Technology teams at universities can make small changes to their processes which could make a big difference to LGBT+ student communities, according to Anna Wilson, service desk manager for Irish research and education network HEAnet.
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Speaking to the audience at the 2017 Jisc Networkshop45 event, Wilson said many minority groups at universities, such as transgendered students hoping to change their details, can be affected when forced to answer questions regarding name or gender due to the way IT systems have been developed.
“Everyone in this room holds enormous power in affecting a student’s daily living experience, even down to whether they drop out or not – and we all know how dropping out can affect someone’s entire life,” she said.
In the UK, the average number of straight students who consider dropping out of university courses is 25% as opposed to 27.7% of gay students, 26.6% of lesbian students and 30% of bisexual students. The number of trans students who consider dropping out of university in the UK stands at 51%.
The most common reason LGBT+ students give for dropping out of university is because they felt like they “didn’t fit in”. This is something Wilson believes the IT community can help change by addressing identity in a more flexible way when building systems.
“This is a community we serve, and this comes about because of identity. Everyone on the planet experiences these pressures, but perhaps LGBT people more than most,” said Wilson.
Developing conscientious systems
Using the example of trans students, Wilson highlighted requesting to change your name or log-on for an official IT system, including the issue of a new email address or login details, can be a stressful process that leaves students feeling like they are not taken seriously and, in many cases, this can lead to dropouts.
Wilson said there are many “falsehoods programmers believe about names”, including that “a person’s name isn’t going to change very often” despite 70% of married women choosing to take a different surname after marriage.
“This affects us all because we’re all building use structures around majority examples. On average it works out, but averages are misleading. Some people work out well almost none of the time,” said Wilson.
Sometimes the bureaucracy of the process and poorly managed helpdesk situations can make students “decide it’s not worth the effort”.
Though LGBT+ is considered a community “outside of the mainstream”, university IT also operates outside of the mainstream as their users are different to those in traditional organisations.
“We’re the people who put these systems in place, and they get used in ways we don’t expect. That means it’s on us, for the stuff we do we’re the only people who can make a difference,” said Wilson.
According to Wilson, designing accessibility into systems from the start can help IT teams to address these issues in the future.
Anna Wilson, HEAnet
She said: “There are some very obvious changes we can make, such as gender boxes – do we really need to ask someone’s gender? Do you really need to ask for their legal name?
“We assume something like someone’s username is an opaque cookie that is never going to change.”
Most importantly, Wilson urged that requests – such as students wishing to change their name or gender – should not be treated as “an exception”.
“We can have an impact on these dropout rates by making this kind of recognition, but every time we say this is an exception, we’re forcing someone through that chain of helpdesks and we lose a percentage of those people,” she said.
When firms discuss diversity in the IT industry, many believe increasing the number of women in IT teams will help to change the culture of an organisation and pave the way for other minorities to enter the space too.
Wilson took a similar stance, saying that building systems to accommodate the LGBT+ community will “help us all” as it makes people more conscientious, makes it a priority for IT teams and will contribute to ensuring people are treated as individuals as opposed to trying group individuals together.
“We serve all the users from the most mainstream to the most demanding, our very structure reflects that we work for our community. It’s not just that we can make a difference for the LGBT+ community, it’s that we’re the only ones who can make a difference in the particular work we do,” she said.
How the internet affected Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum
The internet has given many minority groups and sub-cultures the opportunity to find or spread information and develop communities.
Prior to the internet, it was very difficult to bring “any kind of activism or debate” surrounding particular subjects to the mainstream, but now the internet and social media has provided a platform for widespread communications.
Wilson said the use of the internet helped give people a platform for canvassing, and allowed people to give instantaneous feedback about the best ways to circulate information about the vote.
This helped the community to spread the word about the vote and their stance using a “pop-up political machine” in an environment where there was very little government support.
“It was a tough place to start from because politically there’s no mainstream support – it doesn’t matter how good your arguments are, no one is going to hear them,” said Wilson. “The level of engagement was phenomenal.”
On the day of the vote, many people came back to Ireland to submit their ballot and shared their experience on social media using the hashtag #hometovote.
“It wouldn’t have happened that way without the ability to use the internet to form a community,” said Wilson.