An Educator's Guide to Gender Bias Issues

gender bias /accessibility / funding / hearing disability / visual disability / other disabilities


Introduction:

Technologies should be equally accessible to male and female students. Yet, as girls enter adolescence, large numbers of them tend to lose interest in science, math, and computer science. Girls are narrowing the gender gap in science and math, but not in technology (Closing the Gender Gap: Gender Gaps Fact Sheet, 1997). Overall girls' test scores and course enrollments have risen in these areas, with the exception of computer science. In order to attempt to address this issue, the cause of the discrepancies between males and females in computer use must be established. Several issues need to be addressed:

  • What is gender bias?
  • What evidence is there that a technology gender gap and gender bias exist?
  • Why are girls in their adolescent years losing interest in computers?
  • What are the differences and similarities between how males and females perceive and use technology?
  • What technologies are out there? For whom are they intended?
  • What role do parents, educators, and manufacturers have in encouraging technology use among females?

By addressing these questions, a better understanding of the gender gap in technology can be attained and solutions to closing the gender gap can be studied. While progress has been made to encourage girls in math and science, parents, teachers, and manufacturers have just begun to look at girls' use of computers and computer related programs.


Gender bias defined:

When examining gender bias, it is important to define and understand the term. Gender is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "classification of sex." According to this same source, bias is defined as "preference or inclination that inhibits impartiality; prejudice" (American Heritage Dictionary,1983). Thus gender bias is separation of gender in a way which prefers one sex over the other. Gender bias in technology refers to preference for or favoring of one sex over the other in computer use and/or access, software use and/or manufacturing, and Internet use and content. As can be seen, gender bias in technology is a multifaceted and complex issue.


Evidence of the technology gender gap and gender bias:

A gender gap exists between males and females in the use of technology. In a 1994 study, it was found that in a group of fourth through sixth graders who were defined as "heavy" computer users, the ratio of girls to boys using computers was 1:4 (Sakamoto, 1994). This is only the beginning of a trend which reveals a gap between boys and girls that continues into high school, college, and beyond. "Girls' participation rates (in math and science) in elementary and secondary school have increased, but drop as women advance in higher education. Although girls' achievement is approaching that of boys, a gender gap persists which increases with the grade level (Title IX at 25: Report Card On Gender Equity). Girls are making progress in these areas, but as the statistics show, much more needs to be done. One simply needs to walk into computer clubs or computer science classes in order to see the gap between the number of boys versus girls in these clubs and classes.

Often times, subtle messages are sent to girls and boys about expectations for their behaviors, attitudes, perceptions and other aspects in their lives. It is important to note that this is not always the case nor is it necessarily intentional. Many parents, educators, and manufacturers out there are indeed very sensitive to the issues of gender. They are making great strides to create equity in all areas for males and females. On the other hand, there are those parents, educators, and manufacturers who are shocked and surprised to realize that they are unintentionally sending separate signals about expectations for girls and boys. Differential treatment by educators divert girls from science and technology (Technology Gender Gap Develops While Gaps in Math and Science Narrow, 1998). In the same way, other influential adults in girls' lives influence the paths girls follow and the perception of girls concerning their own future and those of others.


Reasons adolescent girls lose interest in computers:

While information above makes it apparent that there is a gender gap in technology, there are a variety of theories as to why females lose interest in technology as they enter adolescence. One speculation is that girls simply approach technology differently. Some point to parental influence. Other theories blame teachers and the overall educational institution. Still other ideas lay the origins of this gap at role models or lack of role models. Another cause of the gender gap in technology is believed to be manufacturers of technology products. Although the most common theories point to a combination of all of these, each of the major influences will be discussed individually.

Teachers and the educational system are believed to influence the gender gap in computer use. One argument states that the gender separation in the use of the Internet begins as far back as kindergarten. Boys gravitate toward computer games and mechanical toys (Wilder, Marchie & Cooper 1985: 215-216, 220). Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to play with dolls or be involved in more social games. Teachers may treat boys differently than girls causing differing expectations. For example, boys and girls are often approached differently when dealing with inappropriate physical and verbal attacks on others. Boys involved in pushing or even fist fights may be more accepted that girls involved in the same activities; "boys will be boys." Girls are expected to be better negotiators thus preventing the need for physical altercations. In addition, girls in adolescence tend to experience weakening self perceptions (Miller, Chaika, Groppe,1996). Many girls in adolescence go through changes which negatively affect self image and future choices. As a result, girls often refrain from asking questions and sharing answers. Many girls feel inferior to others or wish to mask their leadership abilities and intelligence and decline opportunities to take part in student government, clubs, or challenges that may cause failure. These issues also discourage some girls from taking part in higher track classes in math, science, and computer science. Still others point at education at the administrative level. Here, some say, is where funds are appropriated. There are views that teachers and administrators in education are responsible for the gender gap in technology.

