• by Kathryn Brown • IDRA Newsletter • August 2004 • 

Sophia has been surfing the Internet since she was two years old. Now at five years old, “going online to pbs.org” is part of her regular vocabulary. She can easily guide anyone on how to click and hold the mouse in order to succeed at online interactive games. These games require more advanced higher-order thinking skills than were ever required of students 20 years ago, let alone her sophisticated ability to maneuver around a keyboard and mouse.

Transferring these skills to her Gameboy Advanced (notice the name “boy”) was easy for Sophia. No one showed this 5-year-old what buttons to press, how to make the character jump, or how to hold multiple buttons down in order to make the character do some rolls and tumbles to avoid being “eliminated.”

Her experiences with technology are not limited to the home. In both pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, she has had ample access to computers and other technologies. The school subscribes to several online libraries and interactive books that have helped skyrocket her knowledge and lead her to more exploration, making her a successful reader before she turned five years old.

Sophia’s level of sophistication and ease of use of such technological tools is astounding to her mother who has a degree in mathematics and finds math and computer science wondrous puzzles to solve.

She wonders what the future holds for her Latina girl, growing up in world where those who have access to opportunities in computer science are mostly White males. At the same time, she is excited about the awesome discoveries that Sophia will create given the opportunity.

Sophia’s experiences are not isolated cases. Many girls have good experiences with computers and other technology tools throughout their elementary school years.

Impact of Limited Opportunity

What is disheartening is that even though these girls are active users of technology and computers throughout their elementary school years, research shows that girls begin to lose interest in computers by the time they reach puberty. This is through no fault of their own. One cannot say that boys are genetically more interested in technology than girls.

By the time girls have reached puberty, both genders have been conditioned by the world around them into boy-girl learning styles, and what “girl” toys and “boy” toys are. This thinking leads children to think that there are careers that are for girls only or for boys only (Swanson and Swanson, 2004). This attitude and conditioning is blatantly inequitable.

This problem initiates many questions about girls’ opportunities in computer science-related fields that are the doors to creating, developing, and inventing new technologies in this growing technological era.

  • How can we all nurture and encourage girls to move from users to creators of technologies so that interest in computers continues to grow throughout puberty and adulthood?
  • How will experiences at home and school afford girls the opportunities of considering and being prepared for careers in computer science?
  • How will stereotypes form girls’ thoughts about their place in society and what it means to be a computer scientist?
  • What technological advances will be foregone and what dangers lie ahead if more girls do not enter these fields?
  • How can schools, teachers, parents, and communities evaluate current programs and incorporate practices that knock down the door for girls to the many possibilities that come with being a computer scientist?

Computer science is “the study of computation and information processing, both in hardware and in software” (Wordiq.com, 2004). It is the doorway to careers in software engineering, mathematics, computer architecture, computer networks, computer programming, operating systems, speech recognition systems, customer relationship management, computational biology, information systems, and more than 50 related fields.

It is a discipline where one moves from being the user of technology to being the creator of technologies. It is a discipline that has stereotypically been reserved for men.

Why is it important that girls be encouraged to be informed about opportunities in computer science? One reason is in what the future holds. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Office of Employment Projections, for the time period 2002 to 2012, nationally, five of the top 20 fastest-growing occupations are in computer science-related fields. During this same time period in Texas, eight out of the top 10 fastest-growing occupations are in computer science-related fields. Employment in Texas is expected to increase anywhere from 48 to 85 percent in each of these fields from 2000 to 2010.

What does this mean regarding earning potential? Take, for example, computer software engineering, the median annual salary is $74,000 nationally and $70,000 in Texas (America’s Career InfoNet, 2004).

Even though the future is bright for those wanting to enter the computer science arena, the future is not so bright for girls, especially for minority girls. High school girls only make up 17 percent of the advance placement computer science test takers (AAUW, 2000). During 2000-01, the overall number of computer science degrees awarded by degree-granting institutions was 41,954, of which 11,607 (27.7 percent) were earned by women and 30,347 (72.3 percent) were earned by men.

What is even more disconcerting is that only 656 (1.6 percent) computer science degrees were earned by Latinas and 2,045 (4.9 percent) were earned by female African Americans (NCES, 2002).

