COMPUTERS

Female terror at the terminal

Brian D. Johnson July 18 1983
COMPUTERS

Female terror at the terminal

Brian D. Johnson July 18 1983

Female terror at the terminal

COMPUTERS

Brian D. Johnson

Boy meets girl and brings her home to meet his computer. Boy feeds floppy disc into machine and takes command of computer terminal while girl watches over his shoulder and giggles. Boy uses computer to break into secret military war game and nearly sets off the Third World War. Girl is impressed but thinks computer is scary. Girl touches boy but never touches computer.

This scenario, a quick sketch of the hit movie WarGames, reflects the reality of adolescent roles more accurately than Canadians might assume. At home, at school and even at camp, the revolution in computer education appears to be encoded with old-fashioned sexual stereotypes. At computer camps across Canada, where young people learn the basics of programming along with canoeing and swimming, boys outnumber girls this summer by 2 to 1. What is more, recent reports from local school boards and the Science Council of Canada show that many girls are jeopardizing their future job prospects by deciding in their teens that math, science and computers are best left to the boys. And a national study by the Canadian School Trustees Association released last week warns that those girls will be forced to enter low-paying jobs, many of which will be phased out within the next decade. Indeed, by 1990 most jobs will require some computer skills. Apprenticed in the aggressive, poolroom atmosphere of video arcades, the boys have staked out

the computer terminal as yet another male preserve.

Last summer Jodi Bradford, a 13year-old from Kamloops, B.C., was one of only three girls among 25 boys at Ontario’s Computer Camp for Kids on Lake Couchiching near Orillia, 110 km north of Toronto. “I think more girls would be interested,” she said, “but they do not want to admit it. I guess they think computers are not a feminine thing. They would rather be out horseback-riding or something.” This year, with prompting from parents, more girls are bucking peer pressure to

brave the terrors of the terminal. When Bradford returned last week to the Computer Camp for Kids, now located at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., the female minority had grown marginally to four out of 20. Camp Director James Mackin attributes the traditional lopsided boy-girl ratio to the attitudes of school guidance counsellors, but he predicts that that situation will eventually change. Says Mackin: “The computer is the great equalizer. Because there is no muscle involved, it offers equal opportunity.”

Still, boys and girls approach the terminals not only in unequal numbers but with different attitudes, says Kahni Zinkus, a computer instructor at Camp Alexandra, located in Crescent Beach, 45 km south of Vancouver. (Girls make up about a fifth of the camper population.) “The boys come in assuming they will do a good job because they are boys,” says Zinkus, “and some of the girls assume it will be a real grind because they are girls.” But as it turns out, he adds, females tend to learn faster than males because they are more accustomed to performing “orderly” tasks. “The computer is more like a sewing machine than a car,” Zinkus suggests. “A car is kind of a loose machine where there is room to tinker, but a computer is a device that goes through a set of procedures that you have to follow in an orderly manner.”

Although girls tend to be just as adept at the terminals as boys, the com-

puter’s masculine image as a high-tech hunk of equipment discourages some girls from testing their skills in school. In a $1.5-million study of science education across Canada, which began in 1980 and should conclude this fall, the Science Council discovered that aggressive boys often dominate classroom computer terminals, especially if the equipment is in short supply. Janet Ferguson, a researcher working on the study, cites a high school conference of 5,000 students in Brandon, Man., last year at which computer exhibits were set up in the hall. “The boys were climbing all over each other to get at the machines,” she says, “while the girls would feel quite intimidated. Some of them were afraid they might break something.”

Sex stereotyping is not confined to computer education; it is endemic in the disciplines of math and science, which are essential tools for basic programming. During the last two years of high school, female enrolment in those subjects tends to drop sharply. In a continuing study titled Mathematics: The Invisible Filter, the Toronto Board of Education found that by Grade 13 twice as many boys as girls were enrolled in both algebra and computer science. Lorna Wiggan, a mathematics consultant to the board, reports that many girls suffer from “math anxiety,” which paralyses their ability to deal with numbers. She says that the anxiety can produce physical symptoms such as sweaty palms and a rapid heartbeat. Several Toronto schools have set up special courses to cure the ailment. And some schools have begun to head off computer phobia by introducing word processors as early as kindergarten, where preliterate girls and boys dictate their stories to older students who feed them into the machines.

Meanwhile, the trappings of computer culture remain undeniably macho—from the shoot-em-up frenzy of video war games, which are typically male-oriented, to such software jargon as “kill file” and “run abort.” The culture has spawned its own brand of outlaw hero, the kind of male computer operator depicted in WarGames who takes pride in breaking codes, unlocking computer phone lines and illegally copying videogames. High school computer clubs can resemble male fraternities, with passwords and digital rituals, so it is not surprising that some girls decide that they are simply too soft for software. But as more computer terminals become available in schools and younger children have a chance to use them before sex stereotypes have cast a permanent mould, the odds may start to even out. As Camp Alexandra’s instructor Zinkus notes, “The computer has no idea of the sex of the person hitting the keys.” <$>