Empowering Women Through Practice and Training
in Computers Technologies

Cite as: "Empowering Women Through Practice and Training in Computers Technologies."  Affirmative Action Inventive Grant,Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Office, Virginia Tech, Spring1994.


Brief Description of the Project

This project combines hands-on practice and training in departmental workshops with participation in group discussion through a departmental computer discussion list in order to empower women faculty, staff, and graduate students by teaching them new and more advanced skills and by helping them feel confident in a technological environment.

The project focuses on a year-long series of workshops, to be repeated annually if successful, which will help participants learn how to use electronic mail and other software, how to complete basic desktop publishing projects, how to use specialized computer equipment such as a scanner, and how to search the "information superhighway" for teaching and research resources. These workshops will be given once a month, repeated during the month if required by time constraints or limited computer resources. Further, if necessary, some workshops could be taught on two different levels,one for beginning users and one for those with more advanced skills.

These workshops will be continued by on-line discussion of the technologies and of related issues in gender and computing on the departmental discussion list. Instructional readings and documentation will be posted to the list, questions and issues will then be discussed by list participants, and a supporting community of computer users will be formed. Specific readings and discussion questions will be posted, and all participants will be asked to respond. As participants gain confidence, they will begin leading discussions themselves.

During Fall Semester, the grant will provide course-released time to be used in the development of workshops and supporting documentation for both Fall and Spring Semesters. The Department of English will provide the necessary technical support staff and equipment for the project. If successful during the1994-1995 Academic Year, during the 1995-1996 Academic Year, the project could continue offering workshops and using the discussion list, but could add mentoring of new faculty, staff, and graduate students.

Rationale and Significance

This project targets those who have been excluded from the processes by which faculty, staff, and students are empowered to exploit computer technologies. Due mainly to social and cultural factors, the majority in this group are women. Structurally and institutionally, the Department has made strides toward giving women access to computer technology. Thirty-one women, comprising 29% of the faculty, have a computer while only 26 men, 24% of the faculty, have a computer. Women have had fair consideration on class assignments to teach in the computer-networked classroom--Spring Semester 1994 fourteen of the teaching slots (60%) have been scheduled for women faculty while nine (40%) have been scheduled for male faculty members. The Department's selection of participants for the Instructional Development Institute to be offered Summer 1994,which gives participants a powerful computer and an office connection to the internet, includes (at this date) thirteen women and six men. Currently, 51% of the women on the faculty have computers, and by the end of the summer, the number of women with a computer will rise to approximately two-thirds. Women are, then, being given access to computer equipment in the Department of English.

Despite their access to computers, women in the department are challenged by troubling socially-conditioned attitudes and behaviors about women and computing. Women constitute the majority of the Department of English, composing 40% of the professoriate, 68% of the instructorate, and 89% of the support staff in the department of English--for a total of 59% of the department's employees. Just slightly over half of the women faculty and all of the women on the support staff have computers; however, these women are the least confident of the members of the department about their abilities to use a computer. Of those who responded to a recent department 29% of the women reported their confidence below average while only 9% of the men responded their confidence was below average. In other words, a woman is more likely to have a computer in the department than a man but less likely to feel she knows how to use that computer.

Anecdotal evidence echoes this low self-confidence and the resulting behaviors and attitudes which build a departmental perception that women are less able to use computers. At one training workshop I attended, for example, the two male faculty members sitting in front of me complained, "This thing's not working" and"What's wrong with the program? It won't work." The two women sitting behind me, however, complained, "I can't do this" and "I don't know what's wrong. I can't get this thing to work." Due perhaps as much to societal factors as anything else, the men in the workshop blamed the machine while the women blamed themselves.

This project seeks to end such self-deprecating behavior by giving women the skills and training they need to feel more confident at the computer keyboard while allowing them to enter the conversation about computer technology on a controlled discussion list. The workshops will be taught in a computer classroom and will give participants hands-on training in how to use the software and hardware as well as provide them with written documentation and self-paced tutorials which will allow them to leave the workshop with resources to help them continue practicing their skills.

