Step 1: Bridge the Technology Divide
It is a fact that women have less technology experience than their male counterparts. Female students who have been successful in keeping them enrolled recognize the need to begin with the basics at the beginning of each semester. This is beneficial for male students as well. This might include an introduction to the use of tools and the basics of how to navigate the Internet. Open lab time should be provided by instructors for students who need additional experience. As women often feel more comfortable asking questions about other women working in male-dominated fields, it is a good idea to staff the lab with a senior female student. These best practices are illustrated in the Cisco Gender Initiative’s Best Practice Case Studies, which were created by the Institute for Women in Technology and Science (IWITTS). (1)
Step 2: Collaborative learning in the Technology Classroom
Female students often lack confidence and have a negative impact on their learning abilities. This could be due to several factors. First, male students are more familiar with technology, particularly hands-on labs. Second, male students are more proud of their achievements while female students are less confident. Third, male students are more dominant in lab discussions and classroom discussions.
These factors can be overcome by technology instructors using group collaborative methods in the classroom that increase student interaction, learning and support each other. These group methods include: 1) grade students individually and 2) assign female students to leadership positions in the classroom. 3) place female students in pairs or teams rather than allowing them to choose their partners. 4) Have female students work in labs at the start of each semester. 5) Enlist the help from whiz kids to teach their fellow students. This will give them a constructive outlet for all their talents.
Step 3: Contextual Learning
In the technology classroom, the old adage that men are from Venus and women are from Mars is still relevant. Women and men have very different learning styles in technology. The technology is what most men are most excited about — its speed, how many gigabytes it can store, and the size of the engine. Women are most interested in how technology will work. They want to know how fast the network can run, how much information can stored and how far it can travel without needing to refuel. These Mars and Venus differences can have an impact on the class curriculum. Female students will be better able to understand technical concepts in the classroom if they are able to understand their context. If you want to retain your most female students, don’t load your computer programming classes by writing code without context. IWITTS’s Making Math & Technology Courses User-Friendly to Women and Minorities: An annotated bibliography (2) has more information.
Step 4: The Math Factor
Technology courses often require knowledge of applied math. Many girls and women are afraid of math, and have had bad experiences in the classroom. This is a common problem that has led to the development of curriculum and courses for women on math anxiety. Contextual and group learning are key ingredients to teaching females math. There are many curriculums that can be used to teach math contextually. See the IWITTS bibliography linked above. Many prerequisites for technology courses at two-year colleges lack the necessary applied math. Technology courses should not require math beyond what is necessary for their course.
Step Five: Connect the women in your classes with other women
Your students can benefit from the support of a peer mentor or female peer support network to help them stay on track when they feel discouraged. They can also receive helpful tips and advice for surviving in a male-dominated environment. Connect your female students with these online and real-time organizations for women in technology. For a complete list of these networks, see the Career Links section of WomenTechWorld.org. WomenTechTalk is a free listserv that provides support and career panels for over 200 women from all walks of technology.
Donna Milgram is the founder and executive director of the National Institute for Women in Trades, Technology & Science. Her current role is Principal Investigator for the CalWomenTech Project which was awarded a $2 million National Science Foundation grant in April 2006. She was also the principal investigator of the WomenTech project, which was funded by the National Science Foundation and had the goal of increasing enrollments in and retention in technology education at three national community colleges demonstration sites. IWITTS’s partnership was led by Ms. Milgram with the Cisco Learning Institute/Cisco Gender Initiative. Ms. Milgram created the interactive teacher training video, “School-to Work: Preparing Young Females for High-Skilled, High-Wage Careers.” Recent conference presentations by Ms. Milgram include the NSF ATE Conference, “Recruiting Women in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math,” (2004), and California Educating for Careers Conference, 2003.