The co-production of gender and ICT: Gender stereotypes in schools
First Monday

The co-production of gender and ICT: Gender stereotypes in schools by Eduarda Ferreira



Abstract
Information and communication technologies (ICT) are increasingly pervasive and embedded in everyday objects, significantly constituting social identities. In particular, ICT continues to be highly gendered in all socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, a source of significant social inequality in enduring ways. This paper reports on an ongoing research project entitled ‘Gender@ICT’ which explores the interrelations of gender and technologies in an educational context. Results from this research demonstrate that gendered identities of young individuals have an effect on future educational and career choices, particularly in relation to science and technology. This project aims to improve an understanding of the co-production of gender and technologies, advancing ways to promote gender equity.

Contents

Introduction
Gap(s)?
Gender equity
Preliminary results
Conclusions and future work

 


 

Introduction

This paper reports on an ongoing research project ‘Gender@ICT’ which explores the interrelations of gender and technologies in a high school in Portugal. Gender differences in ICT use are explored in their social complexity. One must consider that gender is not universal. It is the culturally local behavioral expression of an internalized individual identity that includes understandings of masculine and feminine, tailored to the specific culture in which a child develops. Gender identity is a pattern in time. It is shaped by the dynamics of physical, social, and emotional experiences and becomes the basis of future identity transformations (Fausto-Sterling, 2012). Gender is fluid and performative (Butler, 2004) and this understanding defies essentialist constructions of gender. A critical perspective invites consideration of the subtleties and complexities of social constructions of multiple masculinities and femininities identified in gender literature (Connell, 2002; Kimmel, 2000; Mac an Ghaill and Haywood, 1998), as well as the multiple representations of gendered adolescent selves, highlighted by developmental psychologists (Curry, et al., 1994; Harter, 1999; Markus and Nurius, 1986).

Research on gender and ICT in Portugal is very limited, mainly focused on education and occupations (Ferreira and Silva, 2016). The relevance of education and jobs is in line with international research, reflecting the main areas of gender gaps in society (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 2012). Notwithstanding some relevant initiatives in Portugal that have produced significant and groundbreaking literature on gender and ICT, academic efforts, in the forms of Master’s theses and Ph.D. dissertations, do not significantly address this topic. Conferences on ICT do not address in detail gender-related issues, contributing to a “deserted landscape” of Portuguese research on gender and ICT (Ferreira and Silva, 2016). ‘Gender@ICT’ aims to fill this gap.

The ‘Gender@ICT’ research project adopts a critical discourse perspective in which gender differences in ICT use are understood as a result of gender-technology and power-knowledge relations. It aims to disclose a tension between agency and structure that is worked out by individuals in particular contexts. This project also explores embodied relationships between gender and ICT, informed by feminist technology studies (FTS) which are based on an understanding that both gender and technologies are social constructions. Objects and artifacts are not seen as separate from society, but part of a social fabric that holds society together. Technology is understood as a sociotechnical product — a fluid network combining artifacts, people, organizations, cultural meanings, and knowledge (Bijker, et al., 1987; Law and Hassard, 1999; MacKenzie and Wajcman, 1999). The main goal is to investigate how do technologies affect and are affected by gendered practices, e.g., how individuals construct their relations to technologies, with a special focus on how gender makes a difference within this construction. ‘Gender@ICT’ uses a qualitative methodological approach, based on face-to-face individual semistructured interviews and group interviews with teenagers, in a school context. The researcher works as an educational psychologist in the school cluster Sebastião da Gama, in Setúbal, Portugal, the focal point of this research. As such the researcher is not an outsider proposing activities to students; data are collected within a familiar context for students. Interviews are focused on how gender relations are materialized in technology, and on how gendered identities, discourses, and technologies are simultaneously produced.

 

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Gap(s)?

