Gender Inequities in Technology

by Steve McKinney, March 1998

INTRODUCTION
MATHEMATICS AND SCIENCE COURSES
NATURE OR NURTURE?
GIRLS HAVE AN ADVANTAGE
GIRLS HAVE A DISADVANTAGE
WHY THE INCONSISTENCIES?
CAN THE PROBLEMS BE FIXED?
SUMMARY
REFERENCES
LINKS


INTRODUCTION
Gender inequities have plagued education for many years.  It existed before the introduction of computers into the schools and the almost overwhelming surge of computers in the workplace.  Girls have traditionally avoided mathematics and science courses in school, and this reluctance has extended to the use of technology as well (Bohlin, 1993).  Computer use has been perceived as being related to math and science skills, thus more necessary for boys than girls (Kirk, 1992).  Gender inequities in mathematics and science have been studied longer than technology issues and may offer insight into causes and remedies regarding computer use and gender.

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MATHEMATICS AND SCIENCE COURSES
Since the 1970s, educators and researchers have attempted to increase the number of girls enrolled in math and science courses.  Their efforts met with some success.  Girls are now taking three or more years of mathematics and science courses in high school, more than ever before (Meece & Jones, 1996).  Furthermore, the well-documented gender gap has narrowed for these subjects over the last 20 years.  Because of this, many people believe that the gender issues have been resolved.  This simply is not true.

Even though the number of girls taking mathematics and science courses has increased, girls are still not achieving their potential in these subjects.  Girls often do not raise their hands to answer, even when they know they are right (Pipher, 1994).  This is not from shyness but rather a result of a lifetime of being treated differently than their male counterparts.  The American Association of University Women (AAUW), in their report The AAUW report:  How schools shortchange girls (Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1992), assert that girls are treated not only differently in the classrooms but unfairly as well.  For example, teachers wait longer for boys to answer than they do girls, teachers give more encouragement to boys than to girls, teachers call on boys more than they do girls, teachers pose more challenging questions to boys than to girls, and teachers are more likely to recognize answers called out by boys than by girls.  These subtle messages are internalized by both genders such that by the 11th grade, 29 percent of the girls and 40 percent of the boys believe gender differences in cognitive abilities are innate.  Only 17 percent of students at this age level believe the differences were caused by societal influences (Cummings, 1994; Meece & Jones, 1996).  This internalizing is further compounded by what Steele and Aronson (1995) call the Stereotype Threat.  Negative stereotypes of girls' performance in mathematics and science abound, and when a girl is at risk of confirming the stereotypes as a self-characterization of herself and others, her performance is often hindered to the point that the stereotype is confirmed.  Sex stereotypes directly influence math and verbal self-concepts in addition to indirect effects through achievement scores (Marsh, Byrne, & Shavelson, 1988).

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NATURE OR NURTURE?
This suggests that gender discrepancies are a result of environmental differences and not biological ones.  The nature/nurture question remains unanswered, but Bohlin (1993) recommends that since biological factors cannot be changed, efforts should focus on the environmental issues if any resolution is to be found.

With the introduction of computers in school, concerns that schools are not adequately meeting the needs of girls have increased.  These concerns have resulted in extensive research in both the psychology/sociology and the education communities.  For example, journals such as Sex Roles (a social psychology journal) and The Computing Teacher (an educational journal) have devoted large portions of issues to this topic, but findings are inconclusive and inconsistent.

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GIRLS HAVE AN ADVANTAGE
Kirk (1992), in his review of literature on the subject, found research that states gender differences in time taken to learn computer-related tasks favored girls over boys, girls prefer using computers when doing simulations, equal numbers of girls and boys claim to like computers, and that all students liked using computers for social reasons.  Even though research can be found that indicates girls have an advantage in some areas, the bulk of research findings show the opposite.  Furthermore, some of these findings refer to studies conducted in Australia, so may not be generalizable to females in the United States.

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GIRLS HAVE A DISADVANTAGE
Kirk (1992) also identified research that found that girls use computers less and develop a more negative attitude towards computer use as they advance through school, that boys spend more of their leisure time including their lunch time in computer-related activities, that computer-related activities are less attractive to girls, and that most teachers do not try to accommodate girls' interests into computer-related curriculum.  Moreover, gender bias still pervades the school system through curricula, instruction, and the role models that it provides (Kirk, 1992; Bartholomew, & Schnorr, 1994).