These numbers are a far cry from being proportional to population statistics, where women make up 48.8 percent of the population, and Latinas make up 6.1 percent (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004). Even though the number of women earning degrees in science and engineering has steadily increased, the number receiving computer science degrees has steadily decreased from 37 percent in 1985 to 28 percent in 2001 (Everett-Haynes, 2004).

Society Would Gain by Making a Change

The gains to society, our community, our family, and our children from undoing this blatant inequity would be tremendous. First, earning potential and career possibilities that were formerly unknown to this population would become present for our daughters and their families.

Second, the many innovative computer technologies our society, community, and families would have access to would increase and add to what is currently available – technologies that have been created by mostly males from their perspectives. This would, in turn, lead to products that girls are interested in (i.e., games, web sites, technology tools) and would create interest within to use, create and invent new technologies.

Third, the number of female role models and mentors who are practitioners in computer science fields, teachers at various levels in a child’s education, and professors in institutions of higher education would vastly increase.

Fourth, all our children would benefit from the breakdown of stereotypes that limit both girls’ and boys’ views about computer science. Girls would see computer science in a new light – one that is not made up of endless hours hacking at a keyboard in a cubicle, but one that is closer to reality that requires teamwork, collaboration, and creative development. Boys would gain access as well – access to new perspectives that are made up of those from women and multicultural experiences, valuing what others bring to the solution.

Last, the community and society would see the value that all the aforementioned bring. Imagine a Latino community integrating computer technologies that were created from a daughter of the community that quickly analyzed and produced solutions to reducing the occurrence of diabetes among its members. Very powerful.

Knowing what the future holds and what the past shows, how can we all kick open the door so that more girls move from being users to creators and inventors of computer technologies? Knowing that there is a significant equity issue involved at all levels is a primary conclusion to move to enhancing what is being done in the home, schools, and within our own communities.

What Parents Can Do

Parents are the first educators of children. This includes educating our daughters about the possibilities that are available to them. Specifically, parents can do the following.

  • Provide access to computers whether in the home or in a library.
  • Purchase computer software and search for web sites that promote female interests and use.
  • Review and ask questions about your child’s school curriculum, access and use of computers, and programs that promote, recruit, and retain girls in their computer science courses.
  • Expose your child (female or male) to female role models and technology centers in your city.
  • Mothers can be role models by being users and investigators of technologies alongside their daughters – encouraging daughters to be anything they want to be.
  • Encourage your son to use software that does not promote the traditional violent competitive theme.
  • Be informed and inform your daughter about computer science courses and college credits available in high school.
  • Be informed and inform your daughter about career opportunities in computer science fields.

What Teachers and Schools Can Do

Teachers and schools play an integral part in encouraging and guiding students, developing their self-esteem, and helping students see themselves in the world. Teachers and schools can do the following.

  • Implement teaching practices that minimize the notion of learning style differences among girls and boys. Initially boys and girls show the same levels of interest in various disciplines, but through teaching practices, they begin to develop different learning styles that support the gender career track stereotypes that have been almost set in stone (Swanson and Swanson, 2004).
  • Attend gender-equity and technology-integration training.
  • Employ recruitment strategies in computer science courses that defy stereotypical images of males in computer-related fields.
  • Bring in guest speakers who are in computer science-related fields and attend field trips that show women in these fields.
  • Bridge the gap to female role models in computer science fields. For example, have students talk to a female computer science professor via the Internet and a digital video camera.
  • Develop and seek out curriculum that puts students in the role as inventors.
  • Create a technology club for girls that gives them hands-on activities and builds a support system.
  • Provide visuals throughout the school, for parents, and on the school web site that depict females in computer science fields and using computer technologies.
  • Review your own school’s programs by going to the National Women’s Law Center web site to see if the school is fair for women and girls (http://www.nwlc.org).

What Institutions of Higher Education Can Do

Colleges and universities play a key role in the number of female computer scientists who are ultimately in society. The recruitment and retention practices that they employ are two of many key ingredients in making this vision a possibility. In addition to what is listed above, institutions of higher education can do the following.

  • Look at the numbers of your own female role models and professors who are teaching computer science courses.
  • Make pedagogical improvements and support positive faculty-student relationships by keeping class sizes small, providing multiple levels of course instruction to increase student experiences, and valuing the female’s potential and perspective she brings to the solution.
  • Provide support systems and guidance once the recruitment of students has occurred.
  • Denounce any negative behaviors by other students that imply the only reason a female is in the computer science program is to meet quotas. Halt behaviors and that are not conducive to the learning environment.