The lack of strong female role models is believed by some experts to be yet another reason for the gender gap in technology use between males and females. Dr. Janese Swanson Ed.D suggests providing children the opportunity to see guest speakers from both genders in nontraditional careers (Swanson, 1999). Common sense tells us that we find possibility or lack of possibility in what we experience. Girls who see and develop communication with other females who have careers in science and technology fields, will be more likely to have these high expectations for themselves. These girls will perceive science and technology fields as plausible careers for themselves. Few female mentors are available for girls when investigating career opportunities (Horizons, 1998). Just like boys, girls benefit from listening and interacting with mentors and role models.

Lee Canter said it best, "Parents are the most important, influential people in a child's life" (Canter, 1991). Parental views on gender roles, belief systems regarding gender, and actions toward both sexes will inevitably influence children. Children are sent strong signals about the world around them, more specifically about men and women, from parents. Parents' actions and words send messages about the parents' beliefs. Parents should closely examine whether their actions and words are telling their children what they wish them to be telling their children. Parents should closely examine what they say with their actions and words.

 


Ways parents, educators, and manufacturers can encourage technology use among females:

Those around young girls have great potential to influence their perceptions of themselves and other in relation to technology. Parents have the greatest potential to influence their children. Teachers and the educational system also have the ability to shape the self-images and futures of girls as they approach computers and computer fields. Though it can be argued that they have less influence, software manufactures and Internet providers also take part in encouraging or discouraging females in technology use. Parents, the educational systems, and manufacturers have the ability to help girls overcome the gender gap in technology.

If we want to see young girls more involved in computers, we must begin with parents. There are many practical and easy ways parents can encourage their girls in the use of technology. Parents can begin at home to encourage girls to use technologies. Several ideas for encouraging girls' interest in technology have been adapted from the recommendations of Dr. Janese Swanson (Swanson, 1999). First, children should be exposed to technology at an early age. Children should learn that technology is fun and helpful to use. They should see it as one of the many tools in our world that make life easier. When children are ready to be active participants in using technology, parents should be ready with opportunities to use it. Parents should also buy technology products of interest to their daughters. Unfortunately, a majority of the CD's for children are designed for the interests of boys (Adelson, 1996). Girls rarely have interest in monsters or weapons commonly seen in computer software. Rather, they tend to want to accomplish a specific goal using the computer. As a result, it may be more challenging to find programs that will interest young girls. "Barriers are lifted when girls play with other girls and have equal access to the control devices such as the video game control pad, keyboard, joystick, or mouse" (Swanson, 1999). Another opportunity to encourage girls' use of technology is to get the child involved in gender specific clubs such as a girls' computer club. Dr. Swanson also encourages mothers to play with computers and other technology with their daughters. Support from parents encourages children to develop their skills with technology. The one-on-one interaction between mothers and daughters can be greatly beneficial to both. Discussing technology with girls is yet another way for parents to encourage technology use. Parents should ask girls about their likes and dislikes of computer games played, Internet sites visited, and issues surrounding computers and the Internet (Swanson, 1999). Sharing and validating children's opinions strengthens their confidence. The greatest piece of advice from Dr. Swanson to parents is to be role models for their children. Children often imitate parents' priorities, attitudes, and actions. When parents use technology comfortably in their daily lives both for entertainment and in their professions, their children will be more likely to do the same.

Encouraging technology use for girls often goes beyond simply using the computer and encouraging children to use the computer. Mount Holyoke College has put together several helpful reminders and suggestions to help parents know what to do for their daughters (Expect the Best form a Girl. That's What You'll Get.). The first suggestion is for parents to remember that their words are very influential. Parents need to be very aware of how they speak to their daughters. More specifically to this issue, parents need to be conscientious of how they speak to their daughters about technology. Secondly, girls should be encouraged to use computers in a variety of ways for fun and work. A third idea is that parents should also go beyond technology and encourage all types of activities for girls. Girls should be encouraged to take part in experiences and activities that are traditionally designated for boys or men. Girls are often enthusiastic when parents suggest that they assist them in nontraditional activities such as building a dog house or fixing the car. For a variety of reasons, parents do not always think to include their daughters in these activities. Yet another idea from Mount Holyoke College is for parents to discuss stereotypes openly with their daughters (and sons). Stereotypes can strongly influence people's perspectives and attitudes toward themselves and others. Parents frequently assume that children understand the ideas and beliefs parents have toward others, but children get the strongest sense of their parents' beliefs when issues are discussed. Children can feel free to share their questions and concerns with their parents. A fifth suggestion is for parents to strongly encourage and praise girls for their abilities and ideas instead of doing so only for their appearance and cleanliness. Children learn what is important to parents from what parents reward or praise. If girls are praised for their skills, creativity and ideas, they will desire to strengthen or develop them. Still another suggestion to parents is to allow girls freedom for independent thinking. Girls who become independent thinkers and problem solvers fair better when faced with challenges. Girls benefit from partaking in "nontraditional thinking and method of problem solving" (Expect the Best form a Girl. That's What You'll Get.). Parents can encourage this by supporting girls in an environment in which they use their minds, bodies, and tools to accomplish a tasks. Finally, parents should model critiquing the media. Parents should model critical thinking and critiquing of sources of information whether they are in print, on the radio, or on the Internet. Parents should also discuss how males and females are portrayed in music, television, magazines, etc. Having these discussions provide wonderful opportunities to share expectations and beliefs. Parents are crucial in shaping the attitudes and perspective of girls toward technology.