Krendl and Broihier (1992) conducted a longitudinal study to determine the changes in students' attitudes towards computers concerning preference, perceived learning, and perceived difficulty over the course of three years.  The participants were students in grades four through ten.  They found that girls enjoyed technology significantly less than boys at each point in time, girls perceived the computer use to be more difficult than boys throughout the study, and girls perceived computers as less effective instructional tools than did boys at each measurement point.

Nye (1991) identified four areas of concern regarding gender differences.  She stated that differences in learning styles, software, computer curriculum, and even classroom layout contribute to disparities between genders and the effectiveness of information technology.  Females tend to identify with computers interactively and conversationally, while males see computers as tools and as something to be mastered.  Computer software, even educational software, often contain themes of competition, aggressiveness, and loud noise, which are characteristics that tend to appeal more to males than females.  In 1991, the time Nye's research was published, computer curricula focused on programming, which stressed rules and winning--again, more male-oriented traits.  Bohlin (1993) cited research that found girls who had taken a mandatory computer programming course felt less self-confident and more negative about computers than those girls who had not yet taken the course.  The physical layout of computer classrooms further aggravates the natural tendencies of females.  Computer classrooms or labs are usually arranged in rows, often facing the walls around the perimeter of the room.  Being more social and interactive, females prefer a classroom where tables are arranged in clusters or pods thereby creating a more classroom community atmosphere.

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WHY THE INCONSISTENCIES?
Kay (1992) reviewed literature on gender differences and computer-related behavior and found that much of the inconsistencies are the result of differences between research relating to sample selection, sample size, scale development, scale quality, the use of univariate and multivariate analyses, regression analysis, construct definition, construct testing, and the presentation of results.  She stated that

In general, when asked which sex is more positive toward computers, more apt at using computers, and more likely to use a computer, one would best be advised to answer "it depends."  It depends on what attitudes you are measuring, what skills you are assessing, and what the computer is being used for.  (p. 278)

She concluded that if research was consistent, the findings would be also.  After studying a decade of research, Sutton (1991) concluded that the use of computers maintained and exaggerated gender inequities.

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CAN THE PROBLEMS BE FIXED?
Researchers (Nye, 1991; Bohlin, 1993) offer suggestions as to how teachers can be trained to address gender inequity issues.  Nye (1991) insists that everyone must examine their own behaviors to ensure biases and stereotypes, both intentional and unintentional, are identified and curbed.  Some teachers may be well intentioned and think they are treating all students equitably when they are not (Pipher, 1992, p. 290).  Additionally, Carol Gilligan (1982) determined that males see relationships in terms of a hierarchy, while females see relationships in terms of a web, and educators need to consider these differences when designing computer curricula and classroom layout to make computers more accessible to all students (Nye, 1991; Bohlin, 1993).

One step that has already been taken is to emphasize non-mathematical and non-scientific applications for computer use.  Schools are now moving away from programming as the focus of computer lessons, replacing it with the integration of computers into existing curricula.  This is illustrated by the fact that after August of 1998, Washington will no longer issue teaching endorsements in computer science.  It is being replaced by an Instructional Technologies endorsement, which recognizes the changing role of computers in the classrooms.

This change is already producing positive results.  Pope-Davis and Twing (1991) studied the effects of gender on attitudes towards computers regarding anxiety, confidence, liking, and usefulness at the community college level.  The researchers found that gender did not significantly influence attitudes.  This is attributed to the increased expectation of professors to turn in papers that have been word-processed.  It appears that by college and possibly high school, males and females are becoming less "computerphobic."

Other recommendations cited by Bohlin (1993) for alleviating gender inequities include encouraging female participation in computer lab settings by prohibiting computer games, offering a "girls only" time, and screen software and textbooks for sexist content.  Teachers must also encourage cooperative group activities, which is the environment in which girls do better (Pipher, 1992; Meece & Jones, 1996).

Cooperative efforts using the computer in the classroom., along with catering more to female preferences, also strengthen problem-solving abilities, and improve attitudes and self-esteem in all students.  A study of information technology and group work in physics conducted by Howe, Tolmie, and Anderson (1991), and a study by Underwood, Jindal, and Underwood (1994) on gender differences and the effects of co-operation in a computer-based language task both paired students into groups of two boys, two girls, or mixed genders.  The results were similar.  Both research teams concluded that cooperative efforts were beneficial to all students.

