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A Random Choice, Late Discovery, and Penalty Rounds: Mapping women's pathways to information technology education

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Abstract

What leads women to information technology (IT)? Successful recruitment is often perceived as relying on interest in IT. This study, however, identifies the pathways bringing women to IT that only partly rely on interest in IT and also involve other factors. In-depth interviews with 24 women in IT education and early research positions in Norway provide the empirical material for this qualitative study. Feminist technology studies and research on gender and technology provide a framework for the study, and the analysis is guided by the grounded theory method. The findings show that IT is a highly gendered field in Norway and that gender stereotypes affect women's expectations toward, and choices of, IT. Women enter the fields of IT despite stereotypes. However, for many such women, this follows a coincidence or a late discovery of IT as interesting, and some women have been on a "penalty round" in a different field before finally entering the fields of IT.
A RANDOM CHOICE, LATE DISCOVERY, AND PENALTY
ROUNDS: MAPPING WOMENS PATHWAYS
TO INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY EDUCATION
Hilde G. Corneliussen
Western Norway Research Institute, Norway
ABSTRACT
What leads women to information technology (IT)? Successful recruitment is often perceived as relying on interest in IT.
This study, however, identifies the pathways bringing women to IT that only partly rely on interest in IT and also involve
other factors. In-depth interviews with 24 women in IT education and early research positions in Norway provide the
empirical material for this qualitative study. Feminist technology studies and research on gender and technology provide
a framework for the study, and the analysis is guided by the grounded theory method. The findings show that IT is a
highly gendered field in Norway and that gender stereotypes affect womens expectations toward, and choices of, IT.
Women enter the fields of IT despite stereotypes. However, for many such women, this follows a coincidence or a late
discovery of IT as interesting, and some women have been on a penalty round in a different field before finally entering
the fields of IT.
KEYWORDS
Educational Choices, IT Education, Women, Penalty Round, Safe Platform
1. INTRODUCTION
Of all the people employed in information technology (IT) jobs in Europe in 2018, more than 80% were men
(EUROSTAT, 2019). The continually low proportion of women in IT has led to many studies exploring the
factors that motivate women to enter the IT fields (Frieze & Quesenberry, 2019; Makarem & Wang, 2020).
The challenge has been conceptualized as an input problem, wherein women do not enter IT, and a
throughput problem, wherein women enter IT but then leave in greater numbers than men (Branch, 2016;
McKinney et al., 2008; Pantic & Clarke-Midura, 2019). This study focuses on the first by exploring what
makes women choose IT. Via analysis, five pathways leading women into IT education are identified. These
pathways provide important insights about the particular ways in which women move through a landscape
that they experience as unfamiliar and masculine.
This paper reports on a study conducted for the Norwegian Centre for STEM Recruitment in 2020 that
aimed to build knowledge for future strategies to recruit women to the field of IT (Corneliussen, 2020, 2021).
The study is based on qualitative, in-depth interviews with 24 women, students, and researchers in IT
programs at science and technology faculties and universities in Norway. It is an explorative study that uses
grounded theory as an analytical tool for identifying new patterns rather than relying on previous findings.
Thus, the aim is not to generalize but rather to explore the variations in how women find their way into the
fields of IT and to learn more about how and why these patterns develop. This paper contributes to literature
in the field of gender and technology studies by expanding the knowledge of how women are recruited to
fields of IT.
International Conferences ICT, Society, and Human Beings 2021;
Web Based Communities and Social Media 2021;
and e-Health 2021
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2. BACKGROUND
Research on the low proportion of women who choose IT education and careers has been ongoing for
decades and has revealed barriers and drivers for womens entry into IT (Cohoon & Aspray, 2006; Google
Inc. & Gallup Inc., 2016; Misa, 2010). Today, there is widespread agreement that the main challenges for
women’s entry into IT are the institutional cultures and structures (Frieze & Quesenberry, 2019) and the
gendered stereotypes about IT (Master et al., 2016), making it a rather bumpy road for women (Branch,
2016). Studies from western countries have identified that youth lack knowledge about IT education and
careers and that this lack of knowledge has more negative consequences for girls than for boys (Grover et al.,
2014; Jethwani et al., 2016). Moreover, IT education is strongly associated with gaming and programming,
making it more attractive for boys than for girls (Corneliussen, 2021; Denning & McGettrick, 2005; Jethwani
et al., 2016). Stereotypes associating IT competence more with men than with women (Blum et al., 2007;
Cheryan et al., 2015) make it challenging for women to identify themselves with fields of IT (Cheryan et al.,
2009; Jethwani et al., 2016; Margolis & Fisher, 2002; OECD, 2016; Rommes et al., 2007).
