Women in edtech: Then and now

Dr. Julie M. Wood and Nicole Ponsford

Nicole Ponsford and Julie M Wood are the authors of TechnoTeaching: Taking Practice to the Next Level in a Digital World (2014, Harvard Education Press).

Nicole is the digital leader of @WomenEd, leader of @WomenEd_Tech and founder of @gendercharter. Previously, she was an award-winning AST in Media and New Technologies. Nicole is passionate about gender equality being the ‘new normal’.


Julie’s roles include: International digital literacy consultant. Advisor for US Department of Education. Senior Advisor at EtonKids’ Parents Academy, Beijing. Presenter / panelist. Literacy and technology advocate. Researcher. Children’s book author.

Follow @NicolePonsford

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Image credit: Flickr // WOCinTech Chat. Image credit: Flickr // WOCinTech Chat.

“Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you find some way to break the rules, and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.”

– Nora Ephron, 1996, commencement speech at Wellesley College.


Women in Technology, Back to the Future - by Julie Wood


It’s the mid-1990s. A world in which most of the cool and innovative work in edtech was being taken on by men. A world in which, even though many of us women didn’t have a seat at the table (we were too busy slogging through the menial tasks assigned to us), we understood that a new day was dawning. We longed to be part of this new world. We longed to not only be just seated at the table, but to take on leadership roles. Creative roles. Tech guru roles. Just like the men.


Enter a group of graduate students who wanted to band together these forward-thinking women. Add a bit of humour, a small budget from the university, and the sense that an exciting world existed just beyond our reach. That, my friends, is how my wonderful colleague, Andrea Oseas, and I co-founded Women in Technology (or WIT).


To begin with, we were at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in the Technology, Innovation, and Education (TIE) department. Andrea was an administrator and I was a doctoral candidate trying to decide on my thesis topic. I hadn’t yet zeroed in on my research questions, but I knew I wanted to explore ideas related to children, new technologies, and literacy development.


My academic advisor, a self-proclaimed technophobe, cautioned me against going down “that edtech highway”. She herself, although a renowned literacy expert, said she wouldn’t dream of conducting research with children and computers. Everything could blow up (literally), she feared. She wasn’t the only one who thought I was crazy to pursue edtech. Many other professors thought edtech was a fad that would - they were banking on it - go away soon. The Boston teachers I spoke to were not yet onboard with edtech. When I asked if I could conduct research in their classrooms, they admitted that they barely used technology and barely knew where to begin (Note: there were many edtech pioneers in Boston Public Schools, but I couldn’t manage to get appointments with them).


Now, of course, we know what an important role edtech plays in school culture. But back then I felt I’d gone out on a limb. Andrea was a sympathetic listener to my frustration. She, too, wanted to promote edtech and help open doors for TIE students. Together, we connected with other grad students who shared our passion.


We asked these smart, witty, women if they’d be interested in joining a group called Women in Technology, or WIT, which was something we’d just dreamed up. They said yes, and were eager to join forces with others on the vanguard of edtech.


And so it was that WIT grew, ending up with about thirty members as near as I can recall. What did we do? One of our projects took place in 1994. We worked with an MIT professor to help establish Girls’ Day at the Computer Clubhouse (a joint effort between MIT and the Boston Children’s Museum). Girls’ Day is a story for another day, but for now I’ll just say that the mentoring inner-city girls received through Girls’ Day more than doubled their participation at the Clubhouse.


Then in about 1996 Andrea and I applied for a small grant to cover our expenses (lots of pizza and Diet Coke). We also found had enough money to hold a WIT conference - everyone invited, free admission. We named the conference ‘Broadening the Bandwidth’ and honoured two tech leaders. One was Barbara O’Leary, founder of Virtual Sisterhood designed to advance Civil Rights. The second was Antonia Stone, a former teacher who founded the nation’s first inner-city public access technology learning center. To top everything off, we organized a panel discussion focused on career options in edtech. We all left feeling inspired and hopeful.


Thanks for indulging me with a bit of nostalgic time travel. Far from patting ourselves on the back, Nic and I are struck by how far we, as women in technology, still have to go.


