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

Everywhere you look, boys and computers seem to go together. If past trends hold, most youngsters packing their bags for computer camps this summer will be male. In most high school computer classes, boys outnumber girls by at least 2 to 1 and often 3 or 4 to 1. Television ads for video games often feature an older brother introducing an action-packed game to an enthusiastic younger brother.

Whatever the cause - and educators agree that traditional social attitudes of parents, teachers, and peers play a very large role - girls have been approaching computer science with much the same reluctance they once showed for math and the physical sciences.

Experts say the implications of this newest gender gap, in computer literacy, are considerably greater in terms of future jobs and daily living. By some estimates, the number of computer-related jobs will rise to a whopping 30 million by 1990. And some computer experts contend that the computer is teaching a whole different pattern of thinking that is altering the way problems are solved.

Yet ironically it is technology that has made many of the old physical skill criteria for jobs obsolete and is credited with making job competition between the sexes much fairer. And the United States Department of Labor predicts that 7 of every 10 new job openings in this decade will go to women.

''There is an opportunity for women in the work force that just didn't exist in the past,'' notes Andrew Molnar of the National Science Foundation's science education group. ''If women are unprepared or ill-prepared (in computer skills), there's going to be a serious problem.''

What particularly troubles experts is that many studies suggest that boys and girls are equally adept at computer skills when both have equal access to them.

Most students are more likely to have such access at the elementary level - if their schools have computers. Dr. Molnar notes that many deciding they want careers in the sciences are already leaning in that direction as early as sixth or seventh grade and sometimes earlier. Yet by junior high, many girls shun further elective computer courses just as they have math and science. As one woman computer specialist puts it: ''No one wants to be an oddball in junior high.'' But if women students decide later that they are interested in a computer career, they find it is much tougher to make up the lost time.

The new move to bring more microcomputers into elementary schools and the increase in purchases of personal computers for use at home are hailed by those eager to see women get a more equal crack at developing their computer skills.

''The more that games and computers come into the home, the more likely it is that daughters . . . will have equal access to them,'' says Margaret MacVicker, professor of physical science and of education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She notes that many commercial video games are in darkened arcades and other traditional ''male territory'' where women hesitate to go.

''I really think the home influence will be major,'' agrees Susan Schilling, academic marketing manager of Control Data Corporation, a company that has recently been revamping much of its Plato system of courseware for use in microcomputers. She suggests that one way to fight the aversion some young women seem to have is to pace courses so that each student masters a point and gains a sense of success before being allowed to move on to the next step.

''We try to make sure in designing math and science programs in particular that the first exposure is not an intimidating one that turns them off the subject.

''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.

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.''

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