4: Unconventional Routes into ICT Work: Learning from Women’s Own Solutions for Working around Gendered Barriers

After decades of research, we know quite a lot about factors excluding women from ICT, but we are still short of effective solutions for recruiting women. Most studies exploring the challenges of recruiting women to ICT focus on conventional routes with career decisions made at high school. Here, however, we explore a much less studied phenomenon, which is women pursuing unconventional routes into ICT education and ICT work at a later stage. Based on in-depth interviews with 28 women working with ICT, the analysis illustrates how a majority of these women have found alternative routes to ICT, including a delayed entry into ICT education, a natural progression into ICT due to digitalization of non-technological disciplines, and pursuing opportunities arising as non-technological competences are increasingly valued in digitalization. These less conventional routes illustrate women’s professional development as motivated by processes of digitalization and the recognition of a wide set of professional fields and competences needed in ongoing digital transformations. Relying on entry points less affected by masculine stereotypes, the women contribute to new ways of co-constructing gender and ICT in the new digitalized workspaces.

Introduction

Diversity in the development of digital products and services is recognized as vital for the benefit of a diverse society (Losh and Wernimont, 2019) and is a goal across Europe (Barbieri et al, 2020). A continuously low proportion of women in ICT challenges this goal. About one in five ICT experts in Norway is a woman (Simonsen and Corneliussen, 2020), and a similar trend is visible in most European countries (Eurostat, 2019). Research has documented that gender stereotypes produce images of ICT as a male field (Master et al, 2016). A recent study from Norway suggests that girls need external influence in order to choose an education so closely associated with boys and men (Corneliussen, 2021). Most girls leave high school with no intention of pursuing a career in ICT. Some of these, however, find their way to ICT education and work at a later point, and it is these women’s narratives we analyze here, as we ask: what motivates women’s alternative and late entries into fields of ICT? The analysis builds on qualitative interviews with women working with ICT-driven research, development and innovation in Norway. None of these women had chosen ICT when leaving high school. Thus, pursuing a career in ICT represented a career change into ICT that they had not had in mind when entering higher education.

The narratives of the women in our study give a unique insight into how ICT has become a more visible, relevant, even necessary field to engage with, as disciplines and professions are changing through processes of digitalization. This study shows that when facing such processes, women adjust their education and career path to include ICT. The analysis illustrates three unconventional routes leading these women into ICT work: first, a delayed entry into ICT education; second, a natural progression into ICT due to digitalization of non-technological disciplines; and third, pursuing opportunities, as non-technological competences are needed in ICT-driven research, development and innovation.

Initiatives to recruit girls to ICT education often assume that the optimal way for this is to make girls copy features associated with masculine relations to ICT, for instance by sparking girls’ interest in tinkering and playing with technology, assumed to be important gateways to ICT education (McKinsey & Company and Pivotal Ventures, 2018). Most studies of women’s recruitment to ICT focus on women following a conventional route where the decision to pursue ICT happens before high school, or upon shifting from high school to higher education. Our analysis of women’s unconventional routes expands and adds to this literature by identifying how other interests and motivations work as door openers for women to choose ICT also at later stages than the beginning of their time at university. With a theoretical framework from Feminist Technology Studies (FTS) and theories about predictors of academic choices, the analysis illustrates how the women’s narratives draw pictures of alternative and unconventional routes leading them through a gendered landscape of ICT disciplines and professions, contributing new ways of co-constructing gender and ICT.

Women’s entry points into ICT education and work: a literature review

There are many studies of girls’ and women’s under-representation in fields of ICT, suggesting a complex problem that has changed over time and place (Cohoon and Aspray, 2006; Misa, 2010; Charles and Thébaud, 2018). Despite variations, it is widely recognized that gendered norms, discourses and stereotypes affect young people’s choices of education in ways that reproduce the gender imbalance in ICT (OECD, 2016; UNESCO, 2017; Frieze and Quesenberry, 2019) because gender stereotypes work to limit their educational choices (NOU, 2019: 19).

