specialist jobs. This gender imbalance – with its implications for skill shortages, untapped product markets geared to female consumers and digital exclusion – has therefore become a concern for both government and industry. I am hopeful that the results of the SIGIS study will help us to encourage more women to play an active part in the future development of this growing industry that has notable influences on society.”

“The Framework Programmes are the EU’s main vehicle for support of leading edge, internationally collaborative R&D. The current Framework Programme (FP6) runs until 2006 and organisations wanting free, easy to access, information on the €17.5bn of funding available within FP6 should log on to http://fp6uk.ost.gov.uk or call central telephone support on 0870 600 6080.”

The education sector can have an important role as an equalising force securing access to and knowledge about computers for all, irrespective of gender and socio-economic status.

“Schools and colleges need to put strategies into place to ensure female inclusion,” added Pofessor Robin Williams. “ICT and ICT professions are claimed to be repelling to women. The association of ICT with hackers and nerds, led to a view of such activities as boring, antisocial and only interesting to boys and men who, for example, might acquire confidence and skills from long experience playing with computers. The pleasurable use of ICT as a means of communication and entertainment appears to be an important stepping stone, encouraging a wider range of women (and men for that matter) to becoming skilled ICT users.

“Several of the SIGIS studies show that when women and girls find technologies such as email or the web to be enjoyable and fun, they no longer think of them as technical and difficult. Women can be attracted to ICT by focusing on the activity that is being supported, rather than the technology per se.”

As the new ICT applications like the Internet and mobile phones become cheaper and easier to use they are becoming much more widely adopted in the home, workplace and education. The gap between men and women in their levels of use of computers is narrowing. There has however, been less progress in bringing women into specialist ICT training and technology design. Here the predominance of men can lead to a culture in which women may feel unwelcome. The SIGIS case-studies point to the success of a number of local initiatives to recruit more women into computer science courses and also increase the visibility of those women who are working in specialist roles.

Professor Robin Williams concludes by saying, “Across Europe we have found a range of exciting initiatives and policies by both public and private organisations which have contributed to the ‘emancipation’ of ICTs. We hope that the SIGIS findings can help us learn from these diverse experiences, identify why they were more or less successful and apply the lessons more widely.”

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