To participate fully in the economic, social, and cultural aspects of society, individuals need competencies in order to navigate a complex digital landscape (OECD, 2015a). Besides infrastructural barriers, there are intangible factors, such as cultural norms, which shape opportunities for digital learning. The gender gap in computers is one of these non-material barriers. There are still differences between girls and boys in self-reported digital competencies and experiences, even in countries where there appears to be gender and socioeconomic equality. These differences do not reflect material constraints, but rather students’ interests as well as notions of families and educators about what is suitable for the young (OECD, 2015a).

A recent research project, Net Children Go Mobile (NCGM), conducted in 2014 in six European countries, identified gender differences (Mascheroni and Cuman, 2014). Participating countries included Denmark, Italy, Romania, the U.K., Belgium, Ireland, and Portugal. This project investigated, using quantitative and qualitative methods, how changing conditions of Internet access and use — namely, mobile Internet and mobile-convergent media — brought greater, less, or newer risks to children’s online safety (that is, those aged 9 to 16). The results of NCGM, in all six countries, including Portugal, provided evidence that boys have greater digital competencies and appear to be more self-confident in their uses of computers and the Internet. This study also found a clear rise in the use of new mobile media by girls, such as smartphones with access to the Internet. However, there is still a need for research to study if and how increasing use of mobile devices by girls translates into increased self-confidence in ICT. Parents’ safety concerns are often one of the reasons for placing more restrictions on the use of the Internet by girls. In restricting girls’ access to the Internet, parents in turn may undermine girls’ feelings of competence, which illustrates potentially long-lasting consequences of such intangible factors (OECD, 2015a).

There are about five times more men than women among those who study computing at a tertiary level (OECD, 2015b), which may be related to feelings of incompetence (low self-efficacy) by girls and women. In Portugal, information from PORDATA (Base de Dados de Portugal) illustrates significant differences in the number of students in tertiary education courses in science, mathematics, and informatics by sex (Figure 1).

 

Percentage of students in tertiary education courses on science, mathematics, and informatics by sex
 
Figure 1: Percentage of students in tertiary education courses on science, mathematics, and informatics by sex (Source: PORDATA at https://www.pordata.pt/Portugal).

 

It is interesting to highlight that consistently over time girls have higher scores than boys in exams in mathematics, physics, and chemistry, as well as biology and geology. These exams are required to enter tertiary education courses in mathematics, science, and technology (Figure 2).

 

Exams' results of mathematics, physics, and chemistry, as well as biology and geology, first and second phase, by sex
 
Figure 2: Exams’ results of mathematics, physics, and chemistry, as well as biology and geology, first and second phase, by sex (Source: Direção-Geral da Educação).

 

Gender disparities in decisions to pursue higher education as well as choices in careers do not stem from innate differences in the aptitudes of girls and boys, but rather from different attitudes towards learning and aspirations for the future. Social contexts that influence how girls and boys choose to spend their leisure time in addition to gender stereotypes that affect self-confidence are far more decisive in future career decisions (OECD, 2015b).

 

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Gender equity

Feminist technology studies (FTS) use the term “co-production” to refer to the dialectical shaping of gender and technology. This concept makes it possible to avoid some of the analytical pitfalls of essentializing either gender or technology (Faulkner, 2001; Smelik and Lykke, 2008).

The co-production of gender and technology implies an understanding that neither gender nor technology are pre-existing, nor is the relationship between them immutable (Wajcman, 2007). Gendered identities and discourses are produced simultaneously with technologies, in other words, technology is both a source and a consequence of gender relations and gender relations are materialized in technology (Faulkner, 2001; Oudshoorn, et al., 2004; Smelik and Lykke, 2008; Wajcman, 2004). Gender and technology are both performative and mutually constitutive; i.e., gender is constitutive of what is recognized as technology, determining which skills are categorized as technological or not (Bowker and Star, 1999).

