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Gender, ICT and Education

What Development Practitioners Need to Know about Gender, ICT and Education

Technical Education, Training, and Women's Participation in the ICT Sector

Girls and women are poorly placed to benefit from the knowledge economy

Females have less access to skills training and development that would enable them to gain employment in the ICT sector. When females are employed, they generally work at lower levels, with less pay.

These initial disadvantages prevent girls and women from benefiting equally from the opportunities offered by the new technologies. Paradoxically, these same technologies offer opportunities for them to overcome these disadvantages by obtaining the education and the technical skills that will enable them to participate equally in the knowledge economy.

Girls and women experience serious disadvantages in access to education in most developing countries

In some regions gaps between the enrollments of girls and boys have narrowed. For example in East Asia, it is expected there will be parity between girls and boys by 2005, and progress has been made in North Africa and South Asia. However with the exception of a small number of countries, in girls and women have less access to education at all levels, and they have lower levels of literacy in low-income countries.

The UNESCO Education for All Initiative recognizes that girls and women lag far behind boys and men in this sector:

  • Two out of three of the 110 million children in the world who do not attend school are girls, and there are 42 million fewer girls than boy in primary school;

  • Even if girls start school, they are far less likely to complete their education;

  • Girls who miss out on primary education grow up to become the women who make up two-thirds of the world 's 875 million illiterate adults;

  • A 6-year-old girl in South Asia will typically spend 6 years in school, compared with nine years for a boy;

  • Living in the countryside widens the gap; a girl living in a rural area is three times more likely to drop out of school than a city boy.

Girls and women also participate less in science and technology education

Barriers include:

  • Perceptions of teachers and parents that girls and women are unsuited intellectually for science and technology subjects;

  • Tendency of teachers to pay more attention to boys in mathematics and science classes;

  • Intimidation of girls and women in science and technology classes;

  • Masculine image of S&T in curricula and media;

  • "Narrow" focus of technology courses which often may not connect to life outside the classroom ;

  • Social class - girls and women who do have access to science and technology education at higher levels tend to be from higher-income families.

Employment of women in science and technology is heavily concentrated in a few occupations, and at low levels. Women tend to work as home and farm helpers, nurses, lower-school teachers, and secretaries. Compared with men with similar qualifications, tasks, and responsibilities, women are over-represented in part-time employment or unemployment and in low-paid and insecure jobs. In particular, women are severely under-represented in ICT occupations, and their participation has been declining in many countries.

Although many women in Asia engage in telework or remote processing, their participation tends to be at the administrative or clerical level - in data input and processing. Concentrated in the low or unskilled end of employment, women are not getting the training that the new jobs require. Therefore they enter and remain mired in low-level, low-paid jobs. Women are overlooked in skills development and on-the-job training in general. For example, 42 percent of women in sub-Saharan Africa participate in the labor force, but few have equal access to skills development: young women make up only 15-35 percent of students in formal training programs. In view of the rapidly changing set of skills required to participate in ICT employment, these lower levels of access to training are a serious disadvantage. Researchers have called attention to women's lower levels of participation in ICT training.

As a result of these gender, ICT, and education barriers, a series of "disjunctions" or mismatches occur between requirements of educational programs and the situation and experiences of women

These disjunctions apply particularly to technological education, and occur between:

  • Maintenance and achievement of formal entry requirements, and overall level of educational attainment among women;

  • Women's domestic labor and their educational and career aspirations;

  • Educational fees and women's financial dependence and lower incomes;

  • Traditional curricula and women's experience and approach to knowledge;

  • Instrumental pedagogies and women's preferred learning modes.

Strategies to encourage the participation of girls and women in scientific and technical education and training

Several strategies have proven effective in encouraging the continued participation of girls and women in education in general:

  • Provision of scholarships;

  • Culturally appropriate facilities;

  • Female teachers;

  • Alternative schools with flexible schedules;

  • Vocational training.

There is a substantial body of research on strategies and approaches to increasing the participation and success rate of girls and women in scientific and technical education

Possible classroom and curricular strategies include:

  • Presentation of a gender-neutral, or gender-inclusive image of scientists and the practice of science;

  • Emphasis on hands-on activities and applications to everyday life, society, and the environment;

  • Introduction of female role models and mentors;

  • Conscious effort by teachers to treat girls and boys as equals in the classroom.

Technical and vocational training for the knowledge economy

Technical and vocational training for women in the knowledge economy is key. Women need access to technical and skills training to move into more technically and cognitively oriented jobs.