Finally, girls especially should feel that the work done on computers is worthwhile--that it has a function or purpose (Allen & Thompson, 1995).  For example, research (e.g., Allen & Thompson, 1995) shows that expanding a student's audience beyond the classroom teacher will increase writing quality.  One way to expand the audience is through the use of network telecommunications which creates an authentic audience of e-mail partners.  Another is by publishing a classroom newsletter that is sent to parents, or publishing students' work on a world wide web site.  Publishing a newsletter requires at least a word processor, and creating a web site requires internet access.  Students could also create an electronic presentation using software like Microsoft's PowerPoint or Apple's HyperCard that can be used in the school library.  Any or all of these methods of expanding the audience may increase writing quality and the willingness to use computers.

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SUMMARY
While some claim that "the sheer volume of research examining gender differences in computer-related behavior is, at first glance, quite intimidating" (Kay, 1992, p. 277), others insist there is still a lack of research (Sutton, 1991).  Kay (1992) stated that what is there is inconclusive and conflicting.  One thing is obvious.  Since there are no definitive answers, more research is needed.  Sutton (1991) points out that research on mathematics and gender differences have provided more questions than answers.  Consider the following list of variables identified:  novelty versus familiarity, autonomous learning behaviors, success and failure attributions, and parental expectations.  As stated before, research on gender issues and mathematics has enjoyed a longer history of study than has computer-related concerns.

Kirk (1992) asserts that since the problems of gender inequities are so entrenched in schools, gains must be made in other areas before they can be dealt with concerning computers.  However, if societal biases and gender stereotypes can be alleviated, attitudes and expectations concerning information technology and gender will diminish almost as a byproduct.
 

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REFERENCES
Allen, G., & Thompson, A.  (1995, Winter).  Analysis of the effect of networking on computer-assisted collaborative writing in a fifth grade classroom.  Journal of Educational Computing Research, 12(1), 65-75.

Bartholomew, C. G., & Schnorr, D. L.  (1994, March).  Gender equity:  Suggestions for broadening career options for female students.  The School Counselor, 41, 245-255.

Bohlin, R. M.  (1993).  Computers and gender differences:  Achieving equity.  Computers in the Schools, 9(2/3), 155-166.

Cummings, R.  (1994).  11th graders view gender differences in reading and math.  Journal of Reading, 38(3), 196-199.

Gilligan, C.  (1982).  In a different voice:  Psychological theory and women's development.  Cambridge:  Harvard UP.

Howe, C., Tolmie, A., & Anderson, A.  (1991).  Information technology and group work in physics.  Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 7, 133-143.

Kay, R.  (1992).  An analysis of methods used to examine gender differences in computer-related behavior.  Journal of Educational Computing Research, 8(3), 277-290.

Kirk, D.  (1992, April).  Gender issues in information technology as found in schools:  Authentic/synthetic/fantastic?  Educational Technology, 28-31.

Krendl, K. A., & Broihier, M.  (1992).  Student responses to computers:  A longitudinal study.  Journal of Educational Computing Research, 8(2), 215-227.

Marsh, H. W., Byrne, B. M., & Shavelson, R. J.  (1988).  A multifaceted academic self-concept:  Its hierarchical structure and its relation to academic achievement.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 366-380.

Meece, J., & Jones, G.  (1996, February/March).  Girls in mathematics and science:  Constructivism as a feminist perspective.  The High School Journal, 79, 242-248.

Nye, E. F.  (1991, March).  Computers and gender:  Noticing what perpetuates inequality.  English Journal, 94-95.

Pipher, M.  (1994).  Reviving Ophelia:  Saving the selves of adolescent girls.  New York:  Ballantine.

Pope-Davis, D. B., & Twing, J. S.  (1991).  The effects of age, gender, and experience on measures of attitude regarding computers.  Computers in Human Behavior, 7, 333-339.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J.  (1995).  Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797-811.

Sutton, R. E.  (1991, Winter).  Equity and computers in the schools:  A decade of research.  Review of Educational Research, 61(4), 475-503.

Underwood, G., Jindal, N., & Underwood, J.  (1994, Spring).  Gender differences and effects of co-operation in a computer-based language task.  Educational Research, 36(1), 63-74.

Wellesley College Center for Research on Women.  (1992).  The AAUW report:  How schools shortchange girls.  Washington, DC:  American Association of University Women.

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LINKS TO MORE INFORMATION
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) Gender Page

Women's Educational Equity Act (WEEA) Resource Center: EQUITY ONLINE

WEEA Digest: Beyond Equal Access


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