sherry_turkle's picture
Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, MIT; Internet Culture Researcher; Author, The Empathy Diaries
Director, Initiative on Technology and Self MIT

The Gender Gap In The Computer Culture

There has been much interest in the digital divide as it pertains to inequities between the poor and the rich. There is another digital divide that threatens to limit scientific productivity and scope. This is the inequity in the numbers of women who participate in the computer culture. The computer culture is still, in the main, made by engineers for engineers and by men for men. Girls are less likely to take high-level computing classes in high school, and comprised just 17 percent of those taking Advanced Placement Computer Science exams. Girls outnumbered boys only in their enrollment in "word processing" classes, arguably the contemporary version of a typing class. In 1995, at the post-secondary level, women received one in four of the Computer/Information Sciences bachelor's degrees and only 11 percent of the Ph.D.'s in Engineering-related technologies. These educational gaps reverberate in the workplace, where by most estimates women today occupy only 20 percent of the jobs in Information Technology.

A recent study of middle school and high school girls, commissioned by the American Association of University Women made it clear that gender inequity in digital culture is increasing. One goal is to get more girls into the "pipeline" to computer-related careers. This could, of course, be an end in itself, but diversity in participation would also mean a richer digital culture. Digital culture (not so far away from a world that asked users if they wanted to "abort, terminate, or fail" processes running on their machines) could be positively transformed through the integration of girls' and women's insights and life experiences. So one of the values in getting more girls and women interested in the computer pipeline is that their greater presence may transform the computer culture overall; by the same token, changes in the e-culture itself—the ways technology is discussed, valued, and applied—would invite more girls and women to participate fully in that culture, to become computer fluent.

This comment on values reflects the fact that today women seem to be disenfranchised in the computer culture for cultural rather than intellectual reasons. When young women are asked about their attitudes towards computing they almost never report overt discrimination, but at the same time, when asked to describe a person who is "really good with computers" they describe a man. And most of them do not predict that they will want to learn more about or become more involved with computers in the future. These girls are not computer phobic, they are "computer reticent." They say that they are not afraid but simply do not want to get involved. They express a "we can, but I don't want to" philosophy. Girls' views of computer careers, and of the computer culture—including software, games, and Internet environments—tend to reproduce stereotypes about a "computer person" as male and antisocial, Women no longer (as they once did) see computing as "too hard" for them. Earlier generations of women said, Women can't be involved in technical professions, "We can't but I want to." Girls and young women today seem to be saying, Women can do computing, "We can, but I don't want to!" This position is usually accompanied by a characterization of the computer as it has been presented to them at school as infused with values that they cannot identify with. Simply put: the computer culture is presented as a world which emphasizes technical capacity, speed, and efficiency. It estranges a broad array of learners, many girls included, who do not identify with the wizardry of computer aficionados and have little interest in the purely technical aspects of the machines. The computer culture has become linked to a characteristically masculine worldview, such that women too often feel they need to choose between the cultural associations of "femininity" and those of "computers," a cliché that has proven resistant to the growing diversity of information technology and its users. Girls discuss information technology-related careers not as too difficult, but as a "waste of intelligence." Insists a young woman from Baltimore, "Guys just like to do that: sit in a cubicle all day." In talking about their lack of desire to continue learning about computers, girls also focus on the violence and cruelty of current video games and see a culture that they do not want to participate in. They are happy to play social simulation games and chat with their friends, but see their identity on the computer as that of "users," not the empowered.

Their teachers have given them little to inspire them. Teacher education has stressed the "technical" side of things: Education schools tend to give instruction in basic technical skills rather than on how to integrate computers into the curriculum. A 1999 national survey found that only 29 percent of teachers had six or more hours of curriculum-integration instruction, whereas 42 percent had that amount of basic-skills training. In the study by the American Association of University Women of 2000, only 30% of teachers ranked as "sophisticated" in their use of computers report that they received any technology training in an undergraduate or master's teacher education program, which probably reflects in part responses from older teachers. Only 11 percent of the total teachers who were polled report that they received training specifically in how to apply or integrate computer technology into their lesson plans. Thus, current teacher-training practices emphasize short technical courses on connectivity and hardware. Preservice teachers make it clear that they start their jobs uninformed about what the technology is supposed to accomplish for their classrooms, either educationally or socially.

Our current approach to teacher training focuses on the technical properties of hardware; it does not emphasize educational applications or innovative uses of computing across the curriculum. Yet what teachers need is sustained and ongoing education about how to integrate technology with curricular materials and information about how to make technology part of a humanistic classroom culture, so essential for bringing girls into the picture. This latter approach would create better informed teachers as well as multiple entry points to computer competence for both students and teachers. The prevailing emphasis on the "mechanics of computer operation" does not respond to this need. As one teacher put it: "Without teacher education, it won't matter if each student has his/her own computer. We teachers hate having thousands of dollars of equipment thrown at us and being told to use it when we have no clue how to go about it"

There are many points of entry to address this problem. All require research and educational imagination in curriculum planning. All would make the computer culture more vibrant and relevant for women as well as men, and ultimately for us all.

• Advocate technology as a learning partner across the curriculum. This strategy is important for improving learning, developing computer literacy, and for inviting a variety of users, including girls, into technology. The infusion of technology across the curriculum also recognizes and supports multiple entry points into technology. Some learners may develop a fluency with information technology through music, some through mathematics, and others through the arts.

• Enforce a distinction between using the computer as a tool (teaching students how to use powerpoint) and using computation to inspire new ways of thinking and learning. It is the second that will inspire young minds to believe that there are rich rewards in staying with the subject.

• Professional development for teachers, both preservice and inservice, needs to emphasize not simply how computer technology works but on how it can spark creativity across disciplines. There appear to be a group of learners, predominantly young men, who are willing to throw themselves into computing, presented as a technical puzzle. But given the integration of computing into culture, those in the field need to have broader interests and motivation for being there. Improving the way computation is introduced in education will thus not only draw in young women and keep them from dropping out, it holds our only chance of having a more broadly based computer culture for all of us.

Sherry Turkle
Director, Initiative on Technology and Self
Author of Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet and The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit.