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Drawing Girls Into the Net

Once, cyberspace was a virtual boys' club, but computer companies and educators are trying to change that.

Source: Newsday, February 20, 1996
By Thomas Maier
Staff Writer

There's no "killer app" for girls who use computers. Just ask Tina Feliciano and her friends at Freeport High School.

"The guys use the death games which don't appeal to girls," says Tina, 17. "They don't make games for girls, so the girls don't have interest in it."

"It," in this case, is cyberspace, and experts say Feliciano's observation is right on the mark. While boys historically have started on computers using popular software like "Mortal Kombat" and "Doom," then honed their skills downloading shareware games, girls often saw the computer as nothing more than a homework tool.

The closest thing to a "killer app," or wildly popular computer application, for them has been the game "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" which has sold more than 4 million units since Carmen, a smart female crook, began scampering across the globe in 1985. It's a geography game, experts say, in which Carmen's bad-girl image appeals to both sexes.

"It worked because it had a strong content and the female character was unusual," says software veteran Janese Swanson, who was part of the team at Broderbund Software that produced it. But since then, companies like Broderbund and others have tried without success to find another big winner with girls.

That effort, experts say, is symbolic of a longstanding gender gap involving computers that begins early in life, and is reflected in a dearth of women studying computer-related sciences and math.

Now, though, that may be changing.

Experts say that in the last few years, teachers, parents and their daughters-aided by the National Science Foundation, some professional organizations, and online services hungry to build new audiences-have begun developing a new, multifaceted world in cyberspace for girls who use computers.

These days, bulletin boards such as Prodigy's "Teen Girls Ltd." are available only to young women; Web sites such as the "Girl Games' Cool Sites home page" are offering information on everything from "virtual feminism" to school financial aid; and software companies are becoming more aggressive in their serach for the first "killer app" for girls.

New firms like Girl Tech of California say one reason for the interest is that young girls represent the last untapped market for computer games, a potential $7 billion winner. Swanson, in fact, says she was inspired to start Girl Tech in 1995 when her 8-year-old daughter asked her, "Why are all the cool computer toys always for boys?"

Swanson's firm is developing a Web site called "Club Girls Tech" designed specifically for girls up to age 10. Her company is also creating a merit badge dedicated to "electronic interactive technology" for the Girl Scouts of America and its 3.5 million members.

Overall, the effort to encourage computer use among teenage girls is paying off, a U.S. Department of Education study shows.

In 1984, just as the home computer market began to heat up, research showed 17 percent of boys used a computer at home compared to only 9 percent of girls. By 1993, girls had caught up to boys in reported overall use at home, both at 27 percent, though boys were still twice as likely as girls to use the computers on a daily basis.

"I've noticed recently, across the board, that women students are participating more closely," says Ann-Marie Lancaster, chairwoman of computer science at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. "There's been an expansion in multi-media programs, Web sites and in the use of the computer itself."

Jo Sanders, director of the gender equity program at the City University's Center for Advanced Study in Education in Manhattan, recently received a $900,000 grant from the federal government to show 200 teachers how to overcome sexism in teaching computers in junior high.

"In the earlier years, access to a computer was a big issue but that's not the case now," Sanders says. "Now, the question is whether the parents put a home computer in a boy's room rather than a girl's."

Sanders' project is one of several academic-based programs financed by the National Science Foundation, which said its goal is to increase the number of women in graduate computer technology programs. She said her training is aimed at getting teachers not to show any gender-based favoritism with computers, and treat girls equally with boys.

But while there have been successes, there is still quite a bit of work to be done, experts agree.

Computer games for girls, for instance, is "an interesting category and a lot of companies have tried to target it," says Laurie Strand, Broderbund's executive publisher. "But they are not a big market, so it comes to the old questions of what comes first, the chicken or the egg. When you create a "killer app" for teenage girls, maybe you'll have a compelling reason."

Strand says she sees this problem in her own life.

"I have a 13-year-old daughter who is gravitating away from the computer, because they have so many other interests in their life," she says.

At Freeport High, where the family incomes of students can vary widely, some get their only chance to use a computer in computer class or at the public library. Of the 67 students enrolled in computer science classes at Freeport High, about 40 percent are girls.

