Refashioning boys' toys

May 12, 1995

Christine Whitehouse on a project to re-connect girls to the computing universe on their own terms. Staffordshire University has played a large part in educating computer professionals, both men and women, since its computing degree scheme was launched in 1965.

Recently it has turned its attention to a problem affecting the computing industry, nationally and internationally: that of the dwindling numbers of females entering the IT profession. To this end, Staffordshire IT EQUATE was established in October 1993 as a three-year action research project to promote the understanding and awareness of IT opportunities among girls.

The problem became more pronounced in the early 1980s when instead of an expected increase in female applicants for computer science courses at university, the reverse happened and the proportion dropped. Since 1975 applications from women have fallen from 25 to 11 per cent of the total.

Many reasons contributed to this decline, including the widespread introduction of computers with games software into homes, and the introduction of computers into schools. Girls then voted with their feet against computing careers.

If we explore the historical events that led to the introduction of the computer we may find out how this may also have affected girls.

Coded information has existed for hundreds of years. Initially, information was passed by word of mouth before papyrus prevailed. More recently, society has progressed to the pen and paper, to the typewriter and the calculator. Then came the computer.

Over the span of the centuries, information has been used by individuals, families, teams in the work place and in the home, in order that people could survive, live in harmony and for society to progress.

It was the existence of information that brought about the necessity for, and the development of the "tools" to record and support it, from the papyrus in the beginning to the computer in the present day. Yet it is only with the emergence of the computer that in some quarters the balance of the importance of information has been lost, as the importance of the tool and its surrounding ethos have dominated.

Nowhere has this been seen more widely than in education and the home, where some children see the computer as an end in itself, and the information it might process as subsidiary.

Girls traditionally like working with information; they enjoy problem analysis, communication and team work. There is no shortage of girls on business courses using these skills - statistics show about 40 per cent. These are the skills and qualities that the computing industry also require; however a strong negative factor in this field is the image of computers and the people who use them.

While girls may enjoy using machines for the benefits they can provide, they do not particularly want to understand how they work. They do not want to spend hours interacting with computers (a sad misunderstanding that they have of the computing industry); neither do they want to be associated with the male culture that surrounds them. Staffordshire IT EQUATE therefore seeks to address this gender imbalance by overcoming these prejudices. It continues work commenced as a pilot project by the University of Southampton in Hampshire and the London Docklands area, largely sponsored by the London Docklands Development Corporation and IBM. The project aims to: *increase girls' awareness of careers involving computing *develop strategies for encouraging girls to enter computing-related courses *raise awareness of computing careers and related issues within schools and in the home.

Three schools are involved in the three-year project: Trent Valley High School, Stoke-on-Trent, a co-educational school for ages 11 to 16; Walton High School, Stafford, also co-educational for ages 11 to 18; and the School of St Mary and St Anne, Abbots Bromley, an independent girls' school for ages 4 to 18. All three schools share an overwhelming enthusiasm for promoting information technology as a career for girls. Two age groups of pupils from the schools are being targeted. One is around 13 to 14 years when option choice and peer group pressure are important. The other is 15 to 17 years when pupils are considering their future prospects.

The intention is to discover materials and strategies, in the light of experience, which can then be adopted by other schools, to affect girls' and their advisors' attitudes.

Investigation initially centred on familiarising the IT EQUATE team with the IT teaching at the three schools within the National Curriculum, at GCSE and at A level, IT career information, hardware and software and any other IT provision such as computer clubs or industry links. The aim was then to create a series of fun events to raise the girls' awareness of IT opportunities beyond the classroom situation.

Four separate full-day events have brought girls from the three schools to the Octagon at Staffordshire University, a multi-million pound purpose built computer centre, to experience at first hand many different computer applications and to learn about careers.

The girls and their teachers have seen demonstrations of multimedia, to illustrate how information can be presented by computer using video, sound, text and graphics to stimulate the learning process and how, for example, students are able to choose the direction, format and speed of their learning. The girls thoroughly enjoyed the transformation of the facial image of one of their friends to that of a cheetah by the technique of morphing, often used in the television industry.