Often research on the gender gap in ICT identifies women as a “problem”, isolating their ICT usage from broader social factors which shape social opportunities and identities. Focusing on the ICT preferences of women can reinforce power inequalities, overlooking more complex and substantive reasons why women do not choose to enter technological professions. Gender equality in ICT is not only about equal numbers of men and women, or boys and girls, using technology. It is also about using technologies purposefully, meaningfully, and productively, in ways that enhance individual well-being as well as democracy (Tømte, 2008). When analyzing gender equality in ICT one must consider that gender is not an isolated category of difference. It is important to acknowledge the various ways in which gender, race, class, and other categories of difference interconnect to create a particular social location from which each woman experiences everyday life, including interactions with technology [1]. Intersectional approaches are required to fully understand inequalities in the use of technologies.

Since education is a key area in promoting change in society, schools are powerful instruments of gender policy and workforce equity. It is of the outmost importance that they do not reproduce social inequities. The emphasis should not be mainly on how schools and ICT use can contribute to bridging a gender gap, but rather on trying to avoid ways of reproducing inequities in schools. Indeed, technology might be a driver to obtain more gender equity in society and, accordingly, ICT is “both a tool and a goal” (Tømte, 2008).

ICT design strategies should acknowledge the diversity of “real” individuals, using the gender concept as a continuum rather than a set of binary oppositions (Jenkins and Cassell, 2008), avoiding a risk of exacerbating gender inequality by stereotyping women (Faulkner and Lie, 2007). Instead of ghettoizing girls as a population that needs “special help” in their relation to technology, we should encourage boys and girls to express aspects of self-identity that transcend stereotyped gender categories, broadening a range of available options in order to open up new spaces for diverse range of experiences and identities for both girls and boys (Cassell and Jenkins, 1998). According to Tømte (2008), the emphasis for gender equality in ICT should be on trying to avoid ways of reproducing inequities in schools, rather than using schools (and their ICT usage) as instruments of gender policy and workforce equity in society.

 

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Preliminary results

Digital devices are increasingly embedded in everyday things and part of our everyday environment, intertwined in sociotechnical networks or systems. Research must explore the increasingly complex process of the mutual shaping of gender and ICT over time and across multiple locations (Wajcman, 2007).

The ‘Gender@ICT’ research project adopts an advocacy/participatory approach (Creswell, 2003). It is conducted as an iterative process, including reflection and action. Students are involved in the research process, using findings to advance ways to promote gender equity in ICT. This project has a qualitative methodological approach, based on focus groups with teenagers in school. Focus groups explore how gender relations are materialized in technology and on how gendered identities, discourses, and technologies are produced simultaneously. By technologies, this project refers to computers and convergent multifunctional portable devices connected to the Internet, such as smartphones and tablets. These devices are frequently used by young people everyday (Mascheroni and Cuman, 2014).

The school cluster Sebastião da Gama, where the research takes place, has seven schools altogether, with a total of 135 classes and about 3.000 students. The ages of students ranges from four years to 18–20 years old. The educational system in Portugal is divided into preschool (for those under age six), basic education (nine years, in three cycles), and secondary education (three years).

The ‘Gender@ICT’ research project includes three phases (Figure 3) — focus groups, class activities (games with words and pictures related to ICT and gender), and semistructured interviews. The focus groups inform the structure and content of class activities. Semistructured interviews with ICT teachers help explore gendered representations associated with ICT and identify educational practices promoting gender equity. Class activities engage mixed-sex groups in games with words and pictures to explore how gendered identities and discourses are produced simultaneously with technologies.

 

Research phases
 
Figure 3: Research phases.

 

This paper reports on the preliminary results of the focus groups and class activities with ninth grade students. The students of ninth grade in Portugal are mostly 14–15 years old, at a time in their lives when decisions are being made regarding education and careers. After the end of the third cycle, students have to choose a secondary course from general and professional programs. There were four focus groups with 18 ninth-grade students, organized around questions related to the effects of gendered identities on educational and career patterns. Gender roles are a decisive aspect of these decisions (Gottfredson, 2002). Young people, 14 to 16 years old, are particularly aware of gendered aspects of their lives (Archer, 2012). Class activities engaged 12 mixed-sex groups (four to five students per group, for a total of 49 students, aged from 14 to 16 years old, 26 girls and 23 boys) in games with words to explore how gendered identities and discourses are produced simultaneously with technologies. Students were asked to arrange the following phrases (Table 1) in two separate groups:

 

Phrases used in class activities
 
Table 1: Phrases used in class activities.

