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Sonja Bernhardt

Sonja Bernhardt Sonja Bernhardt

The global failure of intervention programs

Sonja Bernhardt

A controversial look at significant girls and women in ICT programs and project and their failure to attract and retain girls to ICT studies and careers.

Mentoring, Role Modeling, Career Events, Hands on Sessions, Guest Presentations and Company Visits

have been run around the world in an attempt to not only stem the decline in enrollments of girls into ICT studies but to look at improving overall statistics and the number of females entering ICT careers. However when you look more closely you see that whilst each program and project may have its own merit and success at a local level, there has been a massive failure of these intervention programs to positively impact on the overall picture.

Sonja Bernhardt

The global failure of intervention programs - a controversial look at significant girls and women in ICT programs and project and their failure to attract and retain girls to ICT studies and careers.

Sonja Bernhardt, chief executive officer, Thoughtware Australia, has become the first Australian to be honoured in the Silcon Valley, Hall of IT Fame. She is a champion of IT for young people and is the innovator behind results achieving women in science and technology groups across Australia which lead wide-scale programs that create professional and academic development opportunities, thus helping thousands of school students and hundreds of professionals within Australia's IT industry. She is from the Gold Coast, Queensland.

Photo courtesy of Courier Mail - photographer Adam Head.


"The global failure of intervention programs"  presentation by Sonja Bernhardt

This is not a scholarly paper. It is intended as a guide to accompany a keynote address. This print document cannot reproduce the examples, anecdotes, and passionate delivery shared during the conference.

A controversial look at significant girls and women in ICT programs and projects; and their failure to attract and retain girls to ICT studies and careers.

Why? What have we been doing wrong? What can we do about it or is it too late? What are the real reasons/causes behind this?  In this reality based probing session these questions will be investigated along with lessons of things that have worked and suggestions for the future.

Ill begin with a definition of failure:
(a) The condition or fact of not achieving the desired end or ends:
(b) 1: an act that fails 2: an event that does not accomplish its intended purpose ...

In this context I will be saying that projects such as Mentoring, Role Modeling, Career Events, Hands on Sessions, Guest Presentations and Company Visits have been run around the world in an attempt to not only stem the decline in enrollments of girls into ICT studies but to look at improving overall statistics and the number of females entering ICT careers.  We have WIT, FITT,GIDGITS, CC4G, NCWIT, WIC, AWISE, GKP, ACM-W, IFIP a veritable acronym nightmare of organizations around the world running a multitude of programs.  Even the United nations have got involved.

However when you look more closely you see that whilst each program and project may have its own merit and success at a local level, for example Professor Andersons research show statistical significant results that girls who do attend these type of intervention programs are positively affected.  This is reflected in the March 2006 Role Model event Go Girl Go For IT that was run by Women are IT and held in Perth.

 18 Topics/Presenters were held across 40 timeslots.
 938 School children ranging from year 9 year 12 were surveyed.
 79 Teachers responses were gathered.
 Non-response rate across sessions was 6%

The  event feedback forms show that of those respondees

 An outstanding response rate of 93% left the event with a positive feeling about careers in IT.
 Results show a jump from 53% currently studying IT to 84% who as a direct result of the Go Girl Showcase intended to include IT studies in the future.  This shows a retention of studies plus influencing girls to take up IT studies.
 Prior to the Go Girl event 33% of the responders were considering a career in IT, post the event this jumped to a massive 76% who indicated that they would now consider a career in IT.

I say that despite these local successes captured via comments and feel good on the day, that there has been a massive failure of these intervention programs to positively impact on the overall picture and therefore a failure to accomplish its intended purpose.

The level of awareness and experience amongst this audience and the continued research  proves we know that there is an issue in attracting, retaining and promoting females into technology studies and careers.

The existence of publications such as The Encyclopaedia of Gender and Information Technology edited by Eileen Trauth - where in the two volumes there are 213 entries from 295 international specialists/researchers.  It also includes over 4,700 references to additional works on gender and information technology in order to stimulate further research.  Is objective proof that we have an issue.  And I add the existence of this publication and the repeated themes across nations is undeniable proof of the massive global failure to address this critical issue.

If you add up the global spend by all of these projects, programs and research over the past 5 years I suggest we would have had enough money to establish an independent nation designed to solely focus on these activities.

Think about it for a minute consider how much $ (time and effort) governments, industry associations, corporates and educational institutions have spent the past 5 years trying to address this issue.  Think in your own experience multiply that out to  your region, state, nation and apply a global multiplier factor, do the sums.