A further workshop saw the girls linking into the Internet, accessing information from Peru, Colorado, Australia and Spain. They mailed the BBC radio programme The Big Byte with information of their involvement in the IT EQUATE project. Groups of girls took videos of the Internet workshop and wrote about Staffordshire IT EQUATE, in order to create a page of multimedia to publicise the project to the world on the Internet.

The girls have been involved with the creation of cartoons, business adverts, teaching material and icon design, as well as experiencing computer control of production lines, washing machines and motors. They have built six-foot paper towers from no more than A4 paper, to simulate the need for team work, adherence to a specification and problem-solving skills required by the computing industry. The careers workshops have centred on the National Council for Educational Technology/ Women Into Technology computing careers video Why Me, Why IT, followed by talks given by female students from Staffordshire University and role models from industrial firms. To give a clearer picture of the computing world, speakers from ICL, Britannia, Norgren Martonair and S&D Cartons Ltd covered their qualifications and career paths, how computing differed from what they had learnt at school, their current role, career progression and obstacles, salaries and responsibilities, and finally, life in a male-dominated world.

What was the response by the girls to all this exposure, you may ask? "Longer time here is required", "More hands on experience please" were the messages we received back, and 87 per cent of girls stated they would consider a computing career. Does this again point the way to female only classes?

Not content just with informing the girls, the Staffordshire IT EQUATE project looked also to influence the environment around the girls, involving the parents, teachers and local education authority careers personnel. Teachers and careers personnel became pupils at the evening session at the university, to be given the same IT EQUATE experience as the girls. The idea was to stimulate conversation about IT careers and to support the girls in any subsequent classes involving computers.

Seventy parents, teachers and pupils (including boys) attended another evening event - a demonstration of video conferencing over the Internet which vividly caught the imagination of the young people taking part. The United States and Australia responded, with a pupil from Walton High School talking directly to the international conference participants whose images were displayed in front of the audience.

The Staffordshire IT EQUATE project then took the girls further afield to visit Allied Domecq Retailing Ltd/Ind Coope, Burton-on-Trent to see computer control in action, in the brewery canning and packaging department - it was an awesome sight.

Royal Doulton, Stoke-on-Trent provided an awareness of computer-aided design and explained the role played by computers in supporting information, from the receipt of an order to the despatch of the final product. For the girls, the opportunity to talk to personnel creating computer software, and those using it within an environment driven by the product, was invaluable.

Plans include a visit to the site of a computer manufacturer to complete the picture from a different angle, by which time it is hoped the girls will have grown to like the "things that make us smart" a little more.

The idea of spreading the word to schoolgirls is not unique - Glasgow and Coventry Universities are prime examples of universities playing their part.

Staffordshire IT EQUATE is however unique in that it is working with a small number of girls and spreading the message thickly, in order to get its strategies right, as opposed to delivering the message thinly to a larger number of girls.

It has become very clear that material needs to be created for use in schools, which allows consolidation and reiteration of the IT EQUATE message. The project team hope that the funds will become available so that Staffordshire University can continue to put their plans and ideas into action.

By the year 2000, it is estimated that over 80 per cent of all jobs will involve information technology. Industry needs to consider the shortfall that must be met. Statistics also show that half the money earners will soon be women and that they will take nine out of ten new jobs by the year 2000.

The material that could be put into schools to highlight computing careers would be equally suitable for boys and girls. Whilst one might argue that boys do not need encouragement, in practice the computing industry does not only want to attract boys who wish to interact with machines rather than people.

It is likely that the communicating problem solvers among the boys are also turned away by the clouded image of a computing career.

It is ironic that while the schools minister Eric Forth states that "We are world leaders in IT in schools", Judith Church, Labour MP for Dagenham, needs to table a bill to increase the take-up of computing jobs by women. It is obvious that something is wrong with the image of this increasingly important world of IT.

Christine Whitehouse (C.Whitehouse@soc.staffs.ac.uk) is a lecturer in information systems at Staffordshire University and co-ordinator of Staffordshire IT EQUATE. The project's World- Wide Web home page is at http://www.soc.staffs.ac.uk/itequate/ A useful United States Internet resource for women in computer science is The Ada Project, at http: // www . cs . yale . edu/HTML /YALE/CS/HyPlans/tap/tap.html

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