Studies of young people’s motivation to pursue a career in ICT have often focussed on when and how interest in ICT develops, for instance indicating the teens as a period when stereotypical perceptions of disciplines grow stronger (Talks et al, 2019). Many youths lose interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This affects girls more than boys, leaving a short gap to capture girls’ interest in ICT (Microsoft Corporation, 2017). This interest itself is, however, coded masculine. Thus, the many ‘road bumps’ and ‘potholes’ in women’s paths towards ICT (Branch, 2016) make active support, mentoring and encouragement more significant for girls than for boys (Corneliussen, 2021). This makes parents, teachers and educators important for girls’ educational choices (Eccles, 2015; Tænketanken DEA, 2019), but the former themselves are of course influenced by gender stereotypes, with an observed result being weak attempts to recruit girls to ICT (Corneliussen and Prøitz, 2016). A Danish study found that 70 per cent of parents believed that boys are more interested in ICT than girls; less than 1 per cent of parents imagined girls to be more interested than boys (Tænketanken DEA, 2019).

Despite gendered patterns in education, gender remains a little discussed issue in Norwegian schools (Mathiesen et al, 2010), including in questions relating to girls’ (lack of) participation in ICT subjects (Corneliussen and Tveranger, 2018). Gender stereotypes combined with young people’s lack of knowledge about ICT disciplines also have a more negative effect on girls than boys, making it less likely for girls to move from high school to higher ICT education (Talks et al, 2019). A recent study from Norway shows that many women enter ICT as a second education, which according to Corneliussen (2021), represents a ‘penalty round for women’ who due to gender stereotypes had not perceived ICT as a relevant or welcoming discipline at high school and therefore had chosen other disciplines. This, however, led the women to discover and get to know ICT in new ways that made it more relevant and available to them, for instance, because they could identify a non-technical interest or competence as an entry point and ‘a platform in ICT that they identify as “safe and familiar” without competing with the male image’ of computing (Corneliussen, 2021: 57).

Other studies have also identified women being recruited to ICT later and through other arenas than school, for instance through coding boot camps (Lyon and Green, 2020). Lyon and Green found that this came too late for many women to change to ICT, and Vainionpää et al claim that ‘senior high school is the last opportunity to influence girls’ major and career choice’ (2019: 1). While these studies clearly highlight an important and often missed opportunity to recruit women through schools (Seibel and Veilleux, 2019), they also point to the importance of increasing our knowledge not only of what motivates high school girls to choose ICT, but also to identify what makes women approach alternative routes to ICT competence and work. One optimistic strand of research in the late 1990s and early 2000s suggested that women were wanted and needed in the development of ICT, based on assumptions of women representing a type of hybrid work profile that incorporates feminine characteristics (Plant, 1997; Woodfield, 2000). While there might be different interests and motivations behind girls’ and boys’ educational attainments (Microsoft Corporation, 2017; Master and Meltzoff, 2020), the differences between women and men working in ICT and engineering are not so large (Faulkner, 2001) and what women and men care about in ICT work is also rather similar (Holtzblatt and Marsden, 2018). Expanding on the field of research revisited here, this chapter contributes to studies of women’s recruitment into ICT education and work with an analysis of how women’s alternative routes into this are shaped by gendered barriers and how they identify entry points less affected by masculine stereotypes.

Theoretical framework

Gender is a reflection of socially constructed differences between women and men, developed through cultural discourses and negotiated in many arenas (Connell, 2005). Technology is one of the fields strongly affected by gendered structures, and a growing field of research has since the 1980s explored the relationship between gender and technology (Wajcman, 2004). An illustrative example is the classic study of the gendered transformation of the microwave oven that was first imagined as a high-tech device and promoted for men alongside other products often bought by men. However, when the microwave was reframed to target women, it was also redesigned and presented as low-tech device for domestic work often used by women (Cockburn and Ormrod, 1993). This seminal study illustrates how technology as well as users of technology are gendered in ways that make the one reflect the other. This as well as other contributions in the field of feminist technology studies demonstrate that the gendering of technology is a cultural process, based on social and cultural choices and considerations (Grint and Gill, 1995; Oldenziel et al, 2003). Furthermore, social constructivist theories emphasize that gender and technology can be understood as mutually affecting each other, co-constructed and reflected in the images of who works with technology (Cockburn, 1992). This tradition contributes to our understanding of the gendering of ICT, for instance identifying that a major challenge for recruiting women to ICT is caused by its masculine image, making it appear less welcoming to girls than boys (Cheryan et al, 2013; Charles and Thébaud, 2018). Gendered images of and stereotypes about ICT have different effects on girls’ and boys’ ability to associate themselves with the field (NOU, 2019: 19).

