Cyperspace proves to be hostile territory to many women

August 24, 1994|By David Plotnikoff | David Plotnikoff,Knight-Ridder News Service

San Jose, Calif. -- Remember the good ol' days when the information superhighway was a mandatory topic for % 5/8 cocktail-party chat -- say, about six months ago? Here was this shiny, new medium that could level the playing field in interpersonal communications. It could be a place where users would be judged only by their words and the intellect behind those words. The old prejudices surrounding gender, race, class and physical appearance would magically fall away and we would all be as equals in the Temple of the Very Fast Modem.

Now here we are, just five minutes into the virtual rush hour, and already that promise is proving to be an empty one for women. With one exception -- Prodigy -- from small on-line communities to the 20-million-user Internet, it's estimated that more than eight out of every 10 on-line citizens are male.

There are no simple explanations why women are under-represented in cyberspace. As commercial services edge closer to becoming a true mass-market phenomenon, there's a growing awareness that on-line culture is not an entirely new ballgame. Virtual communities are mirroring the real world, with many of the old assumptions and biases intact.

What's to blame for the gender gap? Users, academics and industry watchers point to an array of social phenomena with roots that extend well beyond on-line. The real reasons may be as fundamental as the differences in the way men and women use language and the way each sex views technology.

Young girls begin getting negative messages about technology, math and science in elementary school. Research shows boys and girls are equal in computer use until about fifth grade. After that, the boys' use rises while the girls' use falls. Studies also show that girls, regardless of ability, tend to start avoiding science and math around the seventh grade.

Terry Winograd, a professor of computer science at Stanford University, says there is a complex set of social forces that may cause girls to see computers as a boys-only club. "It's probably a hundred different messages -- some subtle and some not so subtle -- about who has the computer and what it's used for," Ms. Winograd says.

"I've got a daughter in grade school who tells me, 'Oh, I'd like to use the computer, but the boys never let me get near it.' She does do her term papers on the computer, but she comes home and does them so she doesn't have to fight off the boys. Starting at that age, it's already been staked out as male turf, and you better stay out."

Julia Oesterle of the Institute for Research on Learning in Palo Alto, Calif., says her 15-year-old daughter's first experience with the mostly male environment on the Prodigy service was disappointing.

"She's a pretty, smart, honors-class kid and was one of few girls to hang on to playing with Nintendo, long after most girls abandoned it to the boys," says Ms. Oesterle. "After being on-line for a couple of nights, she lamented, 'Where are the girls?' She keeps at it, but I don't know how long it will hold her interest. She likes talking with boys, but as you probably know, girls and boys -- and generally men and women in our culture -- use technology differently and for different reasons. Neither my daughter nor I are interested in the techno-toys syndrome."

By the time many young women reach college, the alienation from tech has become a full-blown estrangement. According to National Science Foundation figures, men receive 75 percent of all computer science degrees. And the higher up the ladder, the worse it gets: Women receive 13 percent to 15 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded in computer science and less than 10 percent of the doctorates in engineering. That, in turn, refuels the cycle for another generation of young women growing up without female mentors in teaching positions. (One recent study estimates that 92 percent of computer science and engineering faculty members are male.)

"I'm 30, and when I went to college I was discouraged from computer-related majors. Even as recently as 10 years ago, there were still fields that were considered to be exclusive to men or women," says Carol Beeton, an acquisitions editor with Addison-Wesley Publishing in Emeryville, Calif., who handles many tech titles. "At a university of 15,000, when I was a freshman I only knew one woman majoring in programming -- and we thought she was so smart. Women haven't had time to catch up yet, and that's likely one big reason for the discrepancy in the [on-line] numbers."

Not surprisingly, out in the working world, the types of tech professions that demand computer literacy -- and often come with company-sponsored Internet access -- still tend to be dominated by men. Technophobia is not an exclusively female disorder -- but women in general do react negatively to technology more often than men. A Dell Computer Corp. poll in the fall questioned 1,000 adults and found 55 percent of the women admitted discomfort with new technology, compared to 45 percent of the men.

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