This paper explores two areas of the gender and technology in education issues. The first issue explored is the cultural and environmental issue that has a significant amount of scholarship associated with the specific elements. The second issue is an evaluation of the scholarship available that women learn differently than men. Specifically the conceptual analysis that women need a real world context to evaluate the materials presented in the classroom. In evaluation of the contextual nature of cognitive processes literature and evaluative strategies are being developed.
The question continues to be asked: Where are the women in the technology programs? And while there have been many studies conducted and papers written on the subject, the question remains largely unanswered. What is known is that women are underrepresented in the technology fields and the number of women entering college technology programs is decreasing. A review of the literature suggests that there are two areas of inquiry (cultural/environmental and cognitive differences) in the attempts to answer the question and address the issue.
Cultural and environmental issues
The first area of cultural and environmental issues is well researched and documented. Jo Sanders recently made available a comprehensive annotated bibliography of women and technology in education literature that lists almost 700 books and articles (Sanders & Mueller, 2000). What is seen in a review of these articles is a combination of factors that tend to keep women away from technology fields or fail to retain those women who begin their college careers in a technology field.
The cultural and environment line of inquiry includes several issues. It has been well established that computing is dominated by a male culture (Margolis & Fisher, 2002 ). Women in primarily male programs find they must deal with male peers who 1) treat them as potential dates or 2) treat them as less qualified and only in the program as part of affirmative action plans (Gurer & Camp, 2002; Lakoff & Salgado, 1981; Pearl et al., 1990; Schofield, 1995). And a new problem is emerging that result from the many efforts to attract and retain women in technology – spotlighting (McLoughlin, 2005).
Women enter technology programs with less experience with technology generally, and computers and programming specifically and often feel unprepared compared to their male counterparts. As women in technology programs try to compete with their male counterparts, the women feel that their lack of prior experience sets them at a distinct disadvantage (Margolis & Fisher, 2002 ; Sackrowitz & Parelius, 1996 ). In addition, the lack of prior experience produced more anxiety in the female students (Brosnan, 1994; Nelson, Weise, & Cooper, 1991). Studies that followed women in computer courses found that women were as or more successful than the men in the same class, however, the women continued to underestimate their own abilities (Henwood, Plumeridge, & Stepulevage, 2000; Margolis & Fisher, 2002 ).
Women tend to want technology to be a useful tool to accomplish something whereas men are often content with technology as an end in itself (Brunner & Bennett, 1997; Durndell, 1990). Women want to be able to solve real problems that effect real people with the technology, rather than continue to use technology to solve the same abstract problems that are a mainstay in many technology curricula (Brunner & Bennett, 1997).
There are support groups for women in technology (Systers, ACM-W, CRA-W, Women in Technology programs, Society for Women in Engineering, etc.) that continue to provide advice and support for women in engineering. The goal of many of these groups includes increasing the pipeline of women entering technology fields. While these groups are beneficial, they have not been particularly effective at increasing the pipeline of women entering the technology field (Francioni, 1998).
Gender based cognitive issues
The second area involves the differences in cognitive processes between men and women. There is not as much scholarship in this area, although there is some, so this area offers significant opportunities for future research.
Laura McCullough of University of Wisconsin-Stout looked at the Force Concepts Inventory (in physics) and found that it does have a gender bias. In addition, she modified the questions on the Force Concept Inventory to give them a real world context and found that not only did women’s scores improve, but men’s score improved as well. Jessup and Sumner looked at a course where students created program for local community service agencies and found that this course attracted more women than men (Jessup & Sumner, 2005).
Moshe Kam points in a related direction, suggesting that the overall engineering curriculum is gender biased and she suggests that the entire curriculum should be deliberately directed at women. Kam goes on to suggest that this change in the curriculum would ultimately attract more men to engineering programs as well (Kam, 2005).
There appear to be three areas for future work. The first area that needs significant work is that of gender based cognitive models. Cognitive research to identify differences between male and female learning models has begun, but has not been pursued in the technology fields.
The second and perhaps the most exciting area is research that builds upon McCullough’s study of the Force Concept Inventory’s gender bias and ways to modify other concept inventories to help eliminate gender bias. McCullough identified gender bias in a common diagnostic tool in physics. It would be very helpful if this same idea were applied to each of the engineering fields. This area may also include the development of concept inventories for the fields in question.
The third area for future study is research to look at existing technology curriculums and gender bias that exists in these programs as well as additional research to suggest positive changes to these programs.
A review of the literature shows that the environmental and cultural issues facing women in technology education have been well researched and documented. The same review of literature has a surprising lack of research on cognitive differences between men and women’s learning styles. The small quantity of research in the cognitive area suggests that this is an area of significant opportunity for future studies.
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