This study focuses on the recruitment of women and their entry point to fields of IT. International studies
suggest that the interest in and the ability-belief related to IT are important factors that are weighed more than
many other factors for womens recruitment to IT (Master & Meltzoff, 2020). Research suggests that interest
in IT needs to be sparked early in girls, before gender stereotypes reduce their likeliness to express such
interest (Armoni & Gal-Ezer, 2014; DiSalvo et al., 2014). Important educational choices are made during
high school, and Vainionpää et al. (2019) claim that senior high school is the last opportunity to influence
girls major and career choice.” However, studies on women attending boot camps for programming show
that some women find such alternative pathways to IT more available than attending a university course
(Lyon & Green, 2020; Seibel & Veilleux, 2019). Hyrynsalmi and Hyrynsalmi (2019) find that women also
make career changes after high school to enter fields of IT and software. Thus, recent findings suggest that
the ways in which men and women are recruited to IT careers may be different and that women might rely
more on alternatives to traditional college paths (Seibel & Veilleux, 2019). This study contributes to
research in this field by exploring the pathways that bring women in Norway into fields of IT.
3. THEORETICAL AND METHODOLOGICAL FRAMEWORK
3.1 Feminist Technology Studies
This study is based on theories from feminist technology studies emphasizing gender and technology as
socially constructed and co-constructed (Cockburn, 1992; Corneliussen, 2011). Gender is a reflection of the
socially constructed differences between men and women, which are developed through cultural discourses
and negotiated in many different arenas (Connell, 2005). Women, however, are not a uniform group, as
emphasized in the individual difference theory (Trauth & Quesenberry, 2007). This theory points to how
factors such as ethnical background, age, and cultural and economic situations differentiate women from each
other. Technology is also part of a gendered cultural discourse; it includes images of who work with
technology, what they do, and what they know (Cheryan et al., 2015). The analysis below brings these
perspectives together to explore how women navigate from early youth through the stage of high school and
until entering higher IT education.
3.2 Informants and Interviews
This study is based on in-depth explorative interviews conducted with 24 women attending IT education
programs in faculties of science and technology across different locations in Norway. The interviewees
attended various IT programs, including informatics or computer science, bioinformatics, computer
engineering, computer technology, cybersecurity, and business informatics. Overall, fourteen interviewees
were students at bachelor level, five were students at master level, and five had a research or recruitment
position in academia. Sixteen of the participants were between the ages of 20 and 24, and the average age
was 27. The interviews began with a questionnaire aimed at confirming the factors identified by previous
research as relevant for women’s choice of entering IT education. This allowed for a more explorative
interview, encouraging the interviewees to describe their experiences and explain their choices from
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childhood until they entered a university-based IT degree course. All informants are anonymized. The study
has been approved by the Data Protection Services at the Norwegian Centre for Research Data.
3.3 Grounded Theory Method
The analysis is based on the grounded theory method inspired by Charmaz (2006). Grounded theory
represents a systematic and flexible scientific method covering the entire research process, from formulating
research questions to writing the analytical text (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Charmaz (2006) describes the
method as a strategy for exploring data while answering the question: What is going on here? Grounded
theory supports explorative research because it starts with the data and the phenomenon being studied and not
with a predefined understanding. The findings presented below were obtained by coding the interview
transcripts, sorting the codes and developing categories, writing analytical notes (memos), and, finally,
developing the notes into scientific text. The main codes and categories developed for this study relate to the
changes and movements in the womens narratives about their experiences from childhood until entering IT
education and aim to answer the question, “what made the women move into IT?
4. FINDINGS: WOMENS PATHWAYS TO IT EDUCATION
The interviews commenced with the women drawing their chronological story from youth to entering IT
education (see Corneliussen, 2020). This drawing worked as a map for discussing what affected each new
turn on their way through the stages from being unfamiliar with IT, to becoming interested in IT, and finally
to deciding to enter the fields of IT. The discussion revealed that only few women had established an interest
in IT before attending high school. The majority had developed a gradual familiarity and interest during or
after high school. Interestingly, some of the women did not recognize that they had any interest in IT at all
before applying for IT education. Thus, although interest in IT has been identified in international studies as
one of the most important factors for the recruitment of women to IT (Master & Meltzoff, 2020), 19 out of
the 24 women interviewed in this study described other factors as more important for their entry into IT
education. Furthermore, 21 women perceived IT as a masculine field before entering and expected men to
dominate not only in numbers but also in terms of competence, which the women associated with boys
leisure time use of computers for playing and programming (Corneliussen, 2021). Thus, most of the women
recognized IT as a highly gendered landscape. The findings shared below show how the womens pathways
can be described according to the different ways of moving through this landscape. The pathways identified
here are not entirely exclusive, and six women present two different pathways in their narrative (cf. Table 1
and Figure 1).
