Tech-savvy women seek support in classroom and newsroom

  • Women just aren’t interested in technology; they find it boring and geeky.
  • They are not socialized toward technology in early education, and are not encouraged to pursue it by their teachers and parents.
  • When women do participate in technology, the ‘powers that be’ often silence or marginalize their voices.

I was surprised and concerned to learn that those were the reasons why women were not making strides in the design world when I recently attended a panel called, “Where are the Women of Web Design?” at the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin.

Quite often, these reasons were expressed as “that’s just the way it is,” with little discussion of strategies for improvement.

But my experiences in teaching technology skills to young women have indicated different trends. I instruct a Web Publishing course in the School of Journalism at The University of Texas at Austin, in which students learn the basics of HTML, Web graphics, animation with Flash, and multimedia editing.

A majority of women often comprise my class, with females encompassing 75 percent or more of the enrollment. Ninety-three of the 126 students that have taken my class since Fall 2001 have been women. This percentage is even higher than the general proportion of women in the College of Communication, which stands at 66 percent.

The women I have taught over the years have been highly enthusiastic, eager to learn, and have taken quickly to difficult technical concepts. Many have gone on to careers in interactive or multimedia design.

But, as I listened to a panel at South by Southwest discuss the scarcity of women in Web design, I began to consider the implications of my experiences with the young women in my course, and how these experiences conflict with the conventional notions of women and technology.

Genetics to blame and other myths to dispel

First, it is necessary to identify the source of the issues. Stories of women’s lack of representation in the technology field abound. The recent ouster of Carly Fiorina as Chief Executive Officer of Hewlett Packard has brought increased attention to the dearth of women technology executives.

Only 11 percent of top earners at high-tech companies in the Fortune 500 are women, with seven women now in the role of chief executive. (see related article in Wired News.) According to a National Science Foundation study, women comprised only 26 percent of IT professionals in 2002, down from 33 percent in 1990. (see ZD Net UK’s related article.)

In Harvard University President Larry Summers’ debated comments made earlier this year regarding his assessment of women and technology, he stated the roles of mother and caregiver had prevented women from having the time necessary to succeed and advance in professional endeavors. He also said genetics accounted for differences in technological aptitude, and that socialization and sexism were factors, but with less impact than what has been conventionally assumed.

His remarks sparked great controversy, and Summers has since publicly apologized and clarified them. (Read Summers’ comments and apology.)

Women’s lack of representation in computer science and engineering programs at the university level has been the subject of continued study. In 2002, Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher, in their book “Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing,” reported that less than 20 percent of the nation’s research departments of computer science were female.

Margolis and Fisher performed research from 1995 to 2000 at Carnegie Mellon University, interviewing more than 100 male and female undergraduate computer science students about their decision to pursue and continue in the major. During the course of the research, Carnegie Mellon’s female undergraduate enrollment in computer science increased from 7 percent in 1995 to 42 percent in 2000.

Several changes have contributed to these results. Educators have customized the introductory curriculum to different experience levels, and have adjusted admission requirements to focus on aptitude rather than experience. They have also contextualized computer science to other disciplines, and focused experienced teaching in the earliest courses of the curriculum.

In addition, Carnegie Mellon made strides to change its computer culture to be more inclusive of diversity, and performed outreach activities with high schools. In 2004, however, enrollment figures for women had dropped to 30 percent.

A glimmer of hope seemed to emerge as women gained equal access to the Internet by 2000. The Pew Internet and American Life Project
that 61 percent of women and 66 percent of men now use the Internet in the United States.

But, a gender divide is becoming evident in the ways that women use Internet technology to communicate.

Women were early adopters of Weblogs, which they used for reporting family news, uploading photos, or talking about the details of one’s life. But as blogging became more active in the political realm, a few male voices have dominated its usage.

Few women are represented on Technorati’s top 100 blogs. The popularity of an individual blog is largely based on the number of links to it, and it is becoming evident that the powerful blogs are simply linking to each other. The media now only discuss and consider these “Top Tier” bloggers.