While it is challenging to determine what has affected one particular individual’s educational choices, it is even more challenging to determine this for all women as Dee points out (2021). The aim of identifying how men and women make educational choices that result in patterns of gender difference has, however, generated a growing body of research. Some of the most popular motivational theoretical frameworks have roots in psychology such as self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1977), emphasizing that the way we understand ourselves and our own abilities affect study choices (Dee, 2021). Eccles developed this line of theories with the expectancy-value perspective, suggesting that individuals make their choices based on a combination of how well they expect to manage a task and the value they associate with the task (Eccles, 2009). Master and Meltzoff (2020) add to this by including research emphasizing how stereotypes affect students’ sense of belonging. They develop a theoretical model describing how students (for example women) who face negative stereotypes regarding their identity in STEM, integrate these stereotypes into their self-representation in ways that influence their interest and engagement in STEM. The main difference between the original expectancy-value theory and Master and Meltzoff’s model is that the first proposes that the subjective task value including interest, together with ability belief, are the most important predictors of students’ choices (Eccles, 2011), while Master and Meltzoff suggest that interest is an outcome, based on research showing that ‘ability beliefs are more likely to predict interest over time than the reverse’, and that ‘interest has distinct motivational properties, including the predisposition to re-engage with a domain over time’ (2020: 160).

Although we have not engaged in a psychological study of the concepts mentioned earlier, some of the concepts from these theories are still relevant for our study as they emphasize how academic choices are affected by cultural stereotypes, interest, women’s trust in their abilities, or ‘ability belief’, and a sense of belonging, all of which are elements that we can identify in the narratives of the women we have interviewed. One difference, however, is that these theories are mainly developed with the conventional route into STEM in mind. Our analysis engages with these concepts as a guide to exploring how these factors are valid for women who navigate unconventional routes into ICT education and work.

Methodological framework

Qualitative interviews with women in ICT work

This chapter reports on a Nordwit case study where we interviewed women working with ICT in western Norway. They were recruited through research funders, incubators and other organizations in fields of ICT research and innovation. Since we wanted to explore women’s experiences in ICT work from a variety of occupational fields and workplaces, we included women working in the public and the private sector as well as women in academia. In total 28 women, aged between 24 and 59, were interviewed. They all had university degrees (one BA, 18 MAs and nine PhDs). The 28 women’s disciplinary backgrounds reflect the fact that ICT work is not specific to ICT-educated specialists; only 15 of the 28 women had a degree in a discipline allied to computer science or information science, while the others had graduated in fields such as social sciences, humanities, natural science, health care, law, or economics. As the aim of this chapter is to explore unconventional routes leading women to ICT work, we do not discuss the 11 women who had followed a conventional route from high school to higher ICT education and focus instead on the remaining 17 women. The interviews involved a professional-life history perspective and included questions about education, occupational history and experiences in workplaces, and relationship to technology. The interviews followed an interview guide while also aiming to give the women space for reflection (Kvale and Brinkmann, 2009). When discussing individual women, we have in some cases omitted the exact discipline and position to secure their anonymity. The study was approved by the Norwegian Centre for Research Data.

Grounded theory approach

The interviews were analyzed using a grounded theory approach, suitable for developing new perspectives and understandings (Strauss and Corbin, 1998). We read and manually coded the transcribed interviews before extracting the codes, organizing them in groups and developing categories (Charmaz, 2006). In the next phase, we explored the women’s work histories as ‘routes to ICT work’, including the analytical categories resulting from the coding: ‘educational choices’, ‘finding a place’ and ‘belonging’. While emphasizing that the women’s voices should give meaning to the categories and experiences that we analyzed, we continued to refine these categories through reading and discussing sections of the interviews, comparing findings in the categories, and comparing our findings with similar studies. Thus, we were not only asking analytical questions of the interview material, but simultaneously engaged in comparative readings, exploring how the patterns we found related to research from other western countries. Through this analytical process we identified four routes leading to ICT work among the interviewed women. One of these was the traditional route leading from high school to ICT education and work. This route has been studied in many projects. We were instead interested in the other three, less studied routes. We focus on these in the following section.

