Vol. 8. No. 4 F-1 March 2005
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***TESL-EJ Forum***

Ms. Conceptions: Gender and Identity in EFL/ ESL Online Contexts

Nicky Hockly and Gavin Dudeney

There is a joke on the Internet that gives 5 reasons why computers can be considered to be female:

This is followed by another 5 reasons why computers are better thought of as male:

However un-PC this joke may appear to be, and whatever feet-shuffling it may have caused you while reading it, there is no denying that gender can be an effective source of humour when even-handed and light, even when relying on stereotypes.

What we are interested in here is to what extent gender is an issue in online EFL/ESL teaching and teacher education contexts. Is the world of IT (information technology) dominated by men in our profession? Do women have equal access to IT in the world of EFL/ESL? Are there differences between how men and women behave online? In this article we set out to explore to what extent the gender inequalities in the wider world of IT are reflected in the field of TEFL/TESL and IT. [-1-]

Let's start with a number of statements, backed up by research, about gender in the IT world at large. We sent out a questionnaire with these statements to teachers and teacher trainers, asking whether they agreed or disagreed, and why, based on personal anecdote and experience. We had a total of 128 responses from all around the world—suggesting at the very least that this is topic teachers and trainers are interested in and feel strongly about! The aim of the questionnaire was simply to find out what teachers and trainers in our profession feel about general issues to do with gender and IT, based on their own (anecdotal) experience. In this sense, it is not meant to be a 'scientific' study at all, but simply a collection of 'voices' from around the world, from within our profession. There are far too many variables involved, and the questionnaire statements are too broad, for this to be more than a survey of opinions on the topic. We wanted to see to what extent the research findings about IT in general, and teachers' own impressions about IT in our field, matched up.

Of the respondents, 31% were men, and 69% were women, which broadly reflects the gender weighting in our profession, which has been estimated at about 40% men, 60% women overall, although obviously this varies considerably from country to country.

While you read, think about to what extent you agree or disagree with each statement, and what your personal experiences of each issue are.

  1. The world of technology and computers is dominated by men.
  2. According to the figures, initially it was women who were more involved in the new field of computing, from the period of the Second Wold War until about 1960, when 65% of computer programmers were women. The balance then changed, with men increasingly dominating computer technology until we now have a situation where about 34% of computing degrees are awarded to women, and IT class ratios range from 2:1 to 5:1. A 1994 survey on Internet users found that 90% of users were men. However, things seem to have been changing since about 1996, with more women being involved in Internet use and technology-related jobs. In terms of Internet use, a survey in December 1999 (apparently in the pre-Christmas holiday shopping period!) found that Internet use was split 50/50 between men and women

    In the responses from teachers and trainers to this statement on our questionnaire, opinion was relatively evenly divided, with 55% feeling that men do dominate the world of technology and computers, and 42% feeling that this is not so (3% had no opinion). Reasons given by respondents for male domination of the world of IT pointed out that numerically there are currently more men than women in the IT field, while other respondents put it down to men having a better "sense" for computers, and one (female) respondent commented that "obsessing with gadgets and technology is a 'guy' thing." Yet another view felt that men's domination of the world of IT is simply a reflection of larger patriarchal power structures. On the whole though, respondents felt that men dominated IT less in the EFL/ESL context than in the wider world. [-2-]

  3. In general, women have unequal access to technology and computers in my EFL/ESL teaching context.
  4. This statement clearly relates to 1 above. The gender gap in IT use is an issue being debated in the public domain, and there are many initiatives at national levels to increase IT access for women (any search on the Internet will yield a good sample). Women in developing countries particularly tend to be at a disadvantage in terms of access to technology, and talk of the digital divide is staple fare in the media, as we all know.

    In the questionnaire, the impression is that women are very definitely not disadvantaged in their access to technology in EFL/ESL contexts, with only 13% of respondents feeling that women have unequal access (85% felt access is equal; 2% had no opinion). Of course, the questionnaire was completed by women (and men) with access to technology, and overwhelmingly based in Western EuropeƉ, so in this sense the results are very biased.

    However, in the cases where teachers felt that women had less access than men to computers, issues of economic constraints were mentioned—such as teachers, who are predominantly women, being in a low-paid profession. Another issue raised was that of attitudes. It was felt that in cases where there was unequal access, both sexist attitudes and women's own attitudes might be to blame. The typical sexist view would include that women are not 'suited' to technology, that they are not capable of "logical" thinking, that they are frightened of IT, and so on, but in many cases women themselves may have been socialised into viewing themselves as inferior to men in terms of their IT capabilities, as well as having a lack of motivation or interest in trying out IT in their contexts.