It is so large I do not even dare to estimate, but I do say on a project basis to have invested that many millions (more likely billions) and to not achieve the stated result, despite the efforts is not only a failure it is a catastrophic failure.

Since when has it ever been acceptable for a project to continue to fail to deliver year after year milestone after milestone. I run a software development company, and as part of that we naturally invest in new research and development projects in an attempt to get something that works - if addressing the declining rate of girls in technology studies and women in IT careers was a business it would have been axed years ago, the product line would have been removed, it just does not make commercial sense, as the results currently stand it does not stack up!

Yet we keep doing it.why?

My answer is because we so passionately believe in what we are doing we are blind to the facts and do not see the failures.

Instead of staying in a cycle of madly doing the same old thing over and over for little impact and a reduced sphere of influence, we need to analyse this to find out what has
worked and more importantly what has not and why so that we can work out a pathway for the future.

What are we doing wrong?
When was the last time you ran a girls or women in IT intervention program (role modeling, expo day, mentoring, workshops, camps etc.) that:

a) had TV coverage on multiple channels competing for the story
b) multiple stories ran in a variety of different print media, technology, business, young girls newspapers and magazines
c) generated intense forum and blog discussions and passionate debate not just in Australia but worldwide
d) resulted in politicians crafting opinion pieces about the initiative/intervention program
e) you were interviewed by media in every state and territory of Australia about the program and the issues underlying it?
f) where international media picked up on the story and repeatedly wrote about it  on web sites, and print media it even made BBC World News and USA Today?
g) resulted in TV producer interest to do a TV series about your initiative?
h) your website about the initiative received 3.5 million hits in one day from 80,000 unique visitors???

Think about it when was the last time if ever any of the above occurred for any one of the hundreds of intervention programs we in this room have run over the past few years?  when? 

Maybe youre not sure that that much media would be possible from one program anyway, well I say to you IT IS it happened in a recent project I did and is still ongoing however more about that later.

SO FAILURE NUMBER 1 failure to attract and retain the attention of the media.
You may ask why is it important to capture media interest anyway? isnt it more important to just run the project and do a good job?  Why chase media?  I say to you like it or not but the press is a delivery mechanism for a vast majority of not only information but for people in general.

To all the researchers in the room, Im sorry but really despite how great and significant your research may be, and how many other researchers may read and quote your work I do not see it side by side with New Woman and Dolly Magazines scattered in a teenage girls room.  Do you? 

Our messages are not getting out, despite all our good intentions and past hard work we have failed to get messages across like: The technology that you use today began as an idea in someone's imagination. What do you think I.T. can do to make the world a better, safer, or happier place? Your ideas for the future could end up making history!

We need to recognize that the media is a powerful and pervasive delivery mechanism that should not be ignored, instead needs to be courted.

Failure to get across to the media also means a failure to get the message to the broader public about why this issue is so important.  Why this should not be considered a gender issue (and therefore mostly marginalized).  The lack of females in technology is a serious economic, skills and future participation in society issue.  It IS more important than sport, it is more important than an interview with a reality TV participant, it is more important than rescuing a cat, and deserves repeated coverage to ensure the message does get out.

FAILURE NUMBER 2 how many times do you run a project and later learn about a like program run by someone else, or post an event you hear about something that could have enhanced your project?  Or even worse dont know about the many other like activities being run, by people just as passionate as you?

You dont need to invent a mentoring program, you dont need to design a career day, you dont need to work out from scratch how to set up a computer club it has been done before.

To me I see this as a failure on a few levels, first I see it as a non integrated non collaborative failure.  We have so many (too many) industry groups and associations and places trying to deal with this issue and not enough connectivity across us all.  Too much is done in isolation, valuable research is done that the commercial world and industry associations are unaware of, or worse not interested in thinking it does not relate to them, we are too splintered, shattered and siloed in our approach.

The second part of this failure I see is that due to this non collaborative approach that too many start up efforts have gone into awareness raising/perception altering/attraction projects and not enough into other areas such as retention, promotion and industry culture.  Even if we do manage to attract the few people into studies and careers we are loosing them again, we are undoing the very hard work it was in the first place by failing to back it up with other areas.

Have we ever considered the collective buying power, voting power, voice that we could have?  Have we ever considered the difference it would make if we managed to stop our shattered unaligned approach and tackled this together, perhaps even adopting a classic business plan approach.