Three unconventional routes into ICT education and work

The three routes into ICT work analyzed here are probably not the only unconventional routes into ICT work, and nor are they entirely exclusive. However, they contribute to highlighting how the field of ICT is still gendered in ways that create barriers for young women to pursue the conventional route into ICT, while simultaneously documenting alternative motivations for women moving into the core processes of ICT research, development and innovation. Table 4.1 gives an overview of some of the main features of the routes we identified, illustrating how they depart from formal education. The first route includes a university degree in ICT as a second education after changing direction. The second route involves ICT training as well but as a form of competence development growing out of a discipline traditionally not recognized as technological. The third route builds on a non-technological education while also involving mainly workplace-based, formal and informal ICT training. All the women were at some level involved in designing, building or implementing new technology. However, the first and second group were more involved in technical work such as programming, while the third group was more involved in design and management. The reasons for moving into ICT, however, had similarities across the routes, as we shall see when we start to unpack the routes.

Table 4.1:

Women’s unconventional entry routes into ICT work

Route 1: delayed entry into ICT education

Route 2: digitalization of (non-technical) disciplines

Route 3: non-technological professions engaged in ICT research and innovation

Education

First degree in a non-technical discipline

Second degree in ICT

Education in disciplines traditionally not recognized as technical

Education in non-technical discipline

Reason for choosing ICT

Support for future work

Necessary or natural change due to digitalization of chosen discipline

New opportunities in digitalization for non-tech professions

Way of acquiring ICT competence

Degree in higher ICT education

Development in original discipline with higher ICT education or workplace-based upskilling of ICT competence

Formal ICT courses and workplace-based upskilling of ICT competence

Current position

ICT expert

ICT as expert area within original (non-tech) profession

Occupied in original profession in area of digitalization

Current work tasks

Designing, programming, implementing new technology, management

Designing, programming, implementing new technology, management

Designing, implementing new technology, management

Source: the authors.

We start by illustrating the main features of these routes, with an emphasis on when and how the women entered fields of ICT, before we engage with some of the key concepts discussed in the theoretical framework: interest, ability belief and sense of belonging.

A delayed entry into ICT education (route 1)

Four women had originally chosen a non-technical education, before they changed to an ICT discipline, illustrating a delayed entry into ICT education. Like the conventional route, this route too involved a university degree in ICT, but was shaped (and gendered) by how the women had not chosen ICT but rather a non-technical discipline in the first place. Three of the women described the transition as coincidental. One of them had started with a degree in economics, but wanted to add something more “practical” and took a course in ICT that resulted in a change of direction:

‘The plan was to become an economist, I think. I’m not sure I had a plan, really. At least I knew I would take [subjects like] administration, organization and economics, and then I liked economics a lot, so that’s what I wanted to continue with. But then I also thought that I needed some IT because it is practical. Then I started in information science, and that was a good experience … and suddenly I had a Bachelor degree in IT. … The combination was a bit coincidental. It wasn’t according to a plan from the start.’ (Ann)

Ann’s first entry into ICT was a strategic move related to future work opportunities. She admits that initially she was not at all interested in technology. She started working as a programmer after finishing her Bachelor degree, realizing she really liked the job:

‘We started to build a data warehouse, and then I felt that I was in the right place, because then I got the combination of the analytical side of economics plus that you could work a bit with technology. It is not the geeky type of technology. It is a very practical use of technology. That appealed a lot to me.’ (Ann)

She returned to university to do a Master’s degree in IT, and at the time of the interview she was responsible for developing a data warehouse from scratch, doing everything from designing and programming, to implementing and teaching the users. She described this as “great fun”. Simultaneously she illustrated the gendered landscape of ICT by emphasizing the limits of her relationship with technology:

‘I think my strength is that I am analytic and see connections and manage to get things to fit together and the use of it, more than being an expert or very good in programming. I’m not there at all. … For me, technology is a means to accomplish something. … So I’m not so into technology as such.’ (Ann)

