Improving the Information Systems Workplace Can Women’s Issues Become Men’s Issues Too?

From the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – When researchers asked managers in the information systems field about the challenges women in the profession face, they uncovered a serious gender gap: male and female managers think about the problem in very different ways. Understanding this gap could lead to more effective programs to address gender-based issues and to change the field’s culture.

“How do you change a culture?” political scientist Margaret Reid asked. “It takes a fundamental commitment from the profession to ensure the issues are both men’s and women’s issues, not just women’s issues.”

In a paper published in the European Journal for Information Systems, Reid and Myria Allen of the University of Arkansas teamed with Deborah Armstrong of Florida State University and Cynthia Riemenschneider of Baylor University. They analyzed the results of focus group discussions to gain insight into why so many women continue to leave the male-dominated information systems field. The researchers found that male managers had a general understanding that women face a number of challenges as women in the information systems field. However, their understanding appears to be superficial.

“The overarching benefit of this research is that these discussions may allow organizations to shift the focus from how women cope to uncovering the system of gender-based pressures and relations that create the need for women and men to cope,” the researchers wrote. Doing so would allow information systems and similar fields “to rethink the way they organize their work environment and to develop solutions to improve it.”

The research team worked with six single-gender focus groups drawn from three large corporations. Three focus groups were made up of male managers only and were conducted by male researchers. The other three focus groups were made up of female managers and were conducted by female researchers.

Using transcripts of the group discussions, the researchers employed a particularly qualitative method of analysis known as “revealed causal mapping.” They were able to identify concepts and to map the relationships between concepts, which are not easily recognized by standard methods of analyses.

When it comes to the challenges women face in the information systems field, previous research has identified the usual suspects: work-family issues due to long work hours, subtle forms of discrimination, lack of mentors, or inability to break through the glass ceiling. In focus group discussions, both men and women managers expressed awareness of such factors.

The causal maps revealed very different cognitive patterns in the way men and women think about these challenges to women’s participation in the information systems workplace. The researchers found that men displayed a general awareness of the challenges women encounter, but male managers did not state specifically how these concepts fit into the larger system or connect to other concepts.

“The men appear not to ask themselves how or why these challenges exist or what can be done to address them; they just accept that they exist. They appear to believe that it is largely the responsibility of the company’s leadership to change these conditions,” the researchers wrote.
On the other hand, the map of women’s responses revealed quite different emphases.

“One thing that emerged from this research was the hostile communications environment women face,” Reid said. Further, “Gender was central to women’s perceptions of how work was conducted in the information systems workplace.”

The central concept for the women managers was of being a woman in information systems. Gender awareness linked to all the workplace challenges, such as changes in cultural norms, gender expectations, negative non-verbal feedback and even threats. On top of this, the women have to balance work and family issues. Male managers in the information systems field did not recognize the complex linkages between issues.
“Given the subtle nature of the many challenges women in IS face, unified action requires communication,” the researchers wrote.

Further, the study suggests that in the best case, only limited communication takes place regarding challenges facing women in information systems. Change will require much more than periodic training sessions that might raise awareness, without changing the underlying conditions, the researchers wrote.

Reid is a professor of political science and Allen is a professor of communication, both in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas. Armstrong and Riemenschneider are in departments of management information systems at their respective universities.

Their article, “Perspectives on Challenges Facing Women in IS: The Cognitive Gender Gap,” was published in the European Journal of Information Systems.



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