Educational issues

Although the research makes it clear that the gender gap cannot be tackled exclusively through education, this is undoubtedly a crucial area of intervention as it is through educational institutions that women tend to take their first steps in the world of computing. These women are strongly motivated, but motivation alone is not enough to see them through and particular steps must be taken. Our research has brought together information on different approaches used in France and Great Britain that offer some interesting suggestions:

In France, the SARAPP centres (Site Antenne Rurale de Pédagogie Personnalisée) aim to provide for the educational needs of men and women living in rural areas who are unable to attend formal courses because of distance or time factors.

These (centres) are structures that offer access to computers, and where assistants provide support in the use and learning of this technology. Self-learning applies not only to computer skills but also to learning a range of different subjects.

A woman student highlights the positive aspects of this approach:

It is interesting to work by oneself and at the same time to have be able to get tutoring. We are asked questions, we write back the answers and these are corrected. In normal courses you have to keep up with the class' rhythm whereas here I can follow at my own speed. Another advantage is autonomy…Once I finish this course I will buy CDs to continue working with my own PC. This is more interesting…

In this case education concentrates on teaching flexibility and the diffusion of centres, even small ones, offering access to computers for those who do not have a computer at home. Where the programme is offered to young people who have interrupted their schooling, the centres also rapidly become a place for socialising.

The British experience is very different. It directly tackles the issue of gender and inequality and to address this there are a number of courses aimed exclusively at women, especially at the introductory level. A woman student explains the advantages of such a course:

The teachers are all very good. It is very important that the course is set up for women only, because they have not as yet studied any computing. The more I learn, the more I become interested. I don't have a computer at home yet, so I'm limited to using the College's. The atmosphere is friendly and the sense of support in the class has encouraged me a lot…I think it would have been different in a mixed group. Through the course I've gained much more self-confidence, even outside college, with friends and family.
(student at Lewisham College)

A female instructor describes the general outline of this approach:

There are few but essential rules. First, nobody can laugh about someone else's mistakes. Second, you must tell the others about what you find out or learn and not be jealous of what you know and keep it for yourself. This way learning becomes faster, also for those who are the first to make progress…In a group there are different levels, and resources must be shared.
(a female instructor at Lewisham College)

The choice of offering women-only courses was aimed at helping women overcome the 'gap' that prevents them from expressing their abilities and their potential not only within an educational environment, but in their private lives as well.

The relationship of women with technology has always been difficult. Technology is traditionally considered an area of male interest and specialisation. Traditionally, in a mixed class, men tend to take the initiative and up to a point it is women themselves who allow this. There are very clear and rigid stereotypes about the relations of technology and gender. Although they are mistaken, they are very much ingrained in the way of thinking of women as well as of men.
(a female instructor at Lewisham College)

Equally interesting and provocative is the experience of those who have rejected women-only courses in favour of mixed groups. Whereas women only courses provide a safe environment for beginners, others, especially more advanced students, may find these courses limiting.

We end this brief report on the research project with the recommendation that women should be active and self-conscious subjects in every field and should be encouraged in their determination to overcome the gender gap that negatively influences their access to the new information technologies.