Table 1. Features defining womens pathways to IT education
Pathways
Features
1) Early interest in IT (17%)
Early interest, friends with IT interest; programming, HTML, and web design; early
decision to study IT
2) Late discovery of IT (20%)
Limited knowledge and initially limited interest for IT; discovered IT as relevant;
changed direction or education into IT
3) An alternative platform (33%)
Limited knowledge and initially limited interest for IT; platform in familiar subject;
interest in combining IT with other fields; IT as an alternative to sciences
4) A random choice (20%)
Limited knowledge, no interest, and no intention of attending IT education before
suddenly finding herself there
5) Invited because it suits girls
(10%)
IT culturally defined as suitable for women; mathematics as a gateway; suitable for
the best students
4.1 Early Interest in IT
Only five interviewed women described an early interest in IT. This interest had developed from playing with
computers, coding in HTML, and learning to program. Some had started to think about studying IT already
during secondary school: I remember at secondary school, my brother asked what I wanted to be when I
grew up, and I answered that I wanted to study something to do with IT. [I had] best friends who were very
interested in programming, and that sort of infected me too. They described the importance of IT interest
International Conferences ICT, Society, and Human Beings 2021;
Web Based Communities and Social Media 2021;
and e-Health 2021
39
in their environment and among friends for developing their own interest in IT. The women were interested
in controlling technology because technology is important in todays society. This made programming one of
the most valued skills for them to learn: If you want to have a computer in your home, then you have to
know how to use it one hundred percent. Not just two percent. One of the women had taught herself to
program in high-level programming languages, such as Python and C++: It started in high school, when
friends started making video games. I was inspired and wanted to learn a little myself, since I was also
playing video games. That made me want to take it to a professional level. For some of these women,
programming defined their interest in IT, and this also affected their educational choice; they moved directly
from high school to higher IT education.
4.2 Late Discovery of IT
The next group of women have little knowledge of IT before they discovered IT as interesting. Some had
this realization just in time for applying to higher education, whereas some changed their study program to IT
at a later stage. Two of the women realized their interest in IT when participating in activities to recruit high
school girls to IT at university level: We were on the Girls days, a conference we were invited to since we
were enrolled in the science program. […] We heard presentations by people working in IT […]. Thats
when I got interested and decided that I wanted to apply.
Another woman had already decided to apply for either finance or law when she attended a presentation
on IT education, and this presentation changed her mind: I didnt think about IT as a possibility before we
were supposed to apply for higher education. Back then I knew what to do [finance or law], so I just joined a
friend who was going to a presentation of engineering, and thats when I found out that this was an option.
Her newfound interest strengthened when she met someone working in IT, and she decided to apply to an IT
program. Note that the two women described above were the only women in our sample who referred to
recruitment activity organized by educational institutions as relevant for their choice of entering the IT field.
Five other women discovered IT after they had already started at another bachelors degree course. One of
them had started at a different engineering degree course where she learned to program: I remember, in the
beginning we had programming and I did not understand the way of thinking, but I was forced to have that
subject, so then I began to understand more. In the end I had a lot of fun, and that was the subject I did best.
And then I wanted to change to computer science. This illustrates how interest develops after becoming
familiar with IT; the interest is also related to establishing her ability-belief: recognizing that she could
understand programming (Master & Meltzoff, 2020). Several women followed this pattern. One of them fell
in love with programming while learning about it through an interdisciplinary program: I cant explain the
joy I got from the introduction to programming. […] For me, it has been one of the best things. Its like no
other subject Ive ever had. It was the most wonderful thing about joining that study. These narratives,
however, also involve a change of direction or even a delayed entry into IT, as the women had to restart on a
new degree, a phenomenon I have labeled as a penalty round for women (Corneliussen, 2021). Many of the
interviewed women described this penalty round; they did not enter IT in the first place because they did not
know enough about it when leaving high school, which suggests a missed opportunity to recruit women: I
think that since I thought IT was so much fun when I started here, I probably would have felt the same at
high school. Common to the women discovering IT late is that they had little interest in IT during high
school because they knew little about it. Learning about IT from a different perspective or through
practicefor instance, in programmingwas crucial to their discovery of IT as interesting.