One of the few women to make the list is Ana Marie Cox of Wonkette, who blogs about gossip and political scandal going on in Washington D.C. While Wonkette’s column is arguably considered smart and funny, her success is often attributed to her charming, flirtatious style and preoccupation with sex.

Female bloggers speaking on political issues such as Rebecca Blood and Rebecca MacKinnon’s RConversations don’t quite make it to the top tier.

Chris Nolan, in her blog, offered 10 reasons why there aren’t more women bloggers. She included the fact that more men are techies and therefore more comfortable with the technology; that these men like to read and link to other men like themselves; and that most of Big Media consist of men, who are more likely to report about male bloggers.

Expand tech skills to ‘where the girls are’

So, what can be done to reverse these trends, and more specifically, what is the role of communications and journalism education in this process? The progress of programs like Carnegie Mellon’s in attracting and retaining women in the fields of engineering and computer science is admirable and its continuation should be encouraged.

A parallel strategy, however, might be to increase the offering of technical skills in disciplines ‘where the girls are,’ or those in which women are already highly represented, such as communications, liberal arts, and library science.

Many schools currently have multimedia or online journalism courses (see Mindy McAdams article, “Online Journalism Course Syllabi.”) Some have made strong commitments to convergence (see Larry Pryor’s article “A Converged Curriculum: One School’s Hard-won Lessons,”) that have produced mixed results. But, as a whole, the communications field has not embraced its role in training the future communication technologists.

The types of skills I refer to here go beyond introductory Web design or multimedia editing, which are an important base. What I propose is that communications programs seriously consider offering courses to develop higher level skills, like advanced Action Scripting in Flash, programming in languages like PHP or Java, and developing database applications.

These skills are becoming more relevant in the field as communication applications become increasingly sophisticated. More frequently, online news sites are developing interactive polls and quizzes, and are creating Web packages with features more like a video game than a news story.

Research shows, however, that women embrace computing under different conditions than men. A significant finding in the Carnegie Mellon study was that women were more interested in computing with a purpose, while men seemed to enjoy technology as a means unto itself.

“Connecting computing to other fields and working within human and social contexts make the study of computer science more compelling and meaningful for them [women]” (Margolis & Fisher, p. 2).

This assessment is a strong reason for teaching technology across the curriculum in fields such as communications, where those meaningful connections can naturally occur.

Eric K. Meyer, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who teaches online journalism, has seen similar trends in the women who have taken his course.

“In the classroom, if not in the workplace, journalism seems to attract disproportionately large numbers of women, and the women it attracts seem quite interested in – and quite adept at – advanced technology,” Meyer said. “Many of my very best, most advanced, students have been women.”

Yet, he cautioned for an advanced technology offering to be effective in maintaining women’s interest, technology would have to be positioned within the context of communication applications, as opposed to focusing on technology as its own end. His statement is consistent with the Carnegie Mellon finding that women seek computing experiences that are purposeful and meaningful.

Give them the skills, they’ll turn out the product

Each semester in my class, there are several students who request an advanced course, a supervised independent study, or direction as to how they can continue learning these concepts.

Student course evaluations often reflect a desire to continue multimedia skills:

  • “I was truly intimidated by Web design, but with the instruction [in this class] the skills came easily. I’d recommend an advanced class be added to this sequence to further skills acquired here.”
  • “This class has been the most valuable in my three years at UT. A follow-up Web class should be considered.”
  • “This is an amazing class that should have a Part 2 for it. The content of the course is very useful and practical.”

After graduating, students continue to recognize the need for advanced technology skills. Kendra Mayer, a former student and 2003 UT graduate, is now a Webmaster at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs.

“I was only offered one class that covered the technical aspects of web design and online journalism,” said Mayer. “This one class is what I have based my professional career on.”

Mayer said she uses techniques like Cold Fusion, a scripting language for database interfacing, regularly in her job.