What Communities Can Do

The community can help develop a young person’s sense of purpose in life. If there are certain issues within a community (i.e., a high diabetes occurrence), this can create a person’s will to find solutions for such a problem that occurs so close to home. Also, what a community makes available, displays, and values will make the difference in this vision of including more girls in computer science. Communities and businesses can do the following.

  • Make technology available by supporting efforts that provide increased access to community members and by encouraging the use of such technologies by girls.
  • Employ female computer scientists to bring a new and fresh perspective in technologies that are being developed.
  • Create and make available non-traditional software with respect to women and girls.
  • Display ads that are non-traditional and depict females in positive, technology situations.
  • Investigate and employ management styles in your own company or organization that promote cooperation and collaboration along with an investigation of uses of technology within your own organization.
  • Support efforts and encourage women to pursue computer-related fields.

Technology advances have increased exponentially within the last decade. And the possibilities for our daughters, communities, and society would thus increase exponentially if we employ practices that break down the blatant inequities that exist in the computer-science field. Girls like Sophia would no longer be fighting these inequities, but would be exploring possibilities that lay before them without hesitation.

Resources for Helping Girls Succeed

Does Jane Compute? Preserving Our Daughters’ Place in the Cyber Revolution, by Roberta Furger (Warner Books, 1998). A persuasive look at the tech gap between boys and girls.Coming Into Her Own, edited by Sara Davis, Mary Crawford, and Jadwiga Sebrechts (Jossey-Bass, 1999). Offers innovative strategies for improving the educational experience of girls and women.How Schools Can Stop Shortchanging Girls (and Boys): Gender-Equity Strategies, by Kathryn Wheeler (Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1993). Advice for parents and educators.Minority Women in Science: Forging the Way
By Keiko E. Suda, Oanh H. Maroney, Bradley Scott, and María Aurora Yáñez (IDRA, 2000). Student-centered curriculum tool to support equity in math and science education. Includes profiles of women scientists, science lessons, and life skills lessons.

Web Sites
Women’s Educational Equity Act (WEAA) Resource Center. Offers an interactive, online course, “Engaging Girls in Math and Science.” http://www2.edc.org/WomensEquity/coursead.htm

A Girl’s World. An online clubhouse for girls, with activities in math, science, technology, and creative writing.

Materials and Events
Science by Mail. Connects children in grades four through nine with pen-pal scientists. 1-800-729-3300.

Space Day 2000. Celebrate space with your class on May 4.

“Women in Science Rule” kits. Experiments introduce kids to prominent female scientists. Delta Education. 1-800-442-5444.


American Association of University Women. Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age (Washington, D.C.: American Association of University Women, 2000)

America’s Career InfoNet. “Fastest Growing Occupations” (2004) http://www.acinet.org.

Annexstein, L.T., and K.M. Keller. Putting the Law on Your Side, A Guide for Women and Girls to Equal Opportunity in Career Education and Job Training (Washington, D.C.: National Women’s Law Center, March 2000)

Everett-Haynes, L. “High-tech Equity,” Houston Chronicle (June 30, 2004)

Gilbert, A. “Computer Science’s Gender Gap,” C-Net (February 8, 2002)

González y Musielak, D.E. “Missing Part of the Equation,” Hispanic Business (July-August 2002)

Lankard Brown, B. “Women and Minorities in High-Tech Careers,” ERIC Digest No. 226 (ERIC Digest, 2002)

Margolis, J., and A. Fisher, F. Miller, “Women in Computer Sciences: Closing the Gender Gap in Higher Education,” Unlocking the Clubhouse, Women in Computing (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002)

National Center for Education Statistics. Table 265. Bachelor’s Degrees Conferred by Degree-Granting Institutions by Race/Ethnic Group, Major Field of Study, and Sex of Student: 2000-01 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, November 2002).

Swanson, J., and J. Swanson. Encourage Girls (Washington, D.C.: American Association of University Women, July 2004) http://www.aauw.org.

Wood, J.M. “The Girls Have It,” Instructor (2004)

U.S. Census Bureau. Census 2000 Summary File (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, 2004).

WordIQ.com. Downloaded July 1, 2004

Kathryn Brown is the technology specialist in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2004, IDRA. The above article originally appeared in the August 2004 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]