Access, not ability leaves girls screened out of computer age

February 24, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

I have a 10-year-old son who cannot figure out which hole in his sneakers the shoestring goes in next, but who learned how to use the Paintbrush application in WordPerfect 5.2 before I'd figured out where the "save" button was on the computer screen.

And I have an 8-year-old daughter who wouldn't go near the computer if it called out to her, "Jessie, let's pretend we are teen-agers!"

My son does not know which way to turn the knobs in the shower, but he has never met a Super Nintendo game he could not master in minutes. The flashing TV screen and the screeching sound effects have never so much as caused my daughter to turn her head.

What we have here is a gender gap in technology, just like the one that has existed in math and science for generations. Little girls are getting shut out, and if they are not technology literate, there will be very few jobs they can do.

"We are talking about a facility and a feeling of comfort in using machines," said Susan Shaffer, associate director of The Mid-Atlantic Center in Chevy Chase, which specializes in desegregating education. "It is what boys have. And girls don't get that experience."

The reasons are clear. Boys arrive in kindergarten slightly ahead of girls in large motor skills but slightly behind girls in literature and language. Schools address those shortcomings in boys. But they don't give girls the same kind of boost in the manipulative skills that will make math, science and technology less strange.

"Girls grow up more afraid of failing with equipment, while boys are comfortable with trial and error," said Linda Shevitz, women's coordinator for the state Department of Education.

That early deficiency is compounded by access and attitudes.

"We have never seen in our work any differences except in people's attitudes," said Merle Froschl, co-director of Educational Equity Concepts in New York. "Boys and girls do these tasks with equal enthusiasm and equal creativity. Our research shows that girls just do not have equal access to computers, but it has nothing to do with their ability to use them. We are creating a problem here."

A facility with computers isn't just the key to some sci-fi job in the 21st century. Children start using computers the minute they hit kindergarten. By junior high, teachers expect reports to be done on a word processor. By college, laptop computers are required.

One study showed that of the 26 million American households that own at least one computer, 43 percent have school-age children. Educational software is a billion-dollar business, and parents such as I don't even ask the price if we hear Mathblasters or Magic Spells might boost a child's learning skills.

How can we deal little girls out of this?

Shaffer's studies have shown girls -- and this is also true among black and poor children of both sexes -- don't get the same kinds of tasks on the computers. While the boys are doing complex manipulations and problem-solving, girls are stuck on repetitive drills. How interesting is that?

On the commercial market, computer games and video games are very much for boys. Even The Learning Company's highly regarded series of learning games feature little-boy Super Solvers.

As the girls get older, they drop out. All of this is such a bore. Take a look in the junior high computer lab, the after-school computer club or even the video arcade in the mall. Any girls there? And that clutch of adolescent boys will scare them away with their presence.

It is not just the fact that little girls can't grow up to be rocket scientists if they have no comfort level with computers. Ever try to figure one out yourself? It takes persistence. That quality comes in very handy in life. And it takes forms of thinking that are applicable everywhere.

There is no easy way to bridge this gender gap in technology. You have to make sure your daughter's teachers require her to use the computer at school, because if she is given the choice, she will say, "No, thanks."

Encourage her to use the computer for her homework. While boys will just fool around on computers, girls like it better if there is a point. Choose games of logic and intellect and no male protagonist, like Sim City 2000.

And the next time your 10-year-old son tells your 8-year-old daughter that she is an "idiot" while she is trying to figure out Midnight Rescue, make him go play with her Barbies until she is done.

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