 

The phrase “Uses skirts” worked as a gender marker. Although instructions did not mention that each set of phrases had to be gendered, all groups identified one set of phrases with a girl (the one with the phrase “Uses skirts”) and another set with a boy. It is noteworthy that no group considered the possibility that both sets of phrases could be identified with the same gender.

 

Results of word games in class activities
 
Figure 4: Results of word games in class activities.

 

From the 18 phrases (Figure 4) almost 40 percent were exclusively attributed to boys while only 16 percent were exclusively attributed to girls. According to the objective of this research, there were eight phrases directly associated with technologies. From the eight phrases associated with technologies, four were exclusively attributed to boys (Can fix computers; Likes online war games; Is good with technologies; Spends lots of time in computer games), one was mostly attributed to boys (Likes a lot to use the computer), one was evenly distributed (Always in Facebook) and only two were mostly attributed to girls (Always with a mobile phone; Can’t live without the Internet). Identifying girls with a mobile phone and dependence on the Internet is consistent with research results, such as Net Children Go Mobile (Mascheroni and Cuman, 2014) which reported on the clear rise of girls’ use of new mobile media. The way in which students characterized girls’ ICT usage was restricted to using mobile phones and Facebook, as well as a dependence on the Internet. On the other hand, boys’ ICT usage is clearly associated with computer and online games, and competence in fixing computers, including the evaluative notion that they are good with technologies.

The professions included in the phrases, engineer, football player, and kindergarten teacher, were unsurprisingly attributed according to gender stereotypes and social context. The lack of women in engineering is evidence of a gender ICT gap; the reduced number of female football players is a reality in Portugal; and, only 0.9 percent of kindergarten teachers happen to be men, according to statistics from the Ministry of Education (Ministério da Educação).

It is noteworthy that students associated the use of Facebook equally to both girls and boys. This was the single phrase that presented difficulties to all surveyed students. Social networking seems to be more gender neutral. Some groups identified boys as the ones who spent time fixing their hair, which may be a consequence of an actual social tendency of some males concerned about appearance.

The main conclusion of this activity is that the way students choose to organize these phrases reveals stereotyped ideas on gender roles, including in the use of ICT and technologies. Even though girls are using more technology than previous generations, there is no apparent effect on stereotypes around gender and technologies. Information from the focus groups can contribute to a better understanding of these results.

.Some participants in the focus groups noted that technologies have been always present in their lives. This reality is completely different from an earlier generation of their parents and teachers; for that earlier generation, technologies were not widely available or accessible.

I have been around technologies since I was born, I was born playing tablet ... (laughs) Participant 1, boy, 13 years old.

When I was 5 years old I played PlayStation with my father.. Participant 2, boy, 14 years old.

Adults are seen as less competent in technologies than young people. By interacting with adults, that is teachers or parents, young people acknowledge that some adults lack digital competencies and sometimes need help from students and children.

My father is a nerd in technologies, he knows a lot more than me, but I have to help my mother to use the computer, she needs help. Participant 2, boy, 14 years old.

The History teacher did not know how the search in the Internet we had to help her. I also know much more about computers and the Internet than my parents, but my mother asks more for my help. Participant 3, girl, 13 years old.

I helped my mother to find food recipes on the Internet. Participant 4, boy, 14 years old.

I was the one who taught my father to use the computer, my mother has been never interested and she goes always in the kitchen. Participant 5, boy, 14 years old.

We know a lot more than our parents, we know how to install games, to use social networks and to search the Internet, and for example I have taught my mother to use the Facebook. Participant 6, girl, 14 years old.

In these statements, there are references to gender differences, and these differences become even more present as the conversation progresses. Starting with the adults who first introduced children to technologies, there is a clear difference on how participants understand the way men and women relate to technologies. The adults that first introduced young people to technologies were mainly men, either a father or someone related to the family. Also, fathers or men close to the family spend more time playing computer games.