“Web design taught me the basics of creating Web sites and also gave me a taste of more advanced skills,” said Mayer. “But, it was up to me to learn the more advanced techniques on my own.”

The benefits to students, both male and female, are numerous, including increased skill level, more marketability, and providing creative outlet for expression. As Robert Niles noted in his OJR article on the rewards of Hypertext Markup Language instruction, teaching coding to journalism students increases familiarity with technical jargon, reinforces importance of precise writing, outlines the difference between structure and style, and provides students a simple and efficient way to communicate without having to invest in expensive software.

The benefits to the discipline are as impressive. As a field, communications would benefit by having people versed in the development and creation of technologies that drive the future of media. Rather than rely on the tools that are developed in computer science and business, where communication values and needs might not be comprehended, the field of communications could produce students who would be able to take responsibility for the creation of their own communication applications.

In her article,”‘New News’ Retrospective: Is Online News Reaching Its Potential?” Nora Paul said, “New methods for crafting and delivering compelling news stories online are still a long way from being fully developed.”

This potential cannot be achieved unless we provide future journalists with the skills and perspective to influence the online media environment, both as producers and consumers of news.

Giving women ‘the edge’

Other disciplines with a high representation of women have already started increasing their technology offerings. The discipline of library and information science is a field that understands the need for taking charge of its own technological future.

At The University of Texas, this department changed its name to the School of Information in 2003 “to better reflect the diversity of issues and the multidisciplinary nature of the studies in the information field.” Seventy-eight percent of its students are women. Now, the skills necessary to succeed in this field include database design, information retrieval, and coding in XML and PHP.

Mary Lynn Rice-Lively, associate dean of the program, said that it is critical for graduates in the information field to have a strong understanding of technology.

“It gives them an edge. They are going to comprehend the sophistication and use of technology that will allow them to hold strong places in their organizations,” she said.

She added that even if graduates don’t intend to be programmers, by having these skills, they are “better at managing technical projects and translating between users and technical people.”

Other library programs have experienced similar trends.

“This continues to be a female intensive profession, and women are still succeeding, even as the profession becomes more technologically oriented,” said Phyllis Holman Weisbard, Women’s Studies Librarian at the University of Wisconsin. “There are plenty of women that are quite comfortable with the uses, applications, and teaching of technology.”

The field of liberal arts also has a high representation of women, and some programs are making strides in integrating issues of hypertext theory and new media literacy into their programs. I also teach in the Science, Technology, and Society department at UT that combines technology skills with critical thinking about the role of technology in society.

Virginia Commonwealth University, where I will begin teaching this fall, is reviewing a new, interdisciplinary Ph.D. program, combining resources in English, Fine Arts, and Communications, and, if approved, will study the convergence of media, arts, and texts.

Where are the role models?

Bringing higher end technology skills to communications students, however, is not without its challenges. Finding qualified teachers who are interested in maintaining their skills in a dynamic technological environment will continue to be a difficult task for search committees. It is equally challenging to identify female instructors who can serve as role models for these students.

Academic departments must determine the extent to which to offer these skills and how to integrate them into the curriculum within established budgets, and without sacrificing other important concepts. But, these challenges should not be viewed as insurmountable to achieving the goal of training students to participate in the ever-changing landscape of interactive media.

I am not recommending every student should be required to take higher-end skills courses, much like it would be infeasible to teach all communications students how to produce a television segment. Yet, I would argue for some level of multimedia skill to be taught to every student, as it is becoming more important for journalism students to be able to showcase their work in an online portfolio.

The higher-end skills, such as programming and database applications, could be offered to students who express a desire to continue in a multimedia sequence or series of electives. Based on my experience with student comments and evaluations, there is evidence that these skills are in strong demand, and a significant number of students, particularly women, would be interested in them.

This approach is not women-centric, in which female students are singled out as a problem, needing special attention and programs to entice their participation. Both men and women in the discipline would benefit. But the result, given the demographics of the field, would be more tech-savvy women with a foundation in communication concepts and values.

