Exercising different choice


Helen J Richardson and Sheila French (UK)


This paper considers UK government policy making in the so-called ‘global knowledge economy’. Britain’s engagement is seen as crucial to its future success in the global market place (Alexander, 2001a). Individuals and organisations are urged to change their way of working, learning and living in this ‘new economy’. High value is being placed on those with ICT skills and the UK government recognises the need to ensure society has the necessary skills to take part.At the same time there is a heightened awareness of a growing digital divide in British Society between the ‘have-nets’ and have-nots. Issues of gender differences in access and the use of technology are one of the features of this divide (Alexander, 2001b). In their efforts to reverse what they refer to as the ‘challenge of women’s participation in ICT’ (Alexander, 2001b), the UK government propose a number of initiatives (DfEE 2001). The aim is to get women to engage in technology and gain access to IT in education, work and in their social lives. With the use of role models they wish to improve the image of IT. In education they will encourage girls to be to be enthusiastic about the technologies and gain confidence to compete with the boys in what is recognised as male domination in ICT’s in the classroom. They suggest career paths that are relevant to women and have working conditions to support women and their needs. They promote changing business attitudes to employing women and encouraging flexible working conditions for parents.

This paper critically evaluates the various initiatives and policies the UK government proposes, to counter this gender divide. We note the government taking a traditional view of equal opportunities and ICT’s. A reluctance of girls to embrace the computer, for example, is often perceived as a ‘problem’ of girl’s confidence or boys behaving badly rather than rooted within the technology (Clegg 2001). This is unconvincing given Siann’s (1997) finding that girls ‘can use ICT’s but don’t want to’. We question the motivation of policy making. Are these well-intentioned if misguided initiatives aimed at getting all of society connected, or is it a means of staffing low paid ICT work, foisting the responsibility of employment on to the individual and encouraging women to be a temporary breech of the skills gap?

Applying feminist theories of technology, the paper will provide evidence that technology is not gender-neutral (Griffiths, 1985, Wajcman, 1991,) and that by representing it as such, key issues such as power (Oakley 2001) and the dominant discourses around the use and implementation of technology and ICT’s will be obscured. Moreover through our research in schools and the Further and Higher Education sector, we note that girls and women are exercising choices – not to use ICT’s, not to choose IT as a degree subject, not to work in the field of IT. Computing is seen as nerdy, geeky anti-social, machine-orientated, mathematical and solitary (Selby et al 1997). There is the mysterious case of the vanishing women in HE Computing courses and in the IT labour market the representation of women is falling, gender segregation pervades and the numbers of women decline the further up the hierarchy you go (Pantelli 1998).

In our view the UK government’s initiatives and stress on the so-called ‘new economy’, ‘digital revolution’, ‘information society’ and so on reveals their technological deterministic stance and therefore we argue cannot get ‘under the skin’ of the many issues. We discuss how gendered relations in the home, work and education go far beyond having access to ICT’s and how these relations contribute to the shaping of the gendered experiences of using technology. Moreover, we suggest that the current gendered discourse surrounding technology should inform government policies globally.

Should we be concerned if women are exercising choices and opting out? In their discussions about the computing industry Selby et al (1997) argue that increasing the participation of women will bring to the industry a more diverse range of experience, creativity and expertise.

This paper argues that it is not possible to look for solutions to the ‘gender-divide’ without exploring the current structures of power and inequality in the use of technologies and ICT’s. By not considering these issues it is likely that existing power structures and inequalities will be intentionally or unintentionally perpetuated. What is clear is that despite our recognition of the reasons behind the ‘push’ to use technologies, if women do opt out it may be to their detriment and certainly that of society as a whole.


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