Transforming gender roles in higher education

Zoya Waliany

Recently, School of Information professor Lecia Barker was featured in The Daily Texan for her commitment to increasing the number of women involved in computer and information technology-related careers. Barker received a $442,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to find new methods to enlist and retain women in technology fields.

Barker argues that American women need to increase their visibility in technological areas, and the lack of female participation impedes our nation’s ability to compete internationally in an increasingly technological world. She draws her arguments and statistics from her experience as a senior research scientist for the National Center for Women and Information Technology, a nonprofit organization aiming to increase the number of women pursing careers in technology.

Barker’s argument is apt, as there is a shortage of women studying technology at UT. According to the Office of Information Management and Analysis, in 2010 the Cockrell School of Engineering had 1,669 female students and 5,993 male students, whereas the College of Liberal Arts had 5,875 females to 4,939 males. This male disproportionality in technology fields proves true throughout our nation’s higher education institutions. The Guardian reports that in 2009, only 15 percent of university engineering and technology-related majors in the United States were women.

Commendably, UT recognizes the importance of female participation in technology, supporting programs such as the Women in Engineering Program, an initiative within the Cockrell School of Engineering to increase female enrollment from 22 percent to 50 percent. The need for greater female presence in these types of stereotypically male-dominated fields links to the gender gap in the nation. The gender gap can be defined in a multitude of ways, including the difference between female and male income earnings or participation in the work force. While women have made leaps and bounds in their presence across the board — from increased political participation to claiming greater roles in civic engagement — technology is one field where women still lag significantly behind men. Thus, this field has acquired the reputation of being a traditionally male-dominated one, while, the stereotype continuing, women are more likely to be found in fields such as education.

Archaic ways of thinking about the woman’s place in higher education has led to the development of the belief in “traditional academic roles.” The stereotype of traditional academic roles goes so far as to even permeate the roles of our nation’s president and first lady. Generally, many people view the work done by our country’s first ladies as work appropriate for females, as their programs often deal with topics including nutrition, education and fitness (these generalizers seem to be forgetting the work of one of our most noteworthy first ladies: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton). To demolish this stereotype, women must increase their presence in fields such as computer science, engineering and information technology.

Not only is increased presence imperative to bridging the gender gap in all respects and ending the stereotype of “traditional subjects” of female study, but Barker also notes that the technology field is brimming with career opportunities for women. She said the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics foresees a faster growth in the number of professional computing and information science jobs than all other forms of science combined through 2018. Barker poses a pertinent argument about natural sciences, as the Office of Information Management and Analysis reports that the College of Natural Sciences is the second most popular among female students with 4,583 incoming women in 2010 — 107 more female than male students. Thus, if the regulatory feminist argument for equality among the genders isn’t convincing enough, perhaps watching a couple of Republican debates about the lack of jobs in the United States will scare women into thinking further about the budding career avenue of technology.

I’m not calling for women studying business or liberal arts to pack up and switch majors. Unquestionably, there is still a significant demand for female participation in politics, academia, business and other fields. The United States ranks 72nd in the world in women’s participation in politics. Of the 61 professors of the UT government department, only nine are female. USA Today reports that only 2.6 percent of Fortune 500 Companies were led by female CEOs in 2009. Increased female participation across the professional world is still vital to the plight for gender equality.

However, the work of Barker and others on the struggle to increasing female participation in technology fields is likewise extremely vital. Business Week argues that increasing women’s presence in technology will unlock a major source of growth to fuel our country for years to come, rendering the United States more eligible to compete on a global scale with countries that focus on technological growth. Increasing female participation calls for improved recruitment and retainment tactics, as Barker is researching, and interest in female students from these technological companies and organizations. Moreover, the current societal assumptions of traditional educational roles must be broken if we wish to further our nation’s progress.

Waliany is a Plan II and government senior.