Thursday 27 April 2017

Women in ICT & engineering: #Gender barriers & solutions #educon17

At Educon one of the main sessions was focusing on the gendered challenges within engineering, which fits with today's ‘girls in ICT’ day. The educon panel was sharing their own stories (being female pioneers, or lack of role models), the clear barrier related to policies stereotyping gender roles, constructed family values allocated to boys and girls, need for dedicated female networks, and the clear glass ceiling when looking at leadership roles for women in IT and engineering). As the discussion moved forward, I remembered that this is mirrored in a recent book I reviewed. If you are looking for similar stories, and want to learn how women addressed the professional challenges they faced in classically male-dominant areas, this is a good book.

This book combines the personal and professional journeys of 29 women and two men who all made a career developing and using educational technology (EdTech). The book provides an inspiring account of what the challenges were which the first EdTech women encountered and how they overcame them in order to create a professional space inside an - at that time - male dominant field. The majority of the EdTech women in this book are connected to the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), an organisation founded in 1923 to focus on National (US) Education, division of Visual Instruction.  Each of the chapters of the book is written by the women or men who lived through the actual experience of having to secure a career in the EdTech world. These different narratives provide a rich, at times deeply personal, professional and varied account of what it takes to enter and work within the EdTech field. While reading the book I often nodded as parts of the journeys shared were recognisable and – it seems – universal to all EdTech professionals. The importance of mentorship, leadership and trust emerge clearly from all the journeys. And in many of them the act of accepting your own realities (being different, coming from a variety of backgrounds, overcoming deep personal trauma) and uplifting your own situation as well as others by investing in education, provides an inspiring read.

Ana Donaldson edited this book. She has been a past president of AECT (the Association for Educational Communications and Technology) and in that position she took the initiative to gather journeys from other women who have had an impact on educational technology anywhere from 40 years ago up until 2016. The book is divided into three parts: individual voices, historical perspective and mentoring. Where the majority of the book is taken by the part on individual voices, providing 150 pages of personal as well as professional accounts of what it takes to enter the EdTech field and becoming a renowned EdTech professional. The historical perspective comprises three additions which cover the history or AECT, some of the lesser known pioneering woman in EdTech covered through short vignettes, and a generational focus on EdTech learners and their distinct characteristics put in their technological context. The final part of the book looks at mentoring, but attention to mentoring is already prevalent in many of the individual voices. The mentoring part is different from the mentoring mentioned in the individual voices, as it zooms in on what it takes to be an effective mentor, the necessity of intentional mentorship and the importance of being a role model to new female EdTech students. Each chapter of the book consists of a personal account of life as an EdTech professional. In some cases this personal account is told chronologically, starting from early life right to current career and status, at other times the focus is more on the professional journey highlighting detailed career challenges and successes. After each account a selection of publications by the author of that chapter is offered. These publications consist of high impact journal articles, clearly emphasizing the importance of publishing in high impact journals if you – as an EdTech academic – want to make a name for yourself or get tenure. At the end of the chapter a brief biography per author is given, highlighting personal achievements and interests.

An inside look
Reading through the stories of the individual voices, the reader soon finds reoccurring themes that impacted most of the women who shared their EdTech journeys. The journeys of the women and their consecutive jobs or career titles also reveal a change in jargon, e.g. at first audiovisual education was used instead of the term educational technology, and the titles covering professional positions involving what is now known as EdTech varied depending on institutes and research programs. From those EdTech experts graduating around the late 60’s or early 70’s, it becomes clear that the audiovisual side of education was a male dominated field, including the academic posts investigating any type of technology for education. The women who got EdTech positions often point to strong female role models in their family (mothers, grandmothers) who inspired a new generation of women, as well as open minded male mentors opening doors, supporting endeavors and showing opportunities. From  those early years onward, those women who gained access to EdTech and joined forces to forge lifelong friendships and collaborations seem to have thrived. Connecting and daring to build informal connections with those who seem to have gained status and established professionalism seems to help in getting to grips with the professional, academic as well as personal challenges. More than one author mentions sisterhood as a means to keep motivated and grow stronger, and that is true for all decades covered in this book.    