Imagine what we could do if not just within Australia but globally on this one issue we truly did unite; budgets, projects and activities.  And we did this for strategies from kindergarten through. We already unite on the big issues the fundamental basis behind this thats why we keep having a go at it and trying to do something.  If we collaborated I predict that instead of a multitude of duplicated (and I say often wasted) efforts we may be able to focus and deliver the one or two things that will make a global difference.

In my observation when we do present/discuss careers in IT with our target audience there appears to be a preference to put up people from the large multinational, nationally recognized firms.  Yes I know people identify with the names Google, Microsoft, Oracle etc however when you look at the stats of the nature of IT firms such the IIB Industry Survey.

96% of ICT firms are micro or small firms and the breakdown of that is 84% of those are micro firms meaning 4 or less employees, with 12% as small 5-19 employees.  Figures similar to this are reflected across Australian and Worldwide industry surveys.

More than 50% of the Qld firms are less than 10 years old with approx 30% of the total firms being less than 4 years old.  Combining that with the growing trend of females leaving corporates (mostly due to cultural reasons) as reported in the NFWBO/IBM research, indicates to me that an inaccurate picture is being presented.

Wouldnt it be more honest to discuss industry typical size entrepreneurial firms and the realities of life working inside a small, and often micro IT firm rather than try to seduce with concepts of workshops and training in the USA and large company benefits etc.  If we took this approach we may get an increase in younger technology entrepreneurs where instead of joining the recruitment queue they become producers in their own right? 

Think about what new products and services we may get as to remain competitive in small business one needs to design and develop something people want. Or if they do not become entrepreneurs then this approach would mean that their expectations are more aligned with what will most likely be where they are employed.

If part of our desire is attract females to the creation and design of IT and what better way to do that than encourage it through learning to do it themselves, learn to be entrepreneurial and consider the broad possibilities and be responsible for creating and designing and successfully driving the technology into the market.

Department of Education Science and Training brought out in December 2005 a report on innovation (Australian Science and Technology at a glance).  Whilst the report shows that Australia is doing Ok in comparison to OECD countries, there is certainly room for improvement in a number of areas such as technology innovation. To grow innovators/entrepreneurs we need an education system that supports independent learning and thinking and values entrepreneurial characteristics, not one that leads people to assume they will be hired by a large firm and looked after.

Which is FAILURE NUMBER 3 on my list in our desire to attract and interest weve mostly focused on the large corporate technology firm brand names and we have failed to present the statistical reality.

We must do a better job of getting all students ready for technology. We can't look at a survey that claims girls' computer use equals boys' and think we've accomplished that goal. We must encourage girls to begin taking the highest levels of math, science, and computer science offered at their schools. And we must expect that women will become computer scientists, that women will own their own IT firms not expect that they won't.

Goals, for example, need to be re-examined. Is simply getting more girls into computer science classes an adequate measure of success? I would suggest not for this group Clearly, you have much broader, much longer-term results in mind.

For you, success is a commitment to lifelong technology learning, with all that that implies: an ability to adapt to rapid changes, interpret critically the wealth of electronic information, experiment without fear, and assume a variety of roles beyond that of end user or consumer.

In the classroom, dont you want to see technology infused across the curriculum, to support better learning for all students in a variety of subject areas.

This philosophy is especially crucial for Girls and other nontraditional users of computer science, who are not enamored of technology for technologys sake, may be far more interested in using the technology if they encounter it in the context of a discipline that interests them. Hence CC4G, developed by e-skills UK, is designed to fire up girls about technology in ways that are relevant to them.  Skills development is embedded within fun, educational activities based on the girls' interests - music, fashion, celebrities and design.  Which just might grow entrepreneurs to improve the tools and develop a business.

FAILURE 4 Failure to have an elevator pitch
This is not exactly an intervention program failure but related and very much related in how we market the programs.  IT&T, IT, ICT, SET.I say STOP lets be bold and take a worldwide change move away from these acronyms and rename ourselves what we really do how we make an impact.

One possible word is transformationists.  Focus on transforming, on making a difference and aspects that appeal community, global, connecting.  Or a favourite of mine is taking that and using the ICT acronym to redefine the industry as Innovation Creativity and Transformation.  You know lawyers practice the law, doctors heal, the police maintain law and order well we transform the world.