Bree was another woman who took a delayed route into ICT but had already been interested in it at high school. Her father advised her against choosing ICT and she accepted his argument that she was not really interested in it: “So I did not take any mathematics, because I was going to learn to talk to people and to understand society, that was what I wanted.” At university she had wanted to study ICT, but then realized she was not eligible for this, having followed her father’s advice. Cut off from ICT, she finished a Bachelor degree in social science, before she once again thought about ICT. This time she found an opening while contemplating what kind of jobs a degree in social science would lead to:

‘What job prospects do you have when you take that kind of [social science education]? … Then I realized that there were many job announcements asking for a combination of technology and social sciences, so I thought, okay maybe I should choose ICT to combine with the social sciences I already have.’ (Bree)

The turning point occurred when she realized that combining her degree in social science with ICT could be a door opener to interesting jobs. She was finally able to defy her father’s advice, but at the cost of starting all over again with a new Bachelor degree. Bree’s narrative illustrates her growing interest in technology including a geeky delight in programming:

‘When I started to study IT I got a better understanding of what it really was and how it works and then it was more like … it is a nice course, it’s great fun with things that you solve, and programming is a bit like solving the crosswords on the last page of the newspaper. It is like, finally you crack the code! And then it works, and you are satisfied.’ (Bree)

After her Master’s degree she had worked mostly as a programmer and systems architect; at the time of the interview she was developing new digital solutions for a private company.

Like the other women who took a delayed route into ICT, Bree too described this move as coincidental, not part of her original plan, and not a response to an interest in ICT per se, but rather a response to the sense that ICT training would provide useful competence for her future career. Though these women expressed doubt about their interest at first, when learning more about ICT they found themselves in ‘the right place’ within highly technical work processes in ICT development and innovation. Bree also defined limits for her relationship to ICT with reference to a discourse of programming as an activity often pursued by men in their leisure time, saying: “I’m not programming at home in my spare time or use a lot of time like that on technology” (Bree).

Digitalization of (non-technical) disciplines (route 2)

The women described earlier had a delayed entry point into ICT education. In the next group, too, there were ten women who decided to study ICT as part of their formal education. However, the driving force for these women was not a change from one field to ICT disciplines, but rather expanding their ICT competence along with increasing digitalization within their chosen profession in fields traditionally not recognized as technological such as nursing, pedagogy, biology and chemistry. Recognizing ICT competence as increasingly vital in their profession, these women made adjustments to develop and update their competence in ICT, even returning to university. While for some this meant a change of direction, others experienced it as a natural progression.

Health care is one of the sectors with a rapidly growing demand for digitalization. Two interviewees were working with technology in the health care sector. One, originally a nurse, was now responsible for digitalization processes including innovation and implementation of new digital solutions in the public health care sector. Her interest in ICT was stirred when she realized that her organization was like “Bambi on ice” regarding technology. Developing technology-driven health care services was “a huge transition” that she wanted to be part of:

‘There was a missing link between the job I was going to do [nursing] and the IT department. There was no communication at all and no dialogue. Because I did not understand what they said, and they did not understand what we were saying. And then all of us just thought that all the others were idiots.’ (Cora)

Cora returned to university to study for a Master’s degree in health informatics, encouraged by people in the organization telling her that she would ‘fit’ that: “I started at the university in a health informatics programme, because there were some holes that I felt I could contribute to, which had to do with understanding technology and collaboration between technology and people – those who are in fact using it” (Cora). She saw herself as a translator in the process of “digital transformation”: a total change in how to plan and provide health care services redefined as e-health. Nurses like her needed to learn more about ICT, but equally importantly, the ICT experts also needed to develop knowledge about health care: “The boundaries for those who work with technology have changed and it is no longer enough that they only know the platform and the technical side. They need to understand the effect of the system [in health care services] in order to solve a problem” (Cora). This highlights the conditions for her intermediary position between the tech personnel and the health care personnel, and between technology and human beings. This role was vital because “technology is nothing if the people who are supposed to use it cannot use it, because that is where you find the real benefit” (Cora). The two work cultures meeting in her work were not frictionless but she had developed a “thick skin” and a strategy for letting things cool down as she navigated the gendered workspace between health care and ICT:

