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Trying to head off high-tech gender gap before it grows

(Page 2 of 2)

''In a physics course, instead of bombing Cambodia as an example of velocity and angle, we may drop CARE packages out of a helicopter,'' she says.

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In his research on that subject for a PhD thesis, Thomas Malone, now of the Xerox Corporation Palo Alto Research Center, says he found that one method of rewarding correct answers in a math course - by a beep and the bursting of a balloon - was offensive to women students.

''We have to pay attention to the differences between boys and girls and what kinds of fantasies they find appealing or it just perpetuates (the technical gender gap),'' he says.

But if some of the answer lies in redesigning computer software, it also lies in trying to get teachers, parents, and students to reexamine their attitudes about girls and computers.

''Girls generally just aren't given the same push boys are - you need some kind of support,'' says Kathy Heising, president of the Chicago chapter of the Association for Women in Computing. She says her father, who is an engineer, was very supportive of her interest in a technology career and that three of the four girls in the family have become engineers.

Teacher attitudes can also make an enormous difference. Equals, an unusual program at the University of California, Berkeley, was started six years ago by Nancy Kreinberg of the school's Lawrence Hall of Science. Its chief aim is to increase awareness among teachers of the importance of competence in technical fields for women and of the need to encourage and treat them more fairly. The program, which started with training workshops for math teachers, now has expanded to the field of computer literacy. Everything from classroom management of computer time to the kinds of programming that particularly appeal to women are discussed.

''It's very important that all students get an introduction to computer literacy and some hands-on experience, including problem-solving and writing programs - things that let them feel some power over the machine,'' says Kay Gilliland, a math and computer specialist with the Equals program.

Often, she says, boys in a class are encouraged to solve problems and write programs on a computer, while girls are relegated to drill and practice. The result might be equal time but not equal experience.

''It's sort of an unconscious thing,'' Dr. Gilliland explains. ''Often a teacher may say, 'Look at that boy - he should be over here learning to program, not practicing 4 times 7.' ''

Teachers attending the Equals workshop are encouraged to spread the word to make parents and others more aware of the problem. They are also urged to recruit girls for their classes more actively.

Computer companies are trying to correct the imbalance in part by trying to channel more of their fellowships to women.

''They usually don't come right out and say it in the literature, but informally they let it be known that they prefer a woman,'' says Robert Meyer, chairman of the University of Wisconsin's computer science department.

Dr. MacVicker of MIT suggests that one way to correct the current imbalance at computer camps might be to establish some camps specifically for women by women's organizations, such as colleges.

''There are probably a lot of affirmative-action arguments against it, but I think it could be done and that it could offer a special atmosphere that could strengthen women as students and shore up their classroom confidence in a way that would help bring them along.''