Unlike some of her friends, Ciara Gary, a 15-year-old junior, says she has never tried any online services or the World Wide Web.

"My mother is afraid that you'll get kidnapped by talking to people on the Internet," laughs Ciara, whose family just bought a computer two weeks ago. Her father, Gerry, says he, too, is concerned about the content of the Internet and hasn't bought any of the online services yet. But he finally bought a machine, he said, because his computer-minded daughter "has a lot of papers to write at school and anything that would help her in her school grades is a worthwhile investment."

Sharon Licht-whose daughter, Melissa, 18, is a Freeport High senior-also says she is concerned about the content of some Internet sites. But she says Melissa keeps her informed about what she sees, and she trusts her daughter's judgment.

"She knows what is appropriate," she says. "She realizes there are a lot of people out there. She knows what is inappropriate."

Many of Ciara's peers feel computers are for "geeks" and not for them, she says. "There's very few girls in my computer class. Maybe they don't feel encouraged to take it."

With limited resources, Freeport High, like many other schools on Long Island, finds it difficult to buy expensive new equipment to keep up with the computer world's rapid-fire changes.

At Brentwood High School, principal Thomas O'Brien agrees that "money plays a big part in all of this.

"It's also the vision of the people in the community, and how much pressure they place in pushing a dinosaur," he says.

O'Brien and local school officials say the explosion of new multi-media options for computers his stirred an increasing interest by girls. Students like Erika LoCurto, a 17-year-old senior from Bay Shore, use high-powered Macintosh computers at school to design full-color graphics. Then she goes home to compose songs on the "Music Works" program on her computer.

"Girls [at Brentwood] are encouraged to use computers, and they know it's a necessity for the future, but I don't think these girls always listen," Erika says.

Those who develop their computer skills often find a whole new way of being a teenager. Stephanie Kane, 17, a Brentwood High senior, types up all her reports on her home computer, but also regularly checks her e-mail. "I keep in contact with former graduates who are in school now," she says.

At Freeport, Melissa Licht says sending e-mail to friends far away is "easier than spending a lot of money on the telephone."

Lauren La Cascia, another Freeport senior, talks about cyberspace with the cool authority of a teenage hacker at the top of her form. She started using computers at an early age, and her whole family relies heavily on their two computers. "We have two phone lines at home and we're thinking of getting a third just for the computer," says Lauren, 17.

Her classmate, Lisa Bejarano, says she turns on her home computer virtually every day, and even e-mailed her college application to Boston University. Her family subscribes to an online service and she likes to use it to search the Web for help with her homework. "They have a Web-browser on America Online and you put in a word like 'population' and suddenly a whole load of references pop up," she enthuses.

The fast-growing Internet, along with increasingly sophisticated multi-media programs available on CD-ROM, are enticing some high schoolers to use computers, say some educators.

Sites for girls and young women are sprouting up all over the Web. Kids can click on to the Internet Public Library section devoted to teens (, and find a wealth of interesting subjects. A musical-minded surfer can find lyrics for popular songs, or home pages devoted to literature, mysteries and science fiction.

At Rice University in Houston, researchers are studying what girls want from computer programming, both educationally and in entertainment.

"Girls don't see the point of hurting people and like to explore," says Debbie Campbell, technical coordinator for the university's Center for Research on Parallel Computation, about the computer games. "Middle-school girls like to travel another country with a virtual friend, and being able to travel in a safe environment without their parents." In one of the more popular games for girls, "Oceans Below," kids are able to explore underwater depths.

Asked to suggest possible ideas, a focus group of young girls suggested computer games that would illustrate what it would be like to be a female astronaut or a surgeon.

"Many others say they want to have a pen pal or a boyfriend in another land," says Campbell. She says Rice researchers are working with a small software company to produce new programs geared to these interests expressed by girls.

Experts like Whitney Ransom, co-executive director of the National Coalition of Girls' Schools, say the effort by educators and parents to include more girls in cyberspace is making gains. "Initially," she says, "the whole Internet development was, to a high degree, a male culture, male-driven, but I see that changing over time."

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