‘I’m doing better and better because I am respected in the IT department. They can see that I have knowledge. And if I feel that they look upon me as stupid, I do not care about that, I just continue after a short break and then I go back into the situation. But it is still as if they want to be in charge of their own areas, in particular these men.’ (Cora)

Cora’s narrative illustrates how her career changed direction due to her active choice to be part of the new e-health. Dani, on the other hand, regarded her move into ICT as a natural progression. Dani had started in chemistry and made choices during her Bachelor and Master’s degrees that gradually led her to a PhD in cybernetics. We asked her about that choice:

‘Well, in fact I chose chemistry. When I finished [high school] I didn’t even know what cybernetics was. And I am not sure that I would have chosen it even if I had known. … The most important thing is that you see as you go along, whether you like the subject or not, and then make choices based on that. So, I started with chemistry but then I chose the subjects with less chemistry, more towards control systems. Therefore, it was a natural transition into cybernetics for me.’ (Dani)

At the time of the interview Dani was working in research, developing and testing technological process control systems. She worked in a highly male-dominated field, and despite initial doubts about her educational choices she found the combination of chemistry and cybernetics a “good fit” for her, one she “enjoyed a lot”, and she was “very happy” about her current work. However, Dani also made sure to identify her limits: “There are more boys and men who sit and spend their leisure time on things like that [programming]. But we [women] use it, and we are interested in it in a work-related setting, but when I go home, I leave it behind at work” (Dani). Dani made a clear and gendered distinction between work and leisure here, with ICT being firmly located in her work environment.

Non-technological professions engaged in ICT research and innovation (route 3)

The third route into ICT was also taken by women with a background in a non-technical profession. However, in contrast to route 2, it was not their own profession that was being digitalized, but rather new opportunities arose for these women’s non-technological professions in processes of digitalization. Their original career choices, such as administration and management, economy and law, became a gateway to working with ICT and digitalization. There was also a trend among these women of being promoted into ICT work. Many of them had developed their career to the point of high management positions in workplaces where technology and digitalization were at the core of the organizations’ operations, and where they recognized that non-technological professions also had important roles to play. One of these women, Ella, illustrated both the integration of non-technological competences into digitalization, and taking on a leading role. Her background was in an “old-fashioned” and not at all technical discipline. After many years of “traditional” work in this profession, a coincidence provided a job opportunity in developing a framework for digital products and services. She recognized this as a change of direction into a field she did not know much about, when she recalled deciding to join the company: “I chose [company], even though I didn’t really understand much of what they were doing. I tried to read stuff to understand more. In the beginning I felt like a very ‘analogue person’. … I had to learn about technology, and it took a lot of time” (Ella). Technology and digitalization represented a new world that she found “very exciting”. She contributed to national as well as international digital innovation: “we had to build a methodology and our own tools. … We had to start with blank pages back then and we have built some of it, but we still have more to do”. She is considered a digital pioneer in the field. Recalling the start she said: “there were no answers, so when we were doing this, we had nowhere to look. No one had done it before, so we have invented this ourselves”. After nearly a decade in this work she no longer saw herself as an “analogue person”: “now I feel that I am very technological, that I know a lot about technology, … because [my work] has to do both with the code and with design and content, and now I know a lot about all of that” (Ella). Not taking the time to stop and acquire a formal education in ICT, she had developed her ICT competence on the job and she experienced her work identity as “more on the technological side” than within her non-tech profession. She did not consider herself an ICT expert, but for her, the fabric of digitalization was also not just technological:

‘One of the reasons we have succeeded is that we don’t think about technology as a separate field … it is a tool that needs to work in-between, for instance me and you, or for something else, but at least there are people at all ends. And to emphasize this perspective is important; that it is not just to build components that are supposed to talk to each other and do stuff, but making it work in a holistic perspective and asking what you want from it.’ (Ella)

Ella was one of five women in our sample who from a non-technological education had become deeply involved in processes of research and innovation with ICT and digitalization at their core. These new opportunities to work with technology reflected the development of new digitalized workspaces, products and services where multi-disciplinary competences are required. Different from the previous women, these women did not formally update their education, but instead engaged in learning processes on the job. Their lack of formal competence did not stop them; indeed, one of the women in this group is recognized nationally as one of the most important people in technology development in Norway.

