An Exploration of Dualisms in Female Perceptions of IT Work   

This paper explores the way women perceive and talk about the nature of their work, in the context of the declining participation of women in the Information Technology (IT) industry. The study is part of an ongoing project (WinIT), commenced in 1995, that has examined the attitudes of high school and university students and IT personnel towards IT education and careers. The research so far has shown that most students have a poor understanding of IT education and work and perceive IT as a difficult, boring and masculinised domain. IT education is not attracting high achieving students in general and female students in particular. Interviews of women working in IT reinforce widely held impressions of the IT industry.

This paper discusses a recent study (1999-2000) in which 32 female and 2 male IT professionals were interviewed. The data were initially sorted and analysed by the third author, using NUD*IST, an Australian qualitative analysis software tool. Giddens’ Structuration Theory (1984) was used to interpret the discourse, revealing that the professional women’s discourse is characterised by dualisms that are not always consistent with the women’s lived experiences. The dualisms discussed in this paper are those relating to skills and attributes, such as technical and people skills, as well as gender specific dualisms, such as attention to detail and assertiveness. The dualisms in the interview discourse represent skills and attributes as either/or propositions associated with gender. The interview data, however, also reveals contradictions in these dualisms, indicating that these polarised views of women and IT work are being undermined by women in the IT industry. The perceptions of the interviewees are discussed as structures of signification that need to be altered in order to successfully challenge these dualisms. For example, the gendering of IT work is being undermined by men as well as women who are discouraged by the need to adapt to the ‘masculinised’ domain of much IT work. The structuration of IT work is discussed particu- larly in relation to routinisation - the taken for granted nature of everyday work activities, and interpretive schemes - the use of dualisms by the interviewees as a way of making sense of their actions and aspirations. These concepts reveal how the IT industry is configured by routine activities as well as by discourse.

Mentoring is suggested in this paper as a way to challenge these dualisms and structures of signification, through interactions between students, IT organisations, professional IT women and women in IT education. To explore this idea, the research team collaborated with Information and Processing Technology (IPT). eachers to establish a mentoring program for 110 IPT students in Year 11 (the penultimate year of secondary school in Australia). A total of 28 mentors were recruited, comprising IT professionals, academics and recent IT graduates. The role of the mentors was to assist small groups of students with the analysis and design stages of a programming assignment, as well as provide realistic advice about the nature of IT education and work, the skills needed to succeed and the wide range of options available in the industry. Surveys and interviews with students were conducted to determine whether the mentoring program has been successful in influencing students’ perceptions of IT education and work. Feedback was also sought from teachers and mentors. Although we found problems associated with differing levels of expectation between students, teachers and mentors, and a lack of specific tasks within the assignment description to assist students to make full use of their mentor resource, the program provided more accessible role models for female students and provided a strong positive image to female students and corrected the widely held view that IT industry is intrinsically a male domain. Experience from this programme helped Queensland Government’s Office for Women and Griffith University establish an IT  mentoring program for several high schools in 2004.

The paper concludes firstly that mentoring could be a viable way to challenge female students’ perceptions of IT education, and to make IT a more attractive career option. Interaction with women who are challenging the dualisms of IT work is necessary to transform the structures of signification. Secondly, qualitative and longitudinal studies of women at work in IT as well as women talking about IT are needed, in order to have a better understanding of the way women help configure the institutional realm of IT work