TVET (technical and vocational training) can redress the inequalities women experience with respect to skills training and ICT employment in three ways:

  • Provide ICT skills training to women for ICT-based employment;

  • Provide ICT-based training for women in small-enterprise development and management;

  • Provide access to skills training, resources and information on production technologies for their daily productive and reproductive activities, such as small-enterprise development and income-generating activities, food processing and agriculture, and health.

Technologies for distance learning and technical education

Distance learning through ICTs offers a new set of possibilities for the education and training of girls and women, at all levels and for all types of education. For higher and vocational education especially, distance education through ICTs provides a great opportunity for women and provides them with a positive educational experience. Flexibility of access time allows females to undertake their studies at convenient times, and allows them to juggle study with family responsibilities.

Interviews in Asia demonstrated that women in that region used distance education to improve their income-generation; to find a career that would enable them to support their families and send their children to university; to improve their performance in their current work; to increase their self-confidence; and to learn new things. Most had to overcome strong opposition from family members, which often dissipated when the benefits to the family as a whole were demonstrated.[2]  A study of distance education and gender in Barbados revealed that ICTs are "playing a role in encouraging young women to enter science and technology areas of study."[3]

Challenges to distance and e-learning include the high cost of equipment and access, increased costs of higher education, undependable infrastructure, lack of content available in local languages, and lack of locally relevant content. To reach women and groups in all socioeconomic levels, alternative access strategies need to be investigated.

Five criteria for assessing the use of technologies for education and training are:

  1. How does the use of ICTs for education fit into national education and telecommunication policy?

  2. Will ICTs help achieve already existing goals for basic education, and if so, how?

  3. Which ICTs are most appropriate and sustainable in the classroom and social situation: radio, print, television or computers?

  4. Do applications of technology for education contribute to the curriculum, incorporate available communication infrastructure, and fit local training capacity?

  5. To build on lessons learned and successful strategies, does the technology follow, or maintain a distance from, the leading edge of technology?

ICTs for teacher training

Women tend to make up the majority of the teaching population; therefore, teacher training is very much a gender issue. Distance education has proven to be valuable for teacher training because it:

  • Gives teachers access to learning at any time, any place

  • Provides teachers with access to a variety of examples of teaching practice, and the opportunity to engage in reflection and analysis, both individually and in groups

  • Allows teachers to access instructional products such as student work, lesson plans, and assessment instruments;

  • Provides access to a broad array of teaching and learning resources

  • Involves a range of individuals and groups with different types of expertise who can contribute to teacher development, including university faculty, experts, researchers, and curriculum specialists

  • Provides sustained, ongoing opportunities for teacher development

  • Can involve a range of individuals and groups with different types of expertise to contribute to teacher development, including university faculty, experts, researchers, and curriculum specialists

  • Provides uniform training quality with the flexibility of local customization

  • Can be tailored to specific needs and curricula of an education system (Capper, 2002).


E-learning generally refers to teaching and learning that takes place through the Internet. It has been defined as "the use of network technology to design, deliver, select, administer, and extend learning." E-learning strategies are most beneficial at higher levels of education, and in locations where dependable and affordable Internet access is available.

Studies show that women enthusiastically and successfully take advantage of e-learning opportunities. Studies of distance education in North America have found that women outnumber men in enrollments in distance courses, ranging from 61 to 78 percent in selected universities, although enrollment of women in other parts of the world varies considerably. A 1992 study found that women outnumbered men in distance learning courses in New Zealand and Israel, but that the opposite pattern existed in Britain, Germany, and Spain. According to a more recent study, enrollment for women in some of the larger distance education institutions varied from 50 percent at the Open University in the U.K., to 27.4 percent at FernUniversitat, Germany, 54.7 percent at UNED, Spain, and 38 percent at the Open University, Netherlands. Developing country statistics appear to be available primarily from South and Southeast Asia. Women make up 26 percent of students at the Indira Ghandi National Open University, India; and 40 percent of students in secondary education at the Bangladesh Open University. Interestingly, women also make up 60 percent of students on the merit list.[5]

A study of ICT-based lectures at the FH-Joanneum in Austria found that female students prefer the privacy of virtual education, with no pressure or fear of embarrassment in front of male peers. A survey of students at the Open University in the United Kingdom revealed that female students appreciated the use of computer conferencing for contact with other students, course directors, and tutors, and suggested that women may experience more support in an on-line environment (Gferer and Pauschenwein, 2002; Bissell et al, 2002).