I learned with my friend’s father, he taught me how to play games on the computer. I used to play with him. Participant 7, boy, 14 years old.

I learned how to use a computer with my father, and later at school. My mother is not very good at it. Participant 8, girl, 14 years old.

The notion that there are gender differences related to technologies was common to all participants in the focus groups. To the participants, gender differences are more evident in older individuals rather than young people, with a marked difference between males and females. Boys are more interested in technologies, in particular the more complex sides of technologies, like maintenance.

Female teachers need more help in the computers than male teachers, and they also ask more for help. I think that male teachers know more about computers. Participant 7, boy, 14 years old.

I think that in general, men are better with technologies than women, and fathers are better than mothers. Participant 6, girl, 14 years old.

Men are more interested in technological stuff than women, although I think that in our age things are more equal, and we all use social networks and the Internet. Participant 9, boy, 14 years old.

Boys are more into informatics, they like it more, they like to fix computers and stuff like that, we also like computers but they like it more, they are more engaged. Participant 10, girl, 14 years old.

Besides the idea that women are less competent in using technologies than men, some participants stressed that it is more frequent to have male students volunteering to help teachers in solving technological problems than girls, further highlighting gender differences.

When teachers need help using the computers in the classroom, boys are always the first to volunteer to help. And if they go the girls don’t need to go. Participant 10, girl, 14 years old.

Challenged to explain gender differences in using technologies, participants identified diverse reasons and constraints, such as family expectations, peer pressure, and social contexts. Being raised as a girl or as a boy has a distinct influence on how a child sees herself or himself and what social roles are expected. Even though gender social roles are changing, participants in the focus groups pointed out that girls still feel pressed to be responsible for house care, affecting in turn their educational and professional choices. To take care of children and the home are expectations that girls have to deal with when planning their future. As for boys, the emphasis is more on professional achievement.

Women are responsible for the house care, like cooking, cleaning, ironing, and our mothers tend to teach their daughters to do the same. They influence us to be housewives and expect that we do like they do. I think that boys also expect us to do the same as their mothers .. I don’t know if it has to be like that, but everyone expects it. Participant 11, girl, 14 years old.

Peer pressure was mentioned as one of the major reasons for boys using more technologies than girls. Hanging out together and the ways in which boys and girls spend their leisure time has a direct influence on individual behaviors. There is a feedback effect of leisure time that follows gender behaviors, group practices, and individual preferences. If most of the boys talk about or play computer games, it is more likely that a young boy is more willing to like computer games compared to girls. Participants consider that when girls are in groups they spend most of their time talking and sharing information, and in this context social networks are important. Technology in leisure activities for girls supports their main interest, communicating.

The boys hang out with boys in class breaks, and they play together, if one is playing a game on the mobile phone the others also want to play it. People influence each other and we all try to please out friends so if they like to play online games we also start to play them, to have things in common, to share. Participant 12, boy, 14 years old.

Girls spend a lot of time in social networks because they like to talk with their friends, in school they stay in groups with other girlfriends and chat a lot, they like to chat a lot, they all tend to do the same. Participant 7, boy, 14 years old.

Considering the use of technologies as a profession, students highlighted the importance of social contexts. Role models are important. Nevertheless, participants in focus groups considered the social contexts of specific professions as having great influence. It is more likely that a boy or girl feels more attracted to a profession if there are more men or women involved in that profession, respectively. On the contrary, if a profession has a majority of men it may not be appealing to girls. It may even be intimidating.

In engineering there are more boys than girls and I think because of that it attracts more boys. Participant 6, girl, 14 years old.

There are more women working with small children, they are more patient and because they are mothers it is easier for them. Participant 5, boy, 14 years old.

If a girl goes to a course with almost only boys I think it is intimidating and uncomfortable, I would not want to be in that situation. Participant 8, girl, 14 years old.

