|GIRLS AND TECHNOLOGY|
January 29, 1999
Why are more boys than girls taking computer classes and excelling in high-tech fields?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Matt and Shanna Hural have a lot in common. They are a 17-year-old brother and 16-year-old sister. They love to swing dance, and because they are exceptionally bright, they both attend the prestigious Thomas Jefferson Public High School of Science and Technology in Fairfax, Virginia. But when it comes to a subject considered crucial in today's world, Matt and Shanna part company.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: How do you feel about computers?
SHANNA HURAL: I don't really like them. They're -- I use them when I have to.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What about you? Now, you love computers.
MATT HURAL: Yeah. To me, they're really easy and they make things faster and they're just a lot better to use. I mean, if you know what you're doing, you can find whatever you need on the Internet really quickly. It eliminates -- I mean, I don't have to go to the library anymore.
An "alarming gender gap."
BETTY ANN BOWSER: According to a recent report conducted by the country's largest advocacy group for women and girls in education, the way Matt and Shanna feel about computers isn't all that unusual. After combing through more than 1,000 research studies, the American Association of University Women concluded that when it comes to technology, there is an alarming gender gap. Janice Weinman is executive director of the A.A.U.W.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The A.A.U.W. found that even gifted girls like Shanna generally don't take advanced computer courses in high school. At Thomas Jefferson, four times as many boys as girls sign up for advanced computer classes. The report said when girls use computers at home they're more inclined to do word processing, socialize with E-mail or work on an art or music program like Shanna's. The report found boys do enroll in many advanced computer courses, like this computer design class Matt takes.
MATT HURAL: Last year I designed a lobby for the school.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: You designed a lobby for the school?
MATT HURAL: Yeah, that was our end project, was designing a new lobby for the school. And even though I was never able to draw, I did a fairly good job, at least I thought.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: On the computer.
MATT HURAL: Yeah.
It's all about attitude.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And the A.A.U.W. study said when boys use computers at home, they are more likely to play interactive video games that develop fine motor skills and quick reactions, or take computers apart and put them back together.
DR. SHIRLEY TRICKLE: What we're trying to take a look at is the different ways in which girls and boys relate to computers and other aspects of technology and the kinds of things you're interested in.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Weinman and her colleagues were so concerned about their findings that they formed the National Commission on Gender and Technology, which recently held its first meeting with a group of girls at Matt and Shanna's high school. Commission member Dr. Shirley Trickle is a technology expert from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
DR. SHIRLEY TRICKLE: Well, I'm interested in whether or not any of you can say whether you think that in this school girls do have a different attitude than boys towards technology -- whether you see it, whether you feel it.
ETHELMAE LOEWER: The other day I needed -- I was just trying to copy something onto my K Drive and I blocked it out of my memory -- I forgot it-- so I asked this boy, you know, "how do you do it?" He's like, "oh, it's easy. You just type it in and no problem." He was talking to his friends and talking about Visual Basic, and I happen to know Visual Basic, and I said, "oh, yeah, yeah," and I solved the problem. And he was, like, "you know Visual Basic?" He looked at me like, "What? You?" And I was just like, "Yes, I do; it's amazing! It's called a computer!" It just shocked him.
DR. SHIRLEY TRICKLE: So you think the assumption is that girls need help?
ETHELMAE LOEWER: Yes, the assumption is that it comes easier to boys than it does for girls.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Barbara Smith teaches a course on gender at Johns Hopkins University. She agrees with the A.A.U.W.'s findings and says society sends powerful messages about technology to both boys and girls.
DR. BARBARA SMITH, Johns Hopkins University: Boys are more likely to have a computer at home. They're three times more likely to go to computer camp than -- a son than a daughter. Fathers are more likely to be using computers in the home than mothers so you have the element of the role model.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But not all the experts agree with the American Association of University Women.
Poverty gap, race gap, region gap....
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Craig Jerald is a technology specialist and senior editor for the magazine Education Week. He spent six months trying to determine if there is a technological gender gap.
CRAIG JERALD, Education Week: We found that how computers are used-- whether they're being used for lower-end repetitive drills or for more sophisticated purposes-- is what really matters in terms of test scores. On that measure, there's a poverty gap, there's a race gap, there's a region gap, but there is no gender gap.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the A.A.U.W.'s Weinman defends her organization's research.
JANICE WEINMAN: There may, in fact, be an economic gap, there may, in fact, be a racial gap, and we need to look at those gaps as well, but we do know from the literature that we have reviewed, from the studies that have been conducted, that girls do, in fact, have a different sense of comfort.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Christina Hoff Sommers, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, thinks the A.A.U.W. research is flawed. Hoff Sommers argues, contrary to the A.A.U.W.'s findings, girls are surging way ahead of boys in almost every area, including technology.
Time to reverse the trend?
CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS, American Enterprise Institute: Overall, girls are much stronger. Girls are going to college. Our colleges are now 56 percent female, 44 percent male. Girls get better grades. Girls are moving ahead. But I think it's time now to look at boys, who are falling behind. They're much more likely to drop out, to fail, to get, you know, poor grades, not go to college and to be -- boys are now a year and a half behind girls in reading and writing.
SALLY BELLACQUA, Computer Science Teacher: Go to J: -- hit "1" for log-in.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Thomas Jefferson High School computer science teacher Sally Bellacqua says she herself has seen progress since the early Atari computers were first introduced into the Fairfax County public schools a generation ago.
SALLY BELLACQUA: We must have had 200 boys engulf the machine. They smelled it in the room, you know, whereas the girls stayed as far away as possible. Then we would send those students through their first activity touching the computer; the girls were afraid they'd break it, you know. That is long gone. The girls are equally comfortable with calculators, computers. There's -- there's a tremendous change there.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Bellacqua says it's still hard to get the girls as interested as the boys. 16-Year-old Emily Sutterlin is the only girl on the Thomas Jefferson High School's competitive computer team.
EMILY SUTTERLIN: I think that if girls just tried it, they'd be fine. That's what happens with most of my friends that are girls. Once they are bold enough to try something that they're not sure of on the computer, they'll end up doing it right.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Most technology experts say gender gap or not, computers are becoming more and more user-friendly. Each year they get easier and easier to manipulate, and some say by the year 2015, a discussion over boys, girls, and a technology gender gap, may be moot.
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---For the record, since that report was prepared, Janice Weinman has left the American Association of University Women.