Step One: Bridge the Technology Divide
The reality is that overall women tend to have less experience with technology than their male counterparts, whether we are talking about computer technology or auto technology. Instructors who are successful in retaining female students recognize that they need to start with the basics during the beginning of the semester so that the less experienced students get the basic building blocks needed to be successful (this is helpful to male students missing those basics too). So that might mean an introduction to tool identification and use or the basics of navigating the Internet. Instructors should also provide open lab time for students in need of additional hands-on experience. If possible, staff the lab with a senior female student, women are often more comfortable asking questions of other women in a male-dominated field. For some best practice case study examples that illustrate these concepts look at the Cisco Gender Initiative’s Best Practice Case Studies developed by the Institute for Women in Trades, Technology and Science (IWITTS) (1).
Step Two: Collaborative Learning in the Technology Classroom
Many female students lack confidence in the classroom and this negatively impacts their learning ability. There are several reasons for this: first, overall, male students have more experience with technology, especially hands-on labs; second, male students tend to boast of their accomplishments while females tend to think that they are doing poorly even when they are doing well; third, male students tend to dominate in classroom discussions and lab activities.
Technology instructors can overcome these factors by using collaborative group methods in the classroom designed to increase student learning, interaction and support of each other. Some examples of these group methods are: 1) grade students in teams as well as individually; 2) put female students in positions of leadership in the classroom; 3) assign students to teams or pairs rather than leaving it up to them to pick their partners; 4) have female students work together in labs during the beginning of the semester; 5) enlist the help of whiz kids with the teaching of their fellow students, providing them with a constructive outlet for their talents.
Step Three: Contextual Learning
The recent adage that women are from Mars and men are from Venus is alive and well in the technology classroom — women and men have different learning styles when it comes to technology. Most men are excited by the technology itself — how fast it is, the number of gigabytes, the size of the engine. Most women are engaged by how the technology will be used — how quickly the network will run, how much information can be stored, how far the vehicle can go without refueling. These Mars and Venus differences have implications for the class curriculum: female students will better understand technical concepts in the classroom when they understand the context for them. Don’t front load your computer programming classes with writing computer code with no context for this if you want to retain most of your female students. For more information on this subject including off-the-shelf curriculums for teaching contextual technology read IWITTS’s Making Math and Technology Courses User Friendly to Women and Minorities: An Annotated Bibliography (2).
Step Four: The Math Factor
Most technology courses require an understanding of applied math. Many women and girls are fearful of math and have had negative experiences in the math classroom. This phenomenon is so common that courses and curriculum on math anxiety for women are in place around the country. The key to success in teaching most females math is — like technology — contextual and group learning. Fortunately many off-the-shelf curriculums exist for teaching math contextually, see IWITTS’s bibliography linked above. Many technology courses at the two-year college level have math prerequisites that are unrelated to the technology coursework and omit the applied math that will be needed. Technology courses should only require math that is relevant to their courses and/or develop contextual math modules to add to their curriculum.
Step Five: Connect the Women in Your Classes with Other Women
A female mentor or peer support network can help your students stay the course when they are feeling discouraged and can provide helpful tips for succeeding in a predominantly male environment. There are many on-line and real-time associations for women in technology, connect your female students to them. See the Career Links on WomenTechWorld.org for a list of some of these networks. Also, WomenTechTalk on WomenTechWorld.org — a free listserv for women in technology and students — provides a combination of support and expert career panels to it’s over 200 members from across the U.S.
Donna Milgram is founder and Executive Director of the National Institute for Women in Trades, Technology & Science (IWITTS). She is currently the Principal Investigator of the CalWomenTech Project, a $2 million National Science Foundation grant awarded in April 2006. She was also the Principal Investigator of the WomenTech Project, funded by the National Science Foundation, which had a goal of increasing the number of women enrolled and retained in technology education in three national community college demonstration sites. She led IWITTS’s partnership with the Cisco Learning Institute (CLI)/Cisco Gender Initiative. Ms. Milgram produced the interactive teacher training video “School-to-Work: Preparing Young Women for High Skill, High Wage Careers.” Ms. Milgram’s recent conference presentations include: the NSF ATE Conference “Recruiting Women to Science, Technology, Engineering & Math” (2004) and California Educating for Careers Conference in 2003.