4.3 Alternative Platform
The next group of women also had little interest in and limited knowledge about IT at high school. However,
their interest had developed from a platform within another discipline that they already knew and had
mastered. Thus, they could approach IT as a new field while ensuring professional security and with a certain
level of ability-belief (Eccles, 2015). For most of these women, science was an important platform:
“Mathematics was probably the strongest subject I had ever since I was a child. While feeling safe owing to
the familiar platform, they could give IT a try and test whether they liked it but in combination with other
subjects: Since I looked both at biology and computer science, it was the mixture of the two that seemed
interesting.
Several of the women saw IT as an alternative to a pure science program: In high school, I had science
and liked it, but I didnt like science so much that I wanted a bachelor in math or chemistry alone. […] I saw
technology as a middle ground where you could both be creative and use sciences. There was still a level of
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uncertainty in their choice due to limited exposure to IT at school; therefore, many of them initially started by
considering the disciplines they already knew: I was on the chemistry day, and I was like no, this was
kind of old-fashioned, maybe a little boring. And then I found that program online: bioinformatics. These
are two topics that Im interested in, like the bio part and the chemical part, and you can connect it with some
IT.
Although they had learned about sciences in high school, IT was new and unfamiliar, making them
uncertain about the choice. However, unlike traditional science subjects, many of the women recognized IT
as more relevant in todays digital society; a cybersecurity student illustrates: I have worked with security
for many years […]. So I was interested in IT and I needed that perspective [at work]. Because it is a lot
about being able to understand the digital society. […] For me, it has been a way of preparing myself for the
new digital society. The societal perspective was important for the women: It has to do with the framework
for society, in a way. One was concerned with how we choose to set boundaries for technology [because
this] will determine what society will look like in the future, including what values and what rights people
will have. Although this group of women expressed various motivations for attending IT education, a
common point is that they became interested in IT when they realized that it can be combined with a subject
they already knew well, functioning as a safe and well-known platform for entering IT.
4.4 A Random Choice
Similar to the previous group, the next group had limited interest in and knowledge about IT education. They
had no intention of applying for IT educationnot until they, by chance, ended up in IT: I put a list of
studies in front of me, and then I just let my finger slide down and it stopped at something called [an IT
degree]. I turned up at the first class; it said I had to bring my own laptop. I had minimal knowledge about
that, but I went to buy myself a laptop and turned up at school and the first thing the teacher said was Today
we will program in Visual Basic. I had no idea what programming or Visual Basic was, so I hurried to
Google it while sitting there. I understood nothing, and went to see my brother-in-law, who helped me get
started with Visual Basic. And then I was really hooked after the first class. Thus, it was totally random. Her
entry into IT relied on a coincidence rather than a thoughtful choice. Another woman hardly knew that she
had applied to an IT program: I didnt know anything about the discipline until I started. I didnt know I had
applied for it, even; I had only searched for a lot of subjects at [university]. Her goal was to attend a
particular university and therefore she had applied for any study program that seemed slightly relevant,
including IT, but had since forgotten about it and was surprised when she realized she had been enrolled. A
total of six women described their pathway to IT education as a result of random events rather than a
deliberate choice, and they applied to IT education without identifying an interest in IT. However, once they
started, most of them developed such interest, as they mentioned during the interviews, with one even
becoming hooked to programming on the first day.
4.5 Invited Because it Suits Girls
It is something cultural; it was one of the most appropriate studies for girls in [her homeland]. I knew about
it because of my sister, and she encouraged me. Three women expressed a similar experience with IT
education, having been recommended and encouraged to study IT because it was considered appropriate
for women. None of them were born in Norway. In their homeland, IT had been presented as a natural
choice for students, such as them, who were good at mathematics. One of them explained that IT attracted the
best students: That is also why I chose to go to IT, because it was a trend, but also because the best students
go there. I had the best results at school, and thats how I chose the direction. These women were surprised
to find so few women in IT in Norwaynot because of the expectations of Norwegian gender equality but
because they were used to seeing more women attending IT education: It was a shock, for me: Really, am I
the only girl in this class?' We do not find this pathway to IT education among the women who grew up in
Norway.
