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The Message Behind the Gender Gap in Computer Training : Equality: Beginning in grade school, girls receive subtle signals--often unintended--that they are less suited than boys to modern technology.


In a decade when many schoolchildren are practiced in the art of Crayolas and computers before they get out of kindergarten, how is it possible that a gender gap in computer science education begins to appear late in elementary school and steadily widens into a career chasm by college and graduate school?

Nationwide, at age 9, there is no difference between girls and boys in average math proficiency and little difference between them in science proficiency, according to the National Assessment of Educational Programs (NAEP). In middle school that changes, with girls dropping slightly behind boys. High school further widens the gap: Females take more academic subjects than the male students, yet they take fewer in science and math.

By the time they're college-bound, women score an average 45 points lower than men on Standardized Achievement Tests in math, and even worse in science. The trend continues in college until few women bother to apply for graduate study in these subjects. In 1990, women earned only 19% of the doctorates in the physical sciences, 18% in math and 14% in computer sciences.

Educators working to bridge this gap report it's not that female students don't have the drive needed to succeed.

Instead the problem seems to be one of perception more than accessibility. From grade school on, girls are rarely encouraged to excel at the math and sciences that form the foundation for lucrative computer careers. So while equal opportunity at the keyboard has increased, few female students come away thinking the opportunity is theirs.

"Nobody is making them drop these courses. They do it themselves," says Jo Sanders, director of the Computer Equity Expert Project (CEEP), based at the City University of New York (CUNY) graduate school's Center for Advanced Study in Education.

"Why? A lot of things. They look around and see that it's usually boys in the elective courses in the computer room and in the after-school computer club."

Several recent studies also have concluded that teachers often unconsciously teach in a gender-biased style in the classroom. "They call on boys more than on girls, they wait for boys' answers longer than for girls' answers, which suggests boys' answers are more worth waiting for. It goes on and on," says Sanders. "None of this is intended. I'm sure I do it, too, when I teach. Women do it as much as men. Feminists do it as much as chauvinists. We can't help it."

In the summer of 1991, the Computer Expert Equity Project was funded for $1.1 million by the National Science Foundation, IBM and six other corporations, to design ways to reinforce girls' interest in math, science and computer science. The plan was to train a corps of more than 200 educators from all 50 states in identifying and eliminating gender-biased teaching methods. Those trainers then could return to their home states to train other educators to create a domino-effect in the nation's schools that would turn off gender-bias teaching styles and turn on girls to science and computers.

"The impact has been staggering," says Sanders, who keeps a list of successes reported by her trainers. "In Nebraska the pre-calculus enrollment at one school had been 20% female and is now 45%. Female enrollment in technology education has multiplied fourfold over last year in an Oklahoma school. In an Ohio school, girls using computers have increased from 25 to 50%."

Alexandria, Va., CEEP trainer Marcy Ewell warns that the gender-bias conditioning against girls going into computer science doesn't come only at school. "One of the people on the faculty here couldn't figure out why her daughter hadn't been using their home computer. The computer was in her son's room. When she moved it out of his room, the daughter started using it more."

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