• U.S.

Computers: From Programs to Pajama Parties

5 minute read
Philip Elmer-Dewitt

Until last year, Kei Murrell, 13, like most other girls at Mendocino (Calif.) Middle School, considered the school’s computer room to be a male preserve, a place where boys talked in programming jargon and played war games. While Kei and her friends were free to use the machines, they stayed away — largely because, as she says, “there aren’t very many girls my age who are into blowing things up on a computer.” Kei is still bored by computer shoot-’em- ups, but she and the other girls now feel right at home at the computers. Perched in front of the school’s Apple IIs and Macintoshes, they adeptly maneuver mice and tap at keyboards while the boys wait their turn.

Kei and her friends first ventured into the computer room when the introductory computer course became mandatory at Mendocino. They soon learned that in addition to zapping alien invaders, the machines could be used for composing music, creating posters and preparing letter-perfect homework. They were also prodded and then inspired by Kathi Griffen, their computer teacher, who made a special effort to encourage them. Says Griffen: “I’m trying to open the doors for girls so they can enjoy computers too.”

Across the U.S. like-minded educators are doing the same, creating courses, writing workbooks and setting up after-school clubs designed especially for girls. Their goal: to enable females to compete in an increasingly computerized society. They have their work cut out for them. A 1985 Labor Department study found that while women held only 31% of the high-paying jobs as computer systems analysts, they represented 66% of the lower-paid computer operators. That disparity in salary and job skills reflects a well-documented fact: American women, from girlhood on, are less likely than males to be intrigued by computers. In a survey of high school computer- programming classes in Michigan, California and Maryland, for example, boys outnumbered girls 2 to 1. A nationwide sampling of computer summer camps found a boy-girl ratio of 3 to 1. A Johns Hopkins study released in August reported that at the typical middle school, only 15% of the after-school computer users were female.

In many states, school systems and individual teachers are moving to redress that imbalance:

— At the Stockton (Calif.) Unified School District, Computer Educator Jim Greco has hired women computer teachers, screened software for gender bias and put out the word that computers are no longer strictly boys’ toys. Says Greco: “We’re telling girls that they don’t have to be geeks or nerds to like computers.”

— In South Brunswick, N.J., the school system held a software fair and a pair of summer sessions exclusively for girls. “This is more insidious than a simple education problem,” says Peggy Sealfon, director of the computer- equity project. “If girls shy away from computers, it could undermine their career opportunities.”

— At George Leyva Junior High in San Jose, the new computer teacher, Irwin Maloff, helped organize an all-girl computer club and quickly attracted 20 enthusiastic members. Says Maloff, an avid computer buff with three daughters: “Girls have been shortchanged for years.” Teachers eager to bridge the computer gender gap will soon be able to turn for advice to The Neuter Computer, a guidebook developed by New York City’s Computer Equity Training Project and scheduled to be published in December. Its contents include 56 learning activities and 96 pedagogical tricks, ranging from apportioning computer time equally between boys and girls to scheduling late-night computer pajama parties. The Project on Equal Education Rights, an offshoot of the National Organization for Women Legal Defense Fund, publishes handy “equity action kits” that show teachers how to help girls avoid being trapped in “pink-collar ghettos.” Warns Director Leslie Wolfe: “We’re seeing the old wine of sexism being poured into a new bottle — the computer.”

Some teachers admit that they have openly discouraged girls, arguing as one Midwestern superintendent did that scarce computing resources ought to be given to the boys because they “need to know about computers for their future careers in engineering.” Usually the cues are more subtle. Jo Sanders, co- author of The Neuter Computer, notes that teachers will often make eye contact with a boy when they start talking about computers, as if they assume the subject is intrinsically interesting only to males.

In an effort to correct these assumptions, some 2,000 teachers have taken a + five-day consciousness-raising seminar sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation and administered by Berkeley-based Equals in Computer Technology. More than 4,000 women, many of them teachers, have paid $295 to attend the San Francisco-based Women’s Computer Literacy Project, a two-day total-immersion course.

Even among the leaders of the computer equal-rights movement, however, some old assumptions die hard. In Deborah Brecher’s Women’s Computer Literacy Handbook, a book-length version of the San Francisco course, computer programs are likened to cookbook recipes, data flows from a buffer like water from a bathtub, and bits and bytes are pictured as shoe boxes full of tiny babies who sit to represent the binary digit 0 and stand to represent the digit 1.

Still, the push for computer equality seems to be getting results. When members of the Neuter Computer team tested their ideas in schools in Vermont, Nebraska and California, they raised computer use among the girls from 26% to 48% in five months. By contrast, in the control group at a Texas school where no special efforts were made, participation by girls dropped during the same period from 14% to 10%. Says Author Sanders: “You must target girls specifically. Otherwise, it’s business as usual.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com