Computers in the classroom

There is evidence to indicate that computers in classrooms can increase and enhance the value and quality of learning. SchoolNet Africa and Schools Online[6]  are examples of this. However, the experience of these and other initiatives indicates that the overall value of computers in schools depends on: level of education; cost; availability of support, maintenance, and software; suitability and availability of curriculum; and national ICT strategy and commitment.

Schools Online[7]  identifies three critical components: technology, teacher development, and cross-cultural collaborative projects. Technology and connectivity strategies need to be appropriate to the needs and situation of the school (financial, infrastructural, and other). Teachers and trainers need to have or obtain experience in teaching technology skills and project-based learning activities. Collaborative projects provide an effective format for students to communicate with their peers worldwide on issues that effect their lives today and in the future.

Computers in Schools: SchoolNet Africa

Gender integration in programs to introduce computers to schools has been extremely limited to date. A study by World Links of schools participating in Schoolnet Africa found that girls experience difficulty in using computer labs (see Case Study section). When girls do have access to and use ICTs effectively, it is largely by chance rather than through conscious programs to advance girls and women. Examples in which girls and women were actively supported to use ICTs include:

  • SchoolNet Uganda, which targeted girls-only schools;
  • SchoolNet Africa, which set up an Educators' Network targeting women (who now make up 51percent of the network);
  • SchoolNets in Mozambique and Uganda, which set up collaborative learning projects on issues affecting girls and women, such as discussions on why girls drop out of school.[8]

The use of computers in primary and secondary schools is important to acquaint girls with computer technology, because they are less likely to go on to higher education. In this way girls and women can gain basic computer skills, have equal opportunity to develop an interest in computers, and perhaps enter an ICT profession.

Costs and benefits of technologies for distance learning

Costs of distance learning can be prohibitive for women in terms of equipment and online access costs. In addition costs of computer-based learning strategies in particular can be overly expensive unless the use and advantages of computers are calculated in the context of access goals (including access for girls and women), economic environment, and national policy. In other words, cost-benefit analysis should take into account more than dollar figures.

Factors to consider in calculating costs and benefits of the implementation of distance-learning technologies:

Some of the factors to consider are:

  • Equal access to education

  • Meeting the needs of rural communities and groups (including women), who experience other barriers to education;

  • Quality - distance education may allow access to teaching materials and lecturers not locally available; however, some disadvantages include questions of relevance to local situation and languages and frequency of updating content

  • Student retention

  • Dropout rates are higher for distance-education programs; therefore, savings in average cost per student may dissipate

  • Economies of scale and scope may be possible, depending on local and national curricula, numbers of students, and affordability of user technologies

  • Increased employment and income - not enough studies have been done to demonstrate conclusively the practical results of distance education, but some studies do indicate that students benefit financially

Factors to keep in mind in implementing distance education programs:

Some of the factors to consider are:

  • Sequential use of predecessor tools. Some of the most successful examples of distance education exist in China, where distance education began with correspondence and gradually moved up the technology scale from radio and TV to CD-ROM, Internet and in some cases the World Wide Web (WWW). The example of the African Virtual University supports this approach. Its experience was that online teaching institutions based in developing countries cannot depend on the same telecommunications infrastructure available to the Open University in the UK, for example, and must carefully examine available infrastructure and technology cost to determine the feasibility of this kind of initiative;

  • Virtual education requires a long gestation period: Commitment, effort, investment and implementation must be sustained over a long period of time in order to adequately judge results and potential. Varieties of approaches will need to be experimented with, including work with interest groups, testing options and strategies, planning for large-scale implementation, ongoing evaluation and adjustment;
  • Distance learning (especially when computers are used) should fit into larger national strategies for developing an ICT workforce and/or information society;
  • Invest more in people than technology. Learners must be comfortable and acquainted with the technologies in order to gain greatest benefit from their use. A project in Jordan to introduce computers into schools has found that training teachers, providing support, and changing curricula and teaching approaches to take greatest advantage of the computers account for two-thirds of the total cost of the project.

  • Beware of hidden physical costs, including renovation and upgrading of the buildings housing the computers. These costs will include heating and cooling, electrical capacity, and security.
  • Costs per unit can be lowered by using strategies that ensure high rates of equipment use - for example using school computers at night for adult education programs.

[1] This point is covered elsewhere in the toolkit.
[2]  Kanwar and Taplin, 2001.
[3]  Commonwealth of Learning, 1999: 11.
[4] Perraton, 2002.
[5]  Trivedi, 1989; Evans, 1995; Kanwar and Taplin, 2001; Thompson, 1999; Commonwealth of Learning, 1999.
[6]  See the Case Study section for information on these projects.
[8]  Isaacs, 2002b.

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