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A High-Tech Career Of Her Own

On Take Our Daughters To Work Day, what better time to examine what's being done to prepare girls for successful careers in technology.

From: TechWeb, April 22, 1998
By Jim Rapp

We have been bombarded with headlines about the lack of skilled computer and technology workers in the United States, that many say point to the need to hire foreign technology professionals.

But perhaps we are discounting one key group that exists right in our own backyards.

Women have increasingly become a key component of the labor force. By the millennium, 8 out of 10 women, ages 25 to 54 will be working, and according to the Women's College Coalition, the best-paying occupations will require the highest technical skills. In fact, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, computer scientists, computer engineers, and systems analysts will be the top three growth occupations well into the next decade.

On Take Our Daughters To Work Day, what better time to examine what is being done to prepare girls for a lucrative, high-tech career. In fact, a handful of enterprising companies are addressing exactly that, with such offerings as interactive CD-ROM games, technology toys, books, and specialty websites to help girls feel more comfortable with technology and their abilities.

"Technology is not an end in itself, but a vehicle for what one really likes to do," says Laura Groppe, president and CEO at Girl Games, an interactive software company in Austin, Texas, that targets 8- to 18-year-old girls. "Girls do not want to learn to like a computer, but rather the outcome of what it and other technology can offer. Only then will they see the merit of, and seek to become the coders, creators, and producers of technology. You kind of go through the back door."

Girls And Computers
Statistics from the National Science Foundation show between 1985 and 1995, women went from earning 36 percent of computer science bachelor's degrees to 28 percent. Furthermore, in 1997 only 17 percent of high school students testing for computer science college credit were female.

Yet, a 1997 Gallup Poll of 13- to 17-year-olds found relatively small differences between girls and boys in terms of their general orientation toward technology.

What accounts for this disparity?

"In surveys, many girls will say I really 'like' computers, which often means they like using applications, word-processing programs, spreadsheets, the Internet, and games -- as opposed to computer programming, software development, and hardware engineering," says Cynthia Lanius, a Houston math teacher and program manager at GirlTECH, a teacher-training program sponsored by the Center for Parallel Computation at Rice University to help move girls toward technology.

Next: Some less-subtle occurrences as girls and boys mature

Another answer may lie in how children approach computers, play, and, indeed, life. Numerous studies have found that as boys and girls mature, their play patterns diverge, with girls preferring to interact with one another, deal with emerging life issues, and create a sense of community -- translating to a technology career involving product conceptualization; by contrast, boys go for repetitive, shoot-em-up games, and score-based activities -- more in line with the methodical pursuits of software coding and programming.

Ten-year-old Jena Mason, of Alexandria, Va., says her brother's games "kind of get boring because they're normally doing the same things." She prefers Clueless, a game co-developed by Mattel and Girl Games, based on the popular movie, because "there's like a big screen, and all these malls, and then a house, and you're driving in this little car, and you have to pick where you want to go."

Sizing Up The Market
With the intent of getting girls more tech-savvy, a handful of entrepreneurial companies in recent years have developed technology products aimed solely at girls. The business opportunity has not likely been discounted either: The U.S. market represents more than 19 million girls ages 8 to 18, according to Girls Games, with 6 million multimedia computers, representing $45 billion in annual retail purchases. In addition, an estimated 73 percent of preteen girls use computers.

A key segment is the interactive CD-ROM market. According to PC Data, a market research firm in Reston, Va., from 1996 to 1997 the number of girl-oriented titles increased by 130 percent, from 20 to 46, and revenues grew 132 percent, from $27.6 million to $64 million.

One company working in this niche is Groppe's Girl Games. The company, along with Simon & Schuster, rolled out Let's Talk About ME!, an interactive handbook for growing up. The CD-ROM has interviews with female role models including Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), 10 personality quizzes, a password-protected diary, and even a puberty game show called "I Kid You Not" in which girls learn about their bodies. "The product is a tool girls need to constructively go through adolescence," says Groppe, an Academy Award-winning independent film producer and four-time MTV Award winner.

Meantime, former Carmen Sandiego game producer Dr. Janese Swanson started San Rafael, Calif.-based Girl Tech to create entertaining products that foster strength and connection between girls, and raise awareness of (and confidence in) using technology. The company focuses on affordable technology hardware products such as Swap-It Locket, which enables trading of recorded secret messages, and such books as Tech Girl's Internet Adventures, which brings girls into the world of technology with a sense of fun and adventure. Desktop Tool Kit, a CD-ROM due out shortly, will enable girls to create a custom home page on Girl Tech's website.

Next: Do girl games reinforce stereotypes?

Despite the educational nature of many of these offerings, last year game maker Mattel commanded 70.96 percent of total revenue for the girl-oriented CD-ROM market with hits like Barbie Fashion Designer and Barbie Magic Hair Styler, according to PC Data (see chart, below).

Some argue games such as these simply reinforce traditional female stereotypes related to appearance and traditional work roles, with little impact on moving girls into high-end technology.

"Barbie games are OK if they bring young girls to computers, which starts them exploring all kinds of other things," says Roberta Furger, author of Does Jane Compute? Preserving Our Daughters' Place in the Cyber Revolution. Furger says she believes girl games should mean more than just dolls, creativity, and some of the more narrowly defined game activities we have been seeing so far. It would be "unfortunate" if Barbie was the only kind of game played on the computer, Furger says.

Groppe says the stereotype argument is a misdirected rap. "Our products do not revolve around appearance," she says. "They are designed around highly diagnosed play patterns, which show that just because girls are interested in social interaction games does not mean they are less competitive than boys."

10 Ways To Encourage Girls
In Technology

  • Truly believe that girls are meant for science, math, and technology careers.
  • At least 50 percent of computer science students at your daughters' schools should be girls. If not, work to rectify the situation.
  • Encourage schools to start a technical mentoring program aimed at girls.
  • Expect and advocate for homework that includes complex problem-solving.
  • Do not let boys monopolize the family computer.
  • Girls like to join clubs and take classes with friends. Help them do this.
  • Buy a girl a gift certificate to a computer store rather than clothing store.
  • Spend time with your daughter on the computer. Let her teach you.
  • Be involved in purchasing software. Move her toward fun but beneficial products.
  • Make your daughter aware of how technology enables you to perform your work, and its importance to her future.

    -- GirlTECH and Women's College Coalition

Smaller women-owned companies like Girl Games and Girl Tech "are really working to break stereotypes and create more valuable and engaging products," says Aliza Sherman, president of New York-based Cybergrrl. And more so than larger companies, she says, which are more inclined toward marketing stereotypical products "perpetuating the myth that all little girls want to know about is beauty and fashion."

In the end, all agree perhaps the most significant thing we can do for girls is continue to boost their confidence. "It is good that these girls like computers, and games may be a good entree -- but they are not enough," says GirlTech's Lanius. "We must encourage girls to take the highest levels of math, science, and computer science their schools offer, and 'expect' that women will become computer scientists rather than they won't."

Jim Rapp is a freelance writer based in Virginia.