Discussion: interest, ability belief and a sense of belonging

Drawing on social constructivist theories within feminist technology studies emphasizing the co-construction of technology and gender (Cockburn, 1992) and relying on theories of cultural stereotypes, interest, ability belief and a sense of belonging, we have illustrated the entry points of the three unconventional routes that led our interviewees to working within ICT and digitalization. Different from the conventional route from high school to university, the unconventional routes include examples of women changing their educational direction entirely (route 1), pursuing ICT competence in disciplines in transition due to digitalization (route 2), and becoming involved in ICT because non-technological professions are drawn into processes of digitalization (route 3). Although the 17 women were not recruited to ICT at high school, this did not prevent their later entry into ICT or pursuing opportunities in new fields of digitalization. We shall now unpack how these routes and the women’s narratives fit into some of the key elements of the theories about recruitment to ICT, such as interest, ability belief and sense of belonging.

Starting with the question of interest, Master and Meltzoff (2020) found that interest was a vital driver for recruiting students to a field because interest would make you return to that field. Bree illustrated this as she described several points where she had considered choosing ICT, suggesting that her interest in ICT made her more aware of opportunities related to the field. However, she did not refer to interest when describing why she finally decided to leave social science and start over in ICT. Instead, she described her change of direction as a strategic choice to secure interesting jobs in the future, similar to Ann’s motivation to choose ICT. However, while Bree described interest in terms of a geeky pleasure in programming, some of the others, like Ann, did not recognize ICT as interesting. This indicates that when considering women who were not recruited through the conventional route, interest is not enough to make women enter fields of ICT, but it also suggests that lack of interest is not the main barrier to women’s entry into ICT.

Ability belief (cf. Master and Meltzoff, 2020) seems to be a much more potent explanation for these women’s actual decisions to move into ICT. Bree repeatedly considered ICT as a potential career, but it was not until she could connect ICT to her already established competence and ability belief in social science that she made the relevant move into ICT. This illustrates a characteristic she shared with the other 16 women: they all had a non-technological discipline or profession as a starting point for their engagement with ICT. As Bree’s story illustrates, her already established competence in social sciences provided a safe platform from which to move into ICT. The women’s unconventional entry points suggest that they experienced less competition with masculine coded fields of ICT when they could establish their ability belief in a field less characterized by masculine stereotypes, or even within professions dominated by women such as health care.

It seems that it is mainly at the entry point that the ‘safe platform’ makes a difference in relation to ability belief and interest, both of which are challenged by gender stereotypes. After developing their competence in fields of ICT, the women gradually established their sense of belonging into those fields. Cora, for instance, became the support person for both health care and IT personnel in her organization, and Ella’s work identity increasingly rested both on her original profession and her new competence in a field of digitalization. The importance of these starting-points or platforms in the women’s narratives illustrates how their ability belief as well as their sense of belonging increasingly rested on a combination of ICT with their first chosen non-technological discipline. Although they worked with designing, programming, developing and implementing ICT systems, it was the power of producing and controlling technical systems in the context of other fields that made the women feel that they were “in the right place”, like Ann discovering she could work with both programming and economics, Bree working on business development through producing information systems, and Cora improving health care services through technology.

The women changed, some of them quite literally, by leaving one field and entering ICT; others by developing their competence in ICT in a direction that they had not intended when they first entered university. Some of the women pointed out how this differentiated them from colleagues who had not acquired ICT competence. They described new configurations of ICT work where they saw themselves filling holes between the tech-people and, for instance, health care workers, who did not speak the same language. They illustrated also how ICT had changed: since none of them came through the conventional and direct route to ICT, they had added other competences to ICT research, development and innovation, suggesting that they represented hybrid work profiles. This hybridity was built on professionally acquired competence that added to and expanded their understanding of technology. This should not be mistaken for the type of hybrid work profiles supposedly built on feminine features, as discussed in earlier research (Plant, 1997).

