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Technology Today


The Technology Gender Gap: Yes, Virginia...We Can E-Mail Santa
Kimberly Weiner, Adjunct Professor, Pepperdine University

I remember the day in sixth grade when the principal brought a computer into my classroom. I was enthralled. Once I got my hands on it, I was hooked. There weren###t many applications; all the computer did was math drill and practice. Still, to me, it was incredibly cool. By today###s standards, that little machine was basically a big, round, orange calculator, but to a kid in 1977, it was a thing of wonder.

Unfortunately, while the boys in the class seemed to share my passion, the girls did not. At free time, I would dash for the computer, only to find that I was the sole female jostling for a place in line. The boys were annoyed that a girl wanted in on "their territory". The other girls didn###t understand why a girl would want to use a computer. All it did was math, and everybody knew that math was only for boys.

Thankfully, the situation regarding females and computers has changed; or has it? Currently, attention is being paid to a major gender gap in technology education that threatens to stymie today###s young women from becoming tomorrow###s successes. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation reported just this month that the number of boys taking higher-skill computer courses clearly eclipses the number of girls. (USA Today, 14 Oct. 98, D4). Compare the number of women in computer science departments or labs across the United States to the number of men (Robbins, 1996). Estimates of the ratio of men to women on the Internet have been reported to be anywhere from 2 to 1, to 9 to 1 (Quarterman, 1995). The discrepancy is painfully obvious. The irony of this "gender gap" is that boys and girls appear to have equal levels of interest in technology until the age of eight. Then, boys delve into the world of games, while girls find fewer applications interesting or attractive (Laurel, 1997). This is also the same age at which boys### and girls### overall interests take divergent paths. Boys look for the "win"; they enjoy competition for its own sake. Girls prefer activities based on process and communication; winning the game is less important than the experience of participation (Laurel, 1997 and Taylor, 1990).

Walk down the aisle of your local computer store. Most of the games you will see are indeed based upon the types of "end-result" orientated competitions that do not entice girls. Those few software packages created for and marketed to girls tend to be stashed in a corner of the children###s software section. Given that these applications are usually a child###s first entrée into the world of technology, is it any wonder that many young girls refrain from
choosing computers as a free time activity?

As these children grow and enter high school, a great number of boys have been playing games and using software for several years. Thus, they are already familiar with computers and feel confident about taking the classes that open doors to further technical knowledge. Girls, however, having had little incentive or enticement to use a computer, find themselves in a situation where they are already behind the general level of knowledge, even in an introductory class. Then, after high school, these young adults focus on their futures. In general, one chooses a career path based on interest, ability, and education. Who is more likely to have the desire, knowledge, and experience to attain an entry-level position in technology: the average boy or the average girl? Who will have the opportunity to be involved in the creation of new technologies and applications? Finally, who will become the one who has the connections or funding to "green light" a project? If mostly men are designing new technologies, they will continue
to design interfaces and products that appeal to them. Thus, this cycle is self-perpetuating. Girls don###t use computers; women don###t attain leadership positions where they can change the very reasons why girls don###t like technology.

Why should this discrepancy deserve our attention? The answer goes beyond the basic idea of fairness or equal opportunity for all. Consider the fact that today, the average woman over the age of 25 changes jobs every 4.8 years ( U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). Many futurists, such as Don Tapscott, or Paul Saffo, believe that tomorrow###s workforce will be changing careers even more frequently. This has major implications for today###s young women.

We know that technology has affected practically every facet of the American work experience. Entrepreneurs use the Internet to reach suppliers and customers. Blue-collar positions, such as lunchroom worker or grounds keeper, are posted on-line. White-collar workers work overtime to become proficient with specialized software packages just to keep up with the demands of their jobs.

Yes, unemployment rates are low. But the skills needed to fill many highly paid positions involve specialized technological skill, use, or knowledge. The government###s new budget agreement allows an increased number of high-tech foreigners to work in U.S. companies because qualified people are so difficult to find (AP 16 Oct 98). So, the opportunities exist, but our young women are not prepared. How can we, as individuals, help alleviate a situation that seems so cyclical?

As an educational technology specialist, I have witnessed how girls tend to shy away from the computer until they discover a reason to get past their preconceived ideas regarding computers being "geeky", or "lame" or "boy stuff". Whether teaching, coaching a Think Quest team, or researching attitudes and perceptions, I have yet to come across a young woman who didn###t find fun, entertainment, and excitement about using a computer once she discovered a way to make the technology serve her needs.

The Internet has proven to be the most powerful motivating factor I have found to make this idea come alive. There in lies the key. We must make the technology appear personally intriguing and relevant for the individual.

Several important factors to keep in mind when introducing technology to young women are as follows:

  • Make computer use a group activity. Encourage your daughter to use the computer with a friend or two at her side. One issue many girls have with computers is that they see it as something to be used by one, solitary person.
  • Ask the girls to name three hobbies or people that they find "cool" and search those topics using a child safe search engine, such as "Yahooligans". Keep the old adage of "teaching one how to fish rather than just giving the fish" in mind at all times.
  • Seek out sites that deal with stories, especially those stories that feature female characters. Girls tend to feel frustrated with pages that have little real content, sites that contain mostly just lists of other sites. Remember, the experience of surfing is just as important as the actual content on the screen (i.e. What Did You Do in the War, Grandma?
  • Encourage girls to join on-line clubs for girls where camaraderie and communication is the goal, not technology itself (i.e. "" GirlSite,