Gender stereotypes came forward in the focus groups, students reproduced normative ideas of how women and men are like, what they prefer, and how they interact with technologies. Stereotypes are not easily disrupted. One of the boys that participated in a focus group identified his mother as more technological competent than his father, as she was the one who taught him how to use a computer. Nevertheless, this boy did not question or hesitate to identify men as more technologically competent overall.

When I was younger, I had a computer at home that belonged to my parents and I learnt with my mother, she knows a lot and is always using it. I have taught my father, usually he does not use the computer or tablet I think that he does not like it. Participant 9, boy, 14 years old.

The way that students identified gender practices and justified gender technological preferences illustrates how gender stereotypes are materialized in technology. In the discourse of the participants in focus groups, gender markers correlate to technology usage.

I think that women are more interested in practical things, things like taking care of the home, not using computers and things like that. Participant 6, girl, 14 years old.

Girls also play online games but I think that they like more games like SIMS or taking care of dolls and boys like war games and with weapons, they are different. Participant 8, girl, 14 years old.

Women usually want to have children and take care of them and men have more free time, and companies will probably prefer to hire men than women, because women get pregnant. Participant 11, girl, 14 years old.

Men also have children but is the woman who gets pregnant, it is different, and women have that time of the month ... . Participant 5, boy, 14 years old.

The participants in the focus groups expressed notions that women are less interested and competent in technologies, with justifications based on both biological and social gender markers. Gender relations are materialized in technologies in the discourses of participating students, disclosing that their concepts of gender and technologies are mutually constitutive.

 

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Conclusions and future work

These results reveal how gender stereotypes are deep-rooted amongst young people, in a time of their lives when they need to make academic choices that lead to professional careers. Gender stereotypes can influence and determine future educational and professional choices of young people, contributing to the maintenance of stereotypes in a cyclical process. Schools have an important role to disrupt this process, supporting the diversity of students’ interests and encouraging both girls and boys to further develop their technological competencies. At the same time it is important to disrupt gender stereotypes in other areas, such as kindergarten education, by supporting boys to engage in caring professions. It is not just about technologies, it is about gender stereotypes and what is expected of boys and girls.

At a time when so many gender stereotypes are being challenged in societies, gender binaries are questioned and diverse ways of performing gender are increasingly visible, it is somehow surprising that these results provide evidence for a strong prevalence of gender stereotypes amongst some young people. Even though girls are using ICT intensively, it seems that preconceived ideas of how women and men use technology remains unchanged.

The next phase of ‘Gender@ICT’ research will examine in greater detail how gender relations are materialized in technology and how gendered identities and discourses are produced simultaneously with technologies. Class activities (games with words and pictures) with pre-school and first cycle children, aged from four to 9/10 years old, will explore their representations of stereotypical gender-related activities and behaviors. These efforts will treat different stages of psychological development and gender identity with pre-school and first cycle children as well as with teenagers in ninth grade. This research will also explore the ideas and experiences of ICT teachers in their relationships with both girls and boys. These teachers have privileged insights into the digital practices of students. Their views will be complementary to the results of focus groups and class activities. The semistructured interviews with ICT teachers will also contribute to identify educational practices that promote gender equity.

Schools still reproduce and reiterate gender stereotypes. It is urgent that gender equity becomes central to education. By gender equity we are not referring to equal numbers of men and women using technology but, as expressed by Tømte (2008), to greater levels of self-determination for all genders, a much greater range of opportunities for being gendered and a more equal distribution of power. End of article

 

About the author

Eduarda Ferreira is a researcher at Interdisciplinary Centre of Social Sciences (CICS.NOVA), Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities (FCSH/NOVA), Portugal.
Web: http://www.eferreira.net
E-mail: e [dot] ferreira [at] fcsh [dot] unl [dot] pt

 

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Editorial history

Received 24 October 2016; revised 21 March 2017; accepted 31 August 2017.


Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The co-production of gender and ICT: Gender stereotypes in schools
by Eduarda Ferreira.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 10 - 2 October 2017
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/7062/6546
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i110.7062





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