Video Highlights Gender Gap

Video Highlights Gender Gap

Getting Girls Interested in Technology

More than seven years ago, Laura Reasoner Jones came up with the idea to create a club at Clearview Elementary aimed at getting young girls interested in math and science. The idea sprang from experiences with her own daughter who showed no interest or confidence in those courses.

The desire to create the club, led Jones to the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Reston-Herndon Branch. Jones wanted to borrow a name the club had already coined for its own annual conference, GEMS (Girls Excelling in Math and Science). The club officers gave their blessing and recruited Jones as a member.

Years later the pairing has resulted in a video, "Tech Savvy Girls," which has been shown on the Fairfax County Public Schools cable channel 21 programming, aimed at bringing awareness to the emerging gender gap in technology.

"This is all an outgrowth of GEMS," said Jones, a Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) preschool special-education teacher who is on loan as a teacher in residence at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. "This is something I became involved in because of my daughter and I just kind of got involved in doing research and found it's a nationwide issue."

"THE AAUW EDUCATION Foundation gave us a $10,000 grant and we partnered with FCPS and the Fairfax County Office and Commission for Women to do the video," said Elizabeth Vanderburg, AAUW member. "The Office for Women has been tracking this for five years and they uncovered the gender gap. We knew the numbers in Fairfax County. We wanted to do something that is public awareness."

AAUW members Jones and Clare Dvoranchik Klunk served as co-directors, while Vanderburg served as the project director. The trio also wrote an accompanying resource guide that contains additional information, work sheets and selected references and Web sites. Sandra Brennan of the Fairfax County Public Schools Department of Information Technology, produced the video.

The 18-minute video features comments from Herndon High School girls and an all-girl computer science course at Chantilly Academy, as well as teachers, administrators, parents and professional women in the fields of science and technology. In addition, there are statistics to support the premise that girls are less likely to pursue courses in the computer technology field.

For example, a 1999 analysis of elective courses offered by the county school system, conducted by the Office for Women, found boys were more than 90 percent of the students in network administration, design and technology, electronics and engineering course. Girls, by contrast, made up more than 90 percent of the students taking fashion design, fashion marketing, early child care, practical nursing and cosmetology.

"We're not interested in girls against boys. We're interested in all students. If you go into a network administration class, the ratio would be 9-to-1. The numbers are a concern," said Vanderburg. "It's not just an issue that girls aren't interested, we're not exposing them to computers at an early age. Don't all studies say boys don't like to read? So do we just let them not read?"

VANDERBURG POINTS to everyday life as an example of the cultural bias. Video games, for many children their first exposure to a computer, are geared and marketed to boys. When problems with computers arise in most households, the reaction is to tell one of the men in the house.

"We are still sex-stereotyping girls in 2003," Vanderburg said.

Educators are not immune to unintentionally re-enforcing the stereotyping either.

"When I've shown the video to kindergarten and first-grade teachers, they say they never realized it before, but when they have a free period, it's the guys that use the computers," Jones said.

Even girls on the video said things such as they always thought computers were more geared to boys or that computers was intimidating.

"Those were girls in Herndon High School advanced placement classes," Jones said. "That was their real opinions. We just asked them what they thought."

Of course, schools now require more math and science courses than they did less than 10 years ago, however, changing the general cultural perception about girls and technology has been a slow process.

"When girls get forced into female-dominant fields like teaching or nursing, it's an economic question,'" Vanderburg said. "Computer fields are among the highest paying."

Jones said it is also an issue of possibility. "We miss out in society when we don't include people," Jones said. "I look at Windows and wonder what it would have been like if there were girls in the garage with Bill Gates and Steve Case. Windows would probably be easier to use, more user-friendly."

The video is a finalist for a 2001-02 Telly Award, which is similar to the Emmys and recognizes exceptional non-broadcast cable programming. In addition, the AAUW Reston-Herndon Branch has made the first cut from 118 to 35 applicants for a $100,000 dissemination grant for the video from the National Science Foundation.

Incidentally, Jones' daughter, one of the original Clearview GEMs and a senior at Herndon High, plans to be a mechanical engineer.