Girls continue to be underrepresented in an increasingly computer-dominated culture. As a result, the way information technology (IT) is used, applied, and taught in the nation’s classrooms must change, according to a study released April 11 by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation.

Published by the foundation’s 14-member Commission on Technology, Gender, and Teacher Education—which includes researchers, educators, journalists, and entrepreneurs—the study tries to debunk what it calls a popular misconception about why girls are turned off to technology careers. It’s not that they’re afraid of technology, the study argues; it’s that they’re bored by violent electronic games and dull programming classes.

“The commission makes it clear that girls are critical of the computer culture, not computer phobic,” said Sherry Turkle, professor of sociology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and co-chair of the commission. “Instead of trying to make girls fit into the existing computer culture, the computer culture must become more inviting for girls.”

The 18-month study, commissioned in 1998 and called “Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age,” surveyed 70 middle and high school girls on the East Coast and nearly 900 teachers nationwide.

The study found that, by and large, girls are not participating in computer clubs and are taking far fewer programming and computer science courses than their male counterparts. Last year, only 17 percent of students taking the Advanced Placement computer science test were girls, the study said. And though women make up roughly half of the work force, they fill only 20 percent of all IT-related positions.

The main explanation for such a disparity, according to the study, is that girls “have reservations about the computer culture—and with good reason.”

For example, one Baltimore high school girl said, “Guys are more interested in taking apart things. It’s part of their nature to do more electrical stuff than girls. They like to brag.” A Fairfax, Va., girl agreed, saying, “Girls have other priorities. Guys are more computer-type people.”

According to the study, responses like these have traditionally been dismissed as “symptoms of anxiety or incompetence” in girls. But commissioners argued against this misconception, saying that “girls are pointing out important deficits in the technology and in the culture in which it is embedded.”

The study expressed further concerns about how girls are choosing to participate in the computer culture.

The commission found that many girls are opting to take classes on computer “tools”—namely, databases, page layout programs, graphics, and the like—instead of taking classes that encourage the mastery of “critical skills, concepts, and problem-solving abilities that permit full citizenship into the contemporary eCulture.”

Yet technological “fluency” requires far more than merely being able to use computer “tools”; programs that merely explain specific computer functions won’t do the job, the study said.

The AAUW report includes several recommendations for making technology more accessible to girls:

• Computers should be integrated fully into school curricula, not separated into “lab-based” activities.

• Schools should respect “multiple points of entry,” meaning that students will develop an interest in computing through a variety of instructional experiences. Curriculum developers, teachers, technology experts, and school officials need to cultivate girls’ interest by infusing technology concepts and uses into all subject areas so as to interest a broader array of learners.

• Professional development for teachers must emphasize more than the use of computers as productivity tools. It must give teachers enough understanding of how computer technology works so that they become empowered users.

• School districts should introduce the issue of gender equity into their technology planning.

• Members of the news media, teachers, and other adults should break down stereotypes that computer or IT professionals live in a solitary, antisocial world.

• Girls should be encouraged to engage in technological activities, clubs, and classes by all educators.

Researchers and observers agreed that access to technology alone is not the answer to getting girls more involved in the computer culture. According to educator and technology advocate Bonnie Bracey, the answer is simple: “Let women be involved in the planning, meaningful training, reflection, and exploration of the use of technology as a tool, not as a silver bullet.”

Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age