Failure What can do about it
Failure to attract and retain media attention and convey our messages get Kochi from Sunrise to say something nasty about you on morning TV   - no seriously IF we manage to get the attention of a public figure and get even just 1 minute of key TV viewing the impact is tremendous, people view you and what you are doing in a different light minds open discussion commences.  If we manage to court some public figures that are seen as role models eg: sport people, fashion models, actresses, get selected snippets into tv soapies, and reality TV players we get an instant audience.
 Establish a regular process of research, articles, interesting facts and case studies to be made available to media.  Not all will be published but if we are not putting them forward none will.
 use the power of forums and blogs to let people know about what you are doing and why, discuss results, use for live comments etc.  There is a lot more power in this area than you may have even realised.  In my experience this is a tool of NOW and has broad sweeping appeal and impact.
 ask one of your event sponsors to pull out stating something controversial about what you are doing well no not quite no one wants to materially damage a project or be so pragmatic that this avenue is considered  however the lesson  here is CONTROVERSY we HAVE to ask ourselves WHY is it that the world the world jumps onto controversy why do people seek it out and are interested even if it is in a field or topic that is not their general area of interest?
Failure to work collaboratively Stop operating independently, develop a cohesive united strategy. have a look at the UK response to the Greenfield report it is titled A Strategy for Women in science, engineering and technology  it is simply structured The work of work, using mainstream policies to improve the position, ensuring initiatives reach girls and women and making it happen.  In my opinion not a bad way to structure an overarching strategy.
 To do this our industry needs to court the media and networks and not in little bits as a coordinated cohesive group!
 What is stopping us from lobbying to get a current role model of the young eg Jessica Simpson to take the role of a smart female technologist in a sci-fi film?  Why dont we use the emerging QLD film industry to consider this sort of approach?
Failure to present the reality Ensure a healthy does of entrepreneurship is included in role model/career days and education itself.  This ought to encourage creativity, design and desire to build.  Be aware of industry statistics and likely places of work dont just go for brand names.  Emphasise where you may work may not even be in existence yet, you may create it yourself.
Failure to define an elevator pitch Why dont we write a suitable song and use it at each event.

Issues to consider.

Why intervene?  Why try to artificially stimulate the situation?  Maybe <20% female attraction rate is market rate?

Why dont Asian countries experience this issue to the same extent as Western countries.

Why do we need more girls interested in technology?

A key reason why IT is important is because Information Technology is not just having a huge impact on the global economy; it's also affecting our social, economic, and civil institutions. We don't have hundreds of years to figure things out: innovation and obsolescence happen at lightspeed, and IT can literally change the world overnight.

It changes who can compete in the global economy, it changes the nature of advocacy, it forces us to deal with privacy and piracy, it facilitates multi-national corporations, it allows communities to form with no proximity between members, it can reshape education and democracy and on and on.  

The chief reason to work towards encouraging girls interest in technology is to bring to the table diversity of thinking. It is well acknowledged that females bring a different perspective to issues than males do.  If more females were involved in designing and creating technology we may see a world with different designs, and one that takes into account an inclusive set of perspectives.  We may even see technology that is simpler to use and more attractive.

The researchers and educators here today will know that technology is socially constructed. In other words, technology does not exist devoid of its creators' prejudices, biases, cultural assumptions, etc. When men design and build toys and then have other men test them, it should not be surprising that the common experiences of those men get imbibed in the technology.

The trick is not to design a separate interface.  The goal is to incorporate a wide variety of perspectives into the design and creation of a system, to create a system that people can repurpose to meet their needs. The goal is to encourage flexibility of expression, to not project a limited perspective into the technology. Designers must take into consideration the vast array of potential users, experiences, expectations, not simply their own. This is why we need more girls in IT; so that we get more inclusive deigns.  The facts are that technology designed without female input can be critically one dimensional.

- Lucy Sanders, NCWIT CEO and Co-founder  said: "We'll never know what we're missing without more women participating in information technology. We can't measure absence."

Declining numbers of females in ICT is not just a gender issue: it is ultimately an issue about 3 key areas 1) economics and wealth, 2) skills and 3) participation in society.

Skilling our future generations to be able to fully participate in the knowledge/information era, where they are able to live, work and play using appropriate technology, ought to result in a more inclusive, robust and economically thriving future.

Its about making an informed decision for their future - even if the girls decide that a career involving technology is not for them, they will at least have made an informed decision.

In closing I say to you be innovative and creative and design something that will transform our and our childrens future!  Rewrite the meaning of ICT make it  -  Innovation, Creativity and Transformation.  And work together to jointly Turn imagination into reality It is up here for thinking so lets do that.


Files to download - Click the title to view/download the document

Sonjas conversation (196 K) - Type: MS Word file
This will be an very interesting paper in the conference.

Last modified: 9/18/2006
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