  5. On the whole, I'd say that modern computer games are for men/boys.
  6. There was general agreement with this statement (58% agreed, 32% disagreed, 10% had no opinion), and most respondents, both male and female, commented that they hadn't played many computer games themselves. Many also mentioned that computer games tend to be violent in content, "testosterone-driven," and therefore more attractive to men (reasons of socialisation were given by a few respondents for this). Other comments related to the fact that women tend to use computers more for tasks and social contact than for games, a view which is borne out by research. Several female respondents felt that men had more spare time, and therefore more time for activities such as computer games.

    Computer games companies are very much aware of the gender imbalance in computer game use, and are on the case, spending time and money on trying to produce computer games for girls which go beyond the "dressing up Barbie" type of game. The realise that they are missing out on a potentially large market. You can find back articles on this issue on the BBC website—here are a couple of links you may like to follow up:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3248461.stm—A female games developer argues the way video games are marketed is to blame for the enduring "geek" image.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/2839019.stm—The computer games industry is making a big mistake by failing to attract female customers. [-3-]

  7. Women and men behave differently online
  8. Interestingly enough, there was a large percentage of "don't knows" in the responses to this statement—25%! Research seems to indicate that there are differences in online behaviour—here is a brief summary of some of the differences:

    Note that some of these differences can be explained through gender socialisation (for example, girls are made to feel inferior in classes dealing with computers and technology; acceptable face-to-face interaction styles for men vs. women are mirrored in online interaction, and so on). There is an excellent article which explores some of these issues, called "Gender and CMC: Findings and Implications," available at http://www.cpsr.org/publications/newsletters/issues/2000/Winter2000/herring.html.

    In the responses to our questionnaire, opinion was weighted in favour of there being a difference in online behaviour (45% agreed while 30% disagreed). Respondents who agreed with the statement echoed some of the research findings above from their own experience, such as the use of strong language, and the emphasis on social strategies online by women. However, opinion on this issue was fairly evenly split. As one respondent commented, "Men and women behave differently in all spheres of life—why not also online?"

  9. In an online discussion list, or during an online course, men will tend to post more often than women.
  10. This statement is linked to number 4, and although according to he research this may be true, it appears that the majority gender in any context will prevail. In other words, if there can be said to be "gender-specific" norms (as per statement 4 above), and if there are a majority of women on a list or course, their "way of being" will prevail. The article referenced above puts it like this: [-4-]

    [T]here is evidence that the minority gender in an online community tends to modify communicative behaviour in the direction of the majority gender: women tend to be more aggressive in male-dominated groups than among women, and men tend to be less aggressive in female-dominated groups than in groups controlled by men, an observation which suggests that the more numerous a gender is online, the greater the influence it will have on shared discursive norms.

    The questionnaire responses were by far of the opinion that men do not post more than women in online discussion lists or online courses. 63% of respondents felt that men do not post more than women, 22% that men do post more than women (15% had no opinion).

    Given that the majority gender in TEFL/TESL teaching is female, and therefore membership to EFL/ESL discussion lists is most likely to be made up of more women than men, it does make sense that more women than men post on our lists because of sheer numbers. If anyone feels like sitting down and analysing gender ratios on a few EFL-related discussion lists, and comparing these with numbers of postings—let us know.

Final comments

It would appear that although teachers and trainers feel that IT on the whole is dominated by men, this may be less true of our profession. As a gender-weighted profession, with a majority or women, perhaps we in TEFL/TESL are in a unique position to redress some of the gender inequalities in IT, as reflected in the wider world.

Certainly it is our view that EFL/ESL teachers and trainers need specific training in IT skills, at both in-service and pre-service level. We find that IT training in our profession is still added on as an afterthought in most internationally recognised pre- and in-service EFL/ESL training. Both practising teachers, teacher trainers and trainees need to have ICT training integrated and made more prominent in their professional development studies.

Teachers, both male and female, can be made aware of the some of the myths surrounding IT and gender—such as women being frightened of technology, women being inherently unsuited to "technical" fields, women not being responsible for software or hardware development, women never having been active in the field of IT, and so on.

And of course, we need to ensure that wherever possible, facilities and technical back up is provided to ensure that all our teachers—whether male or female—are encouraged to explore IT in their teaching and for their own professional development.

About the Authors

Nicky Hockly and Gavin Dudeney have been involved in EFL teaching and teacher training, both face to face and online, for 17 and 16 years respectively. They currently co-run an online training and development consultancy, aimed at higher education and EFL/ESL, called The Consultants-E.

Nicky and Gavin would be happy to receive feedback or comments on this piece. You can contact them via their website http://theconsultants-e.com, and you will find additional resources on the topic of gender and IT, related to their questionnaire, at http://www.theconsultants-e.com/contact/genderresults.php.

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