The importance of getting a PhD becomes clear while reading this volume, and it is amazing how many different indirect reasons there are to take up a PhD (at the beginning of their career many of the women did want to teach in primary or high school and many of them did teach at some point). But it is clear that this is essential if you want to move forward in an academic environment, or if you want to be taken seriously as a professional. Unfortunately, it also becomes clear from the different stories that obtaining a PhD nowadays is no longer a guarantee for getting into a tenure position. When reading the book one understands the importance of getting a formal degree, but many authors also emphasize the importance of accepting yourself. One author summarised: “Know what you know and what you do not, know who you are and who you are not, embrace your young-self – and your aging self”, a message that I feel resonates for more than just the women in the EdTech field.
Taking up leadership early on also beams out as one of the common actions that will increase your chances to make it in EdTech. This includes voluntary work such as starting a minority focused community of practitioners, though a warning is mentioned that we – women – should realise that a lot of the support we offer can be seen as ‘invisible labor’, where supporting students from similar minority groups as ourselves does demand extra time and effort which other academics do not need to address. Leadership actions can result in additional expertise regarding funding skills, co-authoring papers, or creating a community of peers and all of these have a great impact on increasing career options. Taking up leadership also creates flexibility, moving from academia to corporate or visa versa, depending on the passion felt by specific EdTech jobs.    
Mentorship is without doubt crucial both to growing as a professional, as to offering new opportunities to EdTech students. Mentoring allows rapid growth to take place (learning from experts), it offers opportunities to learn from students (keeping in touch with all developments), it enables actions towards more social justice and it often results in lifelong networks.   

Strengths and weaknesses
The journeys of each of these women is astonishing, and provides such a rich texture of diverse backgrounds and opportunities. Some authors mention financial implications and having to work multiple jobs in order to pay for college or university, others mentioned different cultural backgrounds which influenced their perception of what it takes to get into EdTech, and still others had to find their way against personal hardship, or microagressions coming from what should be colleagues … Courage to keep moving forward is clearly present in all journeys.  
One non-outspoken idea is that many of the women shared that they were initially not intending to pursue an academic career, and especially not a PhD. In many cases the idea of obtaining a PhD came from a mentor, a colleague, or chance. This stands in stark contrast to the accounts of those same authors mentioning their male partners, who consciously wanted to get a PhD. A clear reminder of the intricate groups of people who have been socialised into ‘their place in society’, which forces society’s status quo onto them, even though they are well placed to burst that socialized bubble.
The rise of EdTech reaches beyond the history of EdTech women, and the situations they came across while aiming to establish themselves as professionals, nevertheless I feel that the focus on women provides an additional and rich layer of importance to getting a career going in a more male oriented, academic field. It shows additional challenges, and therefor additional strengths that not only provide insights for other women, but also to men coming from different backgrounds and trying to enter academia or a profession which is new to them or their family.
I would have liked more EdTech women of color to be taken up in this volume, their stories reveal the importance of being part of a sub-group of women to obtain mutual empowerment. Although moments of sexism are mentioned by many authors, similarly each woman of color sharing their journey in the book gave accounts of racism on top of the sexism they sometimes encountered. Though sexism, racism and general challenges are mentioned, the book is above all focusing on what helps each one of us (male or female) forward: mentorship, shared family responsibilities, having role models, being part of a network, feeling part of a community of like-minded professionals, and knowing that differences strengthen academia and as a result society as a whole.  
Although many voices can be heard, the book does consist of women and men being linked to AECT. This does limit the scope for those readers not being familiar with this US based organisation, or living in other countries with different educational systems, cultural challenges or EdTech support.  

Coming from a working family myself, without family members knowing what academic jobs are or even what you need to do in order to get one of those jobs, this book makes a difference. It strengthens some of the actions I have taken, and it shows those options I sometimes do not dare to undertake. The book empowered me, and informed me about my chosen professional field.

In a world were quick opinions seem to reign, this book offers many voices that support attention to the importance of community (in all its variance and diversity), creating a nurturing working environment, and actively working to decrease hegemony that effects most of us. Anyone wanting to know more about the professional options available in EdTech, or the challenges you might face as a woman interested in technology, or wanting to get a historical perspective of an emerging educational field, will find answers to these questions in this book.

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