4.6 A Fragile Choice
Whereas interest in IT is often treated as a decisive factor for both girls and boys choosing IT education
(Master & Meltzoff, 2020), the five identified pathways show that only some of the women considered
interest in IT as important for their choice of entering the field of IT. The majority rather claimed that their
International Conferences ICT, Society, and Human Beings 2021;
Web Based Communities and Social Media 2021;
and e-Health 2021
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pathway to IT was a coincidence or based on interest in other subjects. The women interviewed here also
recognized that they had little knowledge about different IT disciplines, and only few had been encouraged in
the direction of IT. For some, the unknown became a motivational factor: It was because I thought it seemed
pretty open and it seemed like you had a lot of opportunities and I just really wanted to try it out. One of the
women used the motto of Pippi Longstocking (a childrens book character, the strongest girl in the world,
by Astrid Lindgren) to illustrate how difficult it was to know what to expect in this unfamiliar field: Ive
never done this before, so Im probably really good at this.
Owing to the womens lack of insights about IT, several of them described IT as a fragile choice and that
upon entering, they considered it a test to find out if it suited them: After high school, when I started looking
at studies, I didnt quite know what it was, but I thought it seemed interesting [...]. There wasnt much
information about bioinformatics either, so I didn’t really know what I was going for. […] After all, I knew
nothing about programming and computer science. Some of the women were still not certain after enrolling
that IT education was right for them: To be completely honest, I would say that I was not really interested
until I started […]. When I started here, I was a little skeptical too […]. So it was like, ok, if I absolutely do
not like it then I can always switch. The lack of knowledge about IT made entering the field of IT a fragile
choice because they were prepared from the start to leave if IT did not turn out to be a good fit for them.
5. DISCUSSION
This study suggests that many women are not recruited to IT education through the expected route of moving
from high school to university with a dedicated wish to study IT. Rather, for the majority of women in this
study, their pathways to IT are characterized by the discovery of IT as relevant and interesting through other
channels than those at high school. The findings suggest that although the women might initially have had
low motivation to study IT, they established an interest when they realized that IT can be combined with
something familiar, such as science, or something they find interesting, such as societal challenges. This
finding is in line with research suggesting that a feeling of belonging is important for developing interest in
IT (Master & Meltzoff, 2020). A surprisingly large group of women, one out of four, described how they had
ended up in the IT field owing to random incidents and with no initial intention of studying IT. This also
illustrates the difficulty in considering IT as a relevant field of study before being confronted with it. The last
pathway, taken by women from other cultures, shows that women are invited and encouraged to choose IT
education partly because it is considered appropriate for women. This installs a different pathway for
womens entry into IT, one that is not recognized among the women born in Norway. This pathway also
helps to identify the cultural character of the Norwegian womens narratives, highlighting some of the
challenges and barriers for womens decisions to attend IT education in Norway.
6. CONCLUSION: AN INVISIBLE OPTION
This study reminds us that women are not a unified group; they have different backgrounds and interests, and
they have found different pathways to IT education that also illustrate how educational patterns are shaped by
culture. Although IT education is a varied field with many different disciplines, the trend identified here
shows that many young women in Norway do not see IT as a relevant educational choice while they move
from high school to higher education. Womens limited knowledge about IT at this point also includes little
knowledge about the different IT disciplines. Consequently, many women rely on the stereotypical images of
IT before attending an IT program. This suggests that women choose IT education despite barriers, in
particular, a close association between IT and men (Corneliussen, 2020). The findings show that women
know few people who work in IT, they identify few female role models in IT, and only few of them are
encouraged to take up IT. They have to negotiate a culture recognized for causing low self-confidence in
women and challenging womens feelings of belonging in IT (Corneliussen, 2020). The long list of barriers
experienced by the women suggests that the right question might not be why there are so few women in IT
but rather how women, despite all the experienced barriers, still find their way into IT. The many detours and
coincidences that lead women to IT education indicate a significant unused potential for recruiting women to
IT. The main challenge seems to involve womens lack of experience and insights into IT during high school.
We also saw that many of the women became interested in, fascinated with, and found great joy in IT and
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that several women believed that they would have become interested earlier if they had only been introduced
to it. The extra round many of them go before establishing sufficient insights into IT to attend an IT program
is what I have termed womens penalty round (Corneliussen, 2021). Paradoxically, in many ways, the
detour they have taken has helped them to identify IT education as a relevant opportunity for them. The
detour has not only made them better acquainted with IT but also less afraid to enter a professional field that
remains deeply rooted in the cultural notions of IT as a male-dominated field.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT
The study was conducted on behalf of the Norwegian Centre for STEM recruitment in 2020. This publication
was funded by Nordwit, the Nordic Centre of Excellence studying women in tech-driven careers in the
Nordic countries.
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