The public's perception, at least mine anyway, has been that males dominate professions in technology, especially computer technology. One place to check out these perceptions is on the Internet. So I asked a computer-savvy friend of mine, Nicole Chardenet, who talks daily with people in Internet chatrooms, to find out what teenage girls think about their generation's knowledge and experience in cyberspace. Here are her illuminating findings:
Does she even talk to boys at all, considering how rude and sexually aggressive we've been told they are on-line, and considering how delicate and sensitive girls are supposed to be?
"Actually, I like talking to guys online better than to girls, as I can relate to them more," wrote Lilith, a 16-year-old girl I met in the Usenet newsgroup. She was holding her own, quite logically and coherently, while debating matters of God and faith in the interfaith religious debate forum.
Lilith is her cyberhandle. She goes to an all girls' school and has had virtually no experience with boys in technology classes, although she deals with them all the time on the Net. According to a recent article in the computer trade magazine Infoworld, research from the International Data Corporation, the Internet was a man's world in 1995, but is almost 50% women now and is expected to meet or exceed that number in 1999. No one seems certain how many are teenage girls, only that their numbers are growing, too.
Although high-tech industry and the Internet are no longer a man's domain anymore, with names like Esther Dyson, Kim Polese, and Heidi Roizen taking their place among the traditional movers and shakers like Bill Gates, Larry Ellison and Scott McNealy -- women still segregate themselves in places like Cybergrrl http://www.cybergrrl.com and Webgrrls http://www.webgrrls.com
And the focus very often turns to teenage girls, who, we're told, don't speak up in classes with boys, whose teachers call on boys more and who lose interest in math and science when they hit adolescence. How are we going to get them to prepare for engineering courses in college so they can even the playing field in the high-tech industry, where boys still outnumber girls?
Maybe the picture isn't as bleak as it looks.
"I don't believe that cyberspace or computer teachers teach boys any differently than girls, at least not in computer applications classes in my middle school," commented Kit, now in high school. "I have noticed that computer lovers are drawn to other computer lovers, whether that means students, teachers, male, female, or otherwise. I suppose this has something to do with common understanding, and the fact that they know what they are talking about."
Still, some folks are surprised when they discover that girls know geekspeak. Rene, who takes her handle from the main character of the obscure British sitcom "'Allo 'Allo", reports that people are surprised to find out she knows HTML and has created her own web page from scratch. "If I send out an Instant Message (IM), a method of instantly contacting someone on-line at AOL, the receiver generally assumes I'm male until told otherwise. My screen name is CafeRene4, (basically a unisex name), so one can make one's own assumptions. When visiting a site, you usually assume the site designer is male until told otherwise."
So they might not necessarily be trading HTML tips or advice on getting Active X applets to run on their web sites, but then again, they might be. This is perhaps the first generation to completely grow up with the new technology of home computers and Internet access.
The images of "girl geeks" are beginning to permeate the mass media, too. For example, there's Kim, the young coder married to Mike Doonesbury and stepmom to his computer literate, business-smart daughter in the comic strip. And there's Willow Rosenberg, the brainy straight-A hacker who helps her friends fight vampires or demons on the Internet on Warner Brothers' "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (a show which also featured a hip female computer science teacher). And let's not forget Lexie, the pre-teen computer nerd who knew UNIX and therefore helped save the day in "Jurassic Park."
Hey, it might be one of those "girl geeks" who eventually writes a software program that sets Bill Gates on his ear, right?
Nicole Chardenet, Newington, CT
Nicole Chardenet is a computer consultant from Bristol, CT who has been on the Internet since 1994. She used to co-write a technology column for a CT alternative newspaper and still freelances from time to time.
As early as kindergarten the stereotypes about computers being more identified with boys than with girls has begun, because the world of computer and video games is so strongly associated with the play of boys, not girls. Middle school aged boys are three times more likely to attend computer camps than their female counterparts. Computer games are the world of "Game Boy," and the name is no accident. 75%-85% of sales and revenues in the $10 billion computer game industry come from male consumers. According to a study done by Mattel and reported in Newsweek in October, 1996, for every four software program parents buy for their sons, they buy only one for their daughters. The gap is narrowing, but still exists.
One initiative is to develop software and computer games that appeal to girls, such as games with female protagonists and games that downplay competition, violence and control in favor of challenge, curiosity, fantasy and cooperation, features which increase motivational value for all players, girls as well as boys.