We are now finding ourselves in an environment in which all disciplines rely on technology and need to increase the participation of their majors. If we don’t pay attention to this growing trend, we face a future in which all communications students, not just women, are limited in terms of earning power, employability, and voice.

While this argument may seem self-serving, given that I am a female instructor of technology in journalism, my experience teaching and observing women working with technology has fueled my interest in this issue. I hope to open this topic for discussion so I can more fully comprehend the ramifications of teaching advanced technology skills in our discipline.

About Cindy Royal

Cindy Royal is an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University in San Marcos. She completed Ph.D. studies in Journalism at The University of Texas at Austin in 2005. Her career prior to academia included positions at Compaq Computer and NCR Corporation. Her research interests include the social and pedagogical implications of the Internet.


  1. It seems to me that one likely factor that may significantly hinders women involvement or participation in technical fields or endeavors is discomfort with the predominant style of interaction.

    In many male-dominated fields, projects, and forums, ideas and opinions often get explored primarily through adversarial debate. However, many women are uncomfortable with the adversarial style, and prefer a more collaborative approach to developing and exploring ideas.

    Unfortunately, this difference generally isn’t viewed as a style preference. In fact, this generally isn’t discussed openly at all — it’s just assumed that adversarial debate is the only or best way to explore technical topics.

    The result, according to women I’ve talked to, is that despite their interest in the topic, many women get bored or drained by the adversarial interaction commonplace in technical fields or forums. They then either drop out or stop actively participating. One sentence I’ve heard over and over is, “Every time I spoke up, I got attacked.” They realized that usually no attack was intended, yet that was still their experience.

    This does not mean that people who don’t prefer automatically adversarial debate are somehow weak. They just have a different style.

    Fortunately, there are other ways to approach communication, even about technology. It just takes awareness and some effort from everyone involved.

    I’ve just started to explore this angle directly in my weblog, CONTENTIOUS. See: Smashing heads does not open minds:


    – Amy Gahran

  2. I was a part of that SXSW panel. In our defense, we only had one hour for five people to give their views, plus have an audience Q&A.

    And if I remember correctly, our points were more along the lines of “male-dominated geek culture can be isolating and intimidating for women” and “women need to network and self-promote.”

    I agree, however, that online journalism programs would do well to include programming elements. I think having journalists with those skills would lead to better online journalism.

    Doing so, however, still doesn’t change the basic issue of women’s *visibility* in web design.

  3. I would like to clarify a couple of items in this piece that may have been lost in the editing process. I had initially positioned my argument as being surprised by the lack of visibility of women in Web design prompted by the panel; then throughout the conference and in general, hearing the reasons for women’s lack of participation in technology as those listed. They were not originally my lead, and I did not have them in quotes, indicating they came directly from the panel (which they did not). I apologize for the confusion, and must give credit to the panel for inspiring my thoughts for this piece.

    Seeing it posted today, I was concerned that my intent would be lost. My argument is that by offering advanced technology skills in programs in which women were already highly represented, the result, due to demographics, would be more tech-savvy women, some of which may ultimately be interested in Web design or other areas of Information Technology as a career. My experience with female students would indicate a strong interest and aptitude in this area.

  4. I have eliminated the quote marks from the opening comments. OJR apologies for the misunderstanding in the editing process between the writer and our copy editor over the origin of those remarks.

  5. Moving on, in my experience teaching Web design at USC, the two students I’ve had who have most tenaciously and thoroughly researched web publishing technology have been female. But neither embarked upon their research because they cared about the technology itself. They went after the topic because they needed a tool to publish information in a way they wanted it published.

    So let’s blow up the silly notion that persists in some corners of the blogosphere that women can’t or won’t do technology. Let’s instead start looking to experiences such as this to help communications educators ensure that the next generation of online publishers and designers reflects the diversity of the offline world as well.