Through the electronic discussion list, women will be less constrained by gendered patterns of conversation between and among men and women. Electronic discussion using computers allows women to speak more often, to speak without interruption, and to speak more forcefully than oral discussion traditionally allows. Thus, the discussion list will be an integral component of the project for it will allow the gender-free potential of electronic communications to build the confidence of the women on the list. In addition. by including both men and women on this list. the project will allow women to build their confidence in a public arena, where all their colleagues, male and female, can hear their strong voices and their technical expertise.

I have attached supporting letters, from faculty and staff,which attest to the need for training in computer technologies and the special difficulties women face in trying to gain computer skills in this department.

Evaluation Plan

In order to evaluate whether this program increases the confidence and capabilities of women participants and the perceptions about women and computing in the Department of English, the project will begin and end each term with an attitudinal and informational survey which will record participants' self-assessment of confidence, computer skills, and feelings about resources in the department. By comparing entry and exit data, this evaluation should provide evidence about changes in participants' attitudes and behaviors concerning computers.

In addition, the frequency of participation, level of involvement, and the rhetorical strategies used on the computer discussion list can provide an additional measure of the changes in the participants' behaviors. In other words, by looking at how often women participate on the discussion list, at the content of their comments, and at the syntactic and linguistic features of their discussion, and by comparing those figures to the traditional patterns of women in conversation, the evaluation will allow conclusions about the ability of the project to help women develop a more powerful and more assertive voice, reflecting their increased confidence and abilities.

Commitment to Continuation of the Project

As noted above in the Description, if this program proves successful, it will be extended indefinitely with the addition of a mentoring system to allow women to continue building empowerment and confidence in computer technologies. After the initial development of the workshops and after work to create a mentoring system for the second year, the continuation of the project should require only the editing and revision of existing documentation, to update the material in order to keep pace with changes in computing software and hardware.

Once set as a departmental program, and especially after training in mentoring takes place the second year, the original participants can begin teaching workshops, writing new instructions and documentation, and revising existing documentation--empowering women to become leaders of the changes and influences which computing technologies have in the Department of English. Perhaps also with the growing number of women feeling confident about their abilities with computers this project could be extended to include undergraduate students as well.

Furthermore, the continuation of these workshops ought to include the application of these ideas to training elsewhere. Specifically, the outcomes of these workshops could be used to increase the effectiveness of computer and technology training campus-wide. The university is working to improve faculty access and training through such projects as the Instructional Development Institute. The ability of these departmental workshops to raise the confidence and abilities of women might identify important ways campus-wide initiatives could refocus their energies and resources in order to increase their effectiveness. Such an extension of the components of these Departmental workshops could lead to wide-spread changes in the behaviors and attitudes about women and technology on the Virginia Tech campus--changes which would affect not only those who are involved in the workshops, but which should lead to changes in the behaviors and attitudes in the classroom as well.

Proposed Timetable for the Project

Second Summer 1994

Preliminary preparation and gathering of materials

Initial software testing and practice of more advanced techniques

Write entry attitudinal and informational survey

Fall Semester 1994

Administer entry survey for all participants

Begin series of year-long workshops on computer skills

Subscribe all participants to departmental discussion list

Write documentation sheets, information sheets, self-paced tutorials for Fall Workshops

Prepare information for continued workshops in the Spring (documentation, information sheets, tutorials, workshop plans)

Monitor discussion list, send more advanced training information to all participants using the discussion list for dissemination, introduce discussion topics focusing on empowerment and authority in computer-mediated instruction.

Write and administer exit attitudinal and informational survey

Spring Semester 1995

Administer entry survey for all participants

Continue workshop series, using materials prepared Fall Semester

Continue monitoring and facilitating discussion list

Administer exit attitudinal and informational survey

First Summer 1995

Analyze program outcomes

Prepare final report