A case in point is the “bro” culture of Silicon Valley, an extended fraternity culture that many women experience as hostile. For example, in some companies women are expected to participate in sex parties involving drugs (ecstasy and molly). Many women attend these parties against their better judgment; they say the feel pressure to do so or they might miss out on business opportunities. In her new book, Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley, Emily Chang blows the lid off Silicon Valley companies and how many of them promote gender discrimination. Chang found that many women are paid less, kept out of executive positions, and are targets for sexual harassment.


What can we do? How can we help create a more respectful and equitable high-tech culture? Can we take heart from business schools such as Vanderbilt University, which teaches classes on Uber and its “bro” culture, cited in The New York Times (December 25, 2017)? Or Stanford, where students are studying the implications of sexual harassment at work? Harvard is also focusing on redressing gender discrimination in many MBA classes.


Thankfully there are big changes afoot. Today’s college students actively seek classes that deal with ethics. According to one study, students believe that ethical issues, not finances, are a business’s most important responsibility.


But Nic has much more to say on this subject, based on her work. Take it away, Nic.


Great initiatives taking place now - by Nicole Ponsford


I have been reflecting on where we are in the timeline of edtech. My fear is that we are reverting back to the micro-computing and male hobbyist associations when it comes to technology - at home, in business and, sadly, in schools. From 2010, with the explosion of apps and creativity seen with the launch of the iPad, we seem to be now focusing more attention on a singular element of technology - coding - rather than driving things forward. I feel we are going backwards. It’s like the 1980s are back again - and not in a cool roller-booting, Brat Pack way - but in this weird hot-bright pink t-shirt, big business way. I’m not convinced.


As you know there has been a surge of ‘Girls and Coding’ projects launched all over the web and over many plugged-in countries. However, for me, these types of initiatives pose issues. What about all of the other digital technologies? Why have the last three years been spent on learning to code - at considerable expense - when there are a range of technologies on offer? What about technologies that shape many other careers, like Geographic Information System (GIS)? These are the technology being used in industries and we are not even aware of them.


Also bear in mind that If we teach coding, we also need to take responsibility for the dark side of this with cybercrime. There is a wealth of organisations now offering cybersecurity competitions for schools as a way of illustrating the light side, but how much of this is seen as part-and-parcel of life within the internet?


Another issue is that, alongside the greed for social media platforms and sharing, we also have real online safeguarding issues with sexting, digital self-harm and educators still unsure of social media laws - despite their willingness to open up their practice to these types of threats.


We need to pause and reflect. What do we want edtech for? Why are we using it in schools? Why is there a gender imbalance and let’s get practical about it.


These are the reasons that in January 2018 I felt compelled to launch WomenEdTech, part of the WomenEd family. I couldn’t bear it any more - and needed to do something, as an educator and a parent.


Yes, there are a head-spinning amount of initiatives and organisations out there that want to help address the problem of gender imbalance - but there is almost too much choice. And who has time to look up from their ever-growing inbox?


Many female teachers also tell me that they aren’t interested in being ‘techy’ - there is still a lack of confidence to ‘playing’ with computers, despite the ‘appy digital era we seem to be in.
Furthermore, MATs/schools tend to have signed up to a ‘system’ or ‘brand’ years ago, and “you do that.”


Despite the multi-platform overload we have, people are simply switching off and having digital detoxes.


Therefore in education we need to work out our outcomes. We must only use high-quality edtech and ensure it is meeting the needs of our learners - both genders. It’s vital that we provide top-notch professional training for all teachers.


Final two cents from two women in tech


Most of us agree that 2017 was a watershed year for women. We spoke out for gender equality and respect. We threw a harsh spotlight on sexual harassment in workplaces as diverse as the movie industry, the military, factories, and hotels.


But that’s not all. In 2018 we have Carrie Gracie, the BBC’s China editor who resigned her high-profile position to protest the company’s gender-based pay gap. We have Oprah Winfrey’s rousing speech at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards, in which she proclaimed “A new day is on the horizon!”


We are inspired by all the women, all over the world, fighting for gender equality. We want to take that spirit to the next level in the edtech world. We may not be “ladylike”. We may “make a little trouble out there on behalf of women”.


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