December 29, 2000

As violent electronic games and dull programming classes turn off more and more girls, the way information technology is used, applied, and taught in the nation’s classrooms must change, according to a new report, Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age, published by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation.

Tech-Savvy is the culmination of two years of work by the AAUW Educational Foundation Commission on Technology, Gender, and Teacher Education. The report combines the insights of its 14 commissioners (researchers, educators, journalists, and entrepreneurs) at the forefront of cyberculture and education, findings from the Foundation’s online survey of 900 teachers, qualitative focus group research with more than 70 girls, and reviews of existing research.

"The commission makes it clear that girls are critical of the computer culture, not computer phobic," said Sherry Turkle, professor of sociology at MIT and co-chair of the commission. "Instead of trying to make girls fit into the existing computer culture, the computer culture must become more inviting for girls."

"The same reasoning applies to computer games," argued Sharon Schuster, president of the AAUW Educational Foundation. "Computer games don’t have to be the virtual equivalent of GI Joes and Barbies. We have to think less about ‘girls’ games’ and ‘boys’ games’ and more about games that challenge our children’s minds. When it comes to computer games and software, girls want high-skill, not high-kill."

Schuster added, "Although the Foundation convened the commission, in large part, because girls are alarmingly underrepresented in computer science and technology fields, we also recognized that there are much broader issues with regard to gender and technology." Currently:

Girls represent 17 percent of the Computer Science "AP" test takers, and less than one in 10 of the higher level Computer Science "AB" test takers.

Women are roughly 20 percent of IT professionals.

Women receive less than 28 percent of the computer science bachelor's degrees, down from a high of 37 percent in 1984.

Computer science is the only field in which women’s participation has actually decreased over time.

Women make up just 9 percent of the recipients of engineering-related bachelor’s degrees.

Among the report’s major conclusions:

Computer technology—Girls find programming classes tedious and dull, computer games too boring, redundant, and violent, and computer career options uninspiring.

Electronic games—Girls have clear and strong ideas about what kinds of games they would design: games that feature simulation, strategy, and interaction. These games, in fact, would appeal to a broad range of learners—boys and girls alike.

Computer fluency—Gender equity cannot be measured by how many girls send e-mail, use the Internet, or make PowerPoint presentations. Rather, gender equity means using technology proactively, being able to interpret the information that technology makes available, understanding design concepts, and being a lifelong learner of technology. These abilities apply across the whole range of subjects and careers, not just computer science.

Teacher education—The "drive by" approach to teacher training focuses on the technical properties of hardware; it does not emphasize educational applications or innovative uses of computing for each subject area.

The high-tech workplace—When women, who make up half the workforce, account for only 20 percent of those with information technology credentials, it is a clear sign that we have to make computers and technology relevant across the job market to nontraditional users.

"Based on our findings," said Patricia Diaz Dennis, a former Federal Communications Commission commissioner and co-chair of the Technology Commission, "girls and women can become computer fluent doing everything from architecture to zoology. Without appropriate teacher education and design opportunities we’ll have 19th-century classrooms dressed in 21st-century technology."

To address the problems identified in the report, the commission makes a number of key recommendations for schools and communities. Among them:

Transform pink software: Software does not need to be specifically designated for girls or boys. Software for both classroom and home should focus on the many design elements and themes that engage a broad range of learners, including both boys and girls, and students who don’t identify with the "computer nerd" stereotype.

Look to girls and women to fill the IT job shortage: Girls are an untapped source of talent to lead the high-tech economy and culture. Curriculum developers, teachers, technology experts, and schools need to cultivate girls’ interest by infusing technology concepts and uses into subject areas ranging from music to history to the sciences in order to interest a broader array of learners.

Prepare tech-savvy teachers: Professional development for teachers needs to emphasize more than the use of the computer as a productivity tool. It must give teachers enough understanding of how computer technology works and its basic concepts so that they are empowered users.

Educate girls to be designers, not just users: Educators and parents should help girls imagine themselves early in life as designers and producers of new technology. Engage girls in "tinkering" activities that can stimulate deeper interest in technology; provide opportunities for girls to express their technological imaginations.

Change the public face of computing: Media, teachers, and other adults need to make the public face of women in computing correspond to the reality rather than the stereotype. Girls tend to imagine that computer professionals or those who work heavily with information technology live in a solitary, antisocial world. This is an alienating—and incorrect—perception.
Create a family computer: Among other things, place computers in accessible home spaces. Think about shared or family-centered activities on the computer, rather than viewing its use as an individual or isolated activity.

Set a new standard for gender equity: Equity in computer access, knowledge, and use—across all races, sexes, and classes—cannot be measured solely by how many people use e-mail, surf the Net, or perform basic functions on the computer. The new benchmark for gender equity should emphasize computer fluency: girls’ mastery of analytical skills, computer concepts, and their ability to imagine innovative uses for technology across a range of problems and subjects.

"When it comes to today’s computer culture, the bottom line is that while more girls are on the train, they aren’t the ones driving," stated Pamela Haag, the Foundation’s director of research. "To get girls ‘under the hood’ of technology, they need to see that it gets them where they want to go. And for a large part of the population, that process must start in the classroom."

The AAUW Educational Foundation is one of the largest sources of funding for graduate women in the United States and abroad and commissions groundbreaking research on educational equity. AAUW, representing 150,000 college graduates in 1,500 communities, is the nation’s leading advocate for education and equity for women and girls.

Members of the Commission:

Sherry Turkle, Abby Mauze Rockefeller Professor of the Sociology of Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge
Patricia Diaz Dennis, Former FCC Commissioner, Senior Vice President—Regulatory and Public Affairs for SBC Communications Inc., San Antonio, Texas

Kathleen Bennett, Director, Girls’ Middle School, Palo Alto, California

Cornelia Brunner, Associate Director and Media Designer, Center for Children and Technology, Education Development Center, New York, New York

Tarah Cherry, Elementary School Teacher, East Rock Global Magnet School, New Haven, Connecticut

James Cooper, Commonwealth Professor of Education in the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, Charlottesville

Mae Jemison, Founder of the Jemison Group and Professor of Environmental Studies, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire

Yasmin Kafai, Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles

Marcia C. Linn, Professor, School of Education and Director, Instructional Technology Program, University of California, Berkeley

Jane Metcalfe, President and Co-Founder, Wired magazine and Wired Ventures Inc., San Francisco, California

Eli Noam, Professor of Finance and Economics, Columbia University, and Director, Columbia Institute for Tele-Information (CITI), New York

Cynthia Samuels, Senior National Editor, National Public Radio

Aliza Sherman, President, Cybergrrl Inc., and author of Cybergrrl: A Woman’s Guide to the World Wide Web

Jane Walters, Tennessee Commissioner of Education and Chief State School Officer, Nashville

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