Study: Girls Don't Want To Be Geeks

Monday, July 3rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) — High school junior Katy Prendergast is pretty blunt about why she decided to take a computer programming class.

She doesn't care what goes on inside her computer. She has no grand thoughts about a high-paying technology job.

All that mattered to Katy was getting another credit toward graduation; the introduction to computer programming class happened to fit her schedule. She did well, earning a ``B,'' but she'd still rather leave the technical work to someone else.

``It's tough work getting it to work exactly correctly and it's frustrating because one misspelled word and you can't get it to work,'' Katy said recently during the final week of classes at Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School on Chicago's southwest side. Referring to Microsoft Corp., chairman Bill Gates, she added, ``I say let him have it all, let him do it all.''

Technology experts find that an alarming number of young girls feel the way Katy does. The number of computer science degrees awarded to women is hovering below 30 percent at the same time technology companies are begging for highly skilled employees.

``What we want is to have qualified people we can hire,'' said Linda Scherr, chairwoman of IBM's Women in Technology program. ``Since women are half the work force and so few go into computers ... we're on the brink of disaster here.''

``There will be companies that go out of business because they can't hire the skills they need. The manpower — or womanpower — is going to be the major challenge,'' she said.

A recent report by the American Association of University Women backs up those fears. ``Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age'' was put together through interviews with 70 middle school and high school girls, an online survey of almost 900 teachers and from the experiences of commission members and other women in high-tech fields.

It concluded that girls have the ability to learn and use computers, but they are turned off by technical careers that they view as full of geeky guys in windowless offices who toil at keyboards for hours. As a result, they are taking themselves off the path to high-paying jobs in the computer industry, and they're not learning skills that could give them an advantage in any career that uses computers.

A sample of the girls' comments in the study:

— ``Girls have other priorities. Guys are more computer-type people.''

— ``I don't want to take computer science. ... Just looking at it, all the programming and these funny-looking things on the paper. It (takes) so much stuff to do one thing on the computer.''

— ``The reason why you see more men doing computer stuff is that girls are more ambitious than that. My parents always say, 'Do something with computers,' because it is stable and stuff, but a lot (of people) don't want to be at a desk from 9 to 5.''

Several girls in the study, as well as Katy and some of her classmates, also criticized the popular computer games for being much more appealing to boys than girls. On, for example, a big seller recently was ``Diablo 2,'' which boasts an ``advanced combat system which incorporates class-specific fighting techniques and spells.''

``They are all violent and killing people and they're very graphic about the death part,'' Katy said.

Girls do keep up with boys when it comes to using computers for leisure activities like surfing the Internet and sending e-mail, said Pam Haag, director of research for the AAUW educational foundation, which issued the report for the organization.

``The problem area is they are underrepresented in computer classes, as network engineers, software developers — areas that are growing,'' she said. ``The areas where technology is being designed and created is where we see a dearth of women.''

In the mid-1990s, fewer than 30 percent of the computer science/information science bachelor's degrees were awarded to women, down from a high of 36.8 percent in 1985, according to Department of Education figure.

There were even fewer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign this past spring, where 144 of the 1,035 graduates from its well-regarded computer science program were women. Those figures were about the same — around 14 percent — the previous year.

Haag and other experts involved in computer science agree that women need to be attracted to the field long before college to make sure they are not excluded from high-tech careers and to make sure companies will have the skilled employees they need in a decade or so. They also agree that changes need to be made in the classroom and at home to make sure girls have the access they need to experiment with computers from an early age.

Scherr already sees the differences in how girls and boys respond to computers when she visits her 10-year-old daughter's classroom: Boys rush to the computers, while the girls hang back and watch. Without that time to experiment, girls don't make mistakes and learn to solve problems the way boys do, she said.

``A lot of our socialization has steered girls away from technology,'' Scherr said. ``If they try it, they realize, 'I can do this.' I think girls need that kind of reassurance and validation.''

IBM hopes to offer that with 11 technology camps this summer for middle school girls to give them their own hands-on computer time and the chance to meet women who have made careers out of computing, Scherr said.

In Chicago, officials are going even further with the new Young Women's Leadership Charter School, opening this fall on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology. The school will have 75 girls per grade level, beginning this year with grades six and nine, focusing on math and science. Eventually the school will have 525 students, said Greg Richmond, the city's director of charter schools.

A program already is in place at high schools nationwide to offer training by Cisco Systems Inc. Students participate in a 280-hour course, then qualify to take a computer network maintenance certification exam. Stan Paluch, who teaches the program to students at Chicago's Kelly High School, said he is recruiting girls for the three-year program beginning with this school year. Of the 22 he interviewed for this fall, 11 are girls, he said.

Paluch, whose school is about 90 percent Hispanic and located in a working-class section of the city, tells his students the training is key to getting an interesting job that pays a decent living. Since 80 percent don't have a computer at home, school is their only experience with technology, he said.