Unconventional entry routes into ICT are not reserved for women, but the women’s narratives illustrate how they experienced this as navigating a gendered landscape. This was most clearly articulated when they described their limited interest in ICT, with references to different expectations regarding men’s and women’s relationships to technology: unlike their male colleagues, the women left the technology behind at work.

Conclusion: documenting a failure or proposing a solution?

After decades of research, we know quite a lot about factors excluding women from ICT, but we are still short of effective solutions for recruiting women. Most studies exploring the challenges of recruiting women to ICT focus on conventional routes with career decisions made at high school. Solutions often aim to produce changes in the same context: targeting girls’ interest in ICT, aiming to support their ability beliefs, and making them feel welcome (Master and Meltzoff, 2020). In this chapter we have explored a much less studied phenomenon, which is women pursuing less conventional routes into ICT education and ICT work, suggesting that they find other ways of dealing with the existing gendered barriers. Reflecting the masculine stereotyping of ICT, the first route illustrates barriers excluding even women who are interested in ICT. The women’s solution follows after a delay, the gendered ‘penalty round’ shaped by women’s experience of barriers to choosing ICT at high school and university that initially sent them into other fields (Corneliussen, 2021). While this delay has a cost, for instance for Bree who literally had to pay for two Bachelor degrees, it also gave the women a platform in a non-technical field. This provided an entry point into ICT education and work that was not equally riddled with gendered stereotypes. Learning more about ICT and how they could combine ICT with their previous discipline, the women experienced being “in the right place”.

We agree with theories suggesting that gender stereotypes about ICT are likely to affect women’s interest as well as ability belief in the field (Eccles, 2015; Master and Meltzoff, 2020). However, the women analyzed here differ from the main target groups behind these theories, making questions of interest and ability belief in ICT less relevant. In fact, our analysis shows that interest in ICT is neither enough, nor a requirement, for women to choose ICT. It is important to emphasize that our findings do not suggest that women are not interested in ICT, nor that encouraging such interest is irrelevant. However, for this group of women who had not been recruited at an earlier point, it was when they realized that ICT was important for business development, that ICT and social science could go hand in hand and that technology was necessary for delivering good health care services, that they became enthusiastic. They still had a major part of their professional identity, including interest and ability belief, invested in their original non-technological profession, but this did not prevent them from embracing ICT, developing their competence and finding a sense of professional belonging. Our analysis suggests that the ‘safe and familiar’ platform in a non-technological field is one key to understanding how the women developed a hybrid work identity combining non-technological fields with ICT in ways that avoided direct competition with the masculinized notion of ICT experts (Corneliussen, 2021).

Our study supports findings such as Master and Meltzoff’s (2020) suggestion that ability belief is important for supporting women’s entry into male-dominated fields like ICT. However, different from expectancy-value theories that suggest that ability belief and interest reside in the discipline in question, the women pursuing unconventional routes to ICT described their interest, ability belief and sense of belonging as linked to their investment in a non-technological discipline. They successfully solved the main challenge implied in Master and Meltzoff’s model, which is to identify ways of motivating students (for example women) facing negative stereotypes regarding STEM (for example ICT). However, the women we met found their own ways of solving this: by ignoring their discursive ‘lack of fit’ with stereotypes of ICT and defining their fit based on a hybrid competence model. A conclusion to draw from this is that ICT is not the only relevant starting point for choosing ICT, and that other fields of interest can provide less masculine coded entry points for individuals who do not associate themselves with this type of masculinity.

Are these women illustrating solutions to recruiting women into ICT, or do they rather represent failed opportunities? Our analysis suggests both. Some represented failure by pointing out that they could have been recruited earlier, while others rather rejected that view, such as Dani who doubted that she would have chosen ICT earlier even if she had known more about it. Thus, while learning from failures of recruiting women through the conventional route, we should also look at unconventional routes as solutions with a potential for bringing a more diverse group into ICT work. Our study supports the often-repeated advice to develop the message about ‘who belongs’ in ICT to also include women (Cheryan et al, 2015; Master and Meltzoff, 2020), though this is also mainly limited to the conventional route. To capture a wider group of women including those who feel diverted away from the conventional route, we need to expand the message to include the vital role of ICT across a vast range of disciplines, industries and sectors not previously considered technological, including fields dominated by women.

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