Parents can be positive influences with gender equity in technology at school as well as at home. The previously mentioned ideas and suggestions can be strengthened in the school setting. Mothers can be involved in school by being teachers' aides in computer labs (Closing the Gender Gap: Gender Gaps Fact Sheet, 1997). In addition to being role models in the home, mothers can be role models at school. They can offer to be guest speakers or mentors for their own daughters or others' daughters. Parents can also get involved in school on the administrative level (Expect the Best form a Girl. That's What You'll Get.). Parents can narrow the gender gap by being volunteers for clubs or other student groups such as computer clubs. Parents can be a part of technology committees, the Parent Teacher Organization of the school, or other decision making committees which determine how to spend funds raised. Being a part of making appropriate technology purchases and discussing technology/gender issues of both girls and boys will benefit all students (Closing the Gender Gap: Gender Gaps Fact Sheet, 1997). Parents can be powerful advocates for their children at the school.

While parents have the greatest ability to influence their children, those involved in the educational system have the capacity to play great roles in narrowing the gender gap as well. Those at in administrative positions within school districts have both money and influence with which to express their priorities. Administrations have the potential to be a powerful starting point for gender equity.

Though only a few suggestions are included here, there are endless possibilities for what can be done on the administrative level to narrow the gender gap. Administrations should put policies in place that ensure equal exposure to technology for all students (Closing the Gender Gap: Gender Gaps Fact Sheet, 1997). All students should have equal accessibility regardless of sex, race, socioeconomic background, or disability. Administrations can also be responsible for educating the teachers in gender issues (Closing the Gender Gap: Gender Gaps Fact Sheet, 1997). It is important for teachers to be informed of innovations in classroom management plans and teaching strategies which are fair and equitable to all students. Teachers also need to be knowledgeable about guidelines and policies of their district. In addition, administrations should insure that teachers are educated on reviews and evaluations regarding gender issues. The administrations should also be responsible for investigating possible alternative classrooms (Horizons, 1998). Such alternatives include single-sex classrooms, active recruiting of females for typically low-female enrollment courses, studying the schools' class schedules to discourage conflicts between classes which are typically female or male dominated. There is much that can be done on the administrative level to encourage gender equity in computer use and accessibility.

The administration of a school district is powerless to make a difference for girls in technology without the help of teachers. Next to parents, teachers are extremely influential on the attitudes and perceptions of the children. Several sources suggested that teachers look at teaching strategies, the most comprehensive list came from the Midwest Desegregation Assistance Center in it's online report in Horizons (Horizons, 1998). While few suggestions deal directly with technology, they indirectly influence girls as their self images are being formed. Just as subtle words and actions of parents send messages, so, too, the words and subtle actions of teachers send messages. First, teachers should make sure they are dealing with infractions of the discipline policy equally (Expect the Best form a Girl. That's What You'll Get.). Boys and girls should be treated the same whether the incident involves a fight on the school grounds, threats, or other means of breaking school rules. Secondly, teachers should refrain from pitting girls against boys in class. This leads to name calling and stereotyping. A third suggestion is to equally praise boys and girls for intellectual skills (Horizons, 1998). Boys tend to receive more praise for these skills while girls tend to be praised for social skills such as team work and compromising. Fourth, students should be called on equally to answer higher level questions (Technology Gender Gap Develops While Gaps in Math and Science Narrow, 1998). Again, boys tend to be asked these questions, and they tend to offer answers more frequently to these questions. Conversely, research shows that often times girls are neither called on, nor offer answers to these questions. Fifth, teachers should review educational materialism, especially technology, for stereotyping and gender bias (Horizons, 1998). While individual teachers rarely have the authority to make curriculum alterations, issues raised by these materials can be extremely valuable learning experiences for students. Helpful tips for evaluating web sites for gender bias can be found on web evaluation site. A sixth and final suggestion to teachers is to encourage a cooperative learning environment (Technology Gender Gap Develops While Gaps in Math and Science Narrow, 1998). Team work and cooperation is beneficial to female students. Girls are often more comfortable sharing in small groups, and they often do not work as productively in competitive environments. There is much that teachers can do in the classroom to encourage females to reach their potential thus empowering them to see themselves as equals in computer use and beyond.

A third major influence on girls in the use of technology is manufacturers of software and Internet services. It is first important to see how girls and boys see computers differently. Then, it is valuable to look at what girls want to see in software and the Internet. Technology products and services have an important role to play in the attitudes of girls toward technology.

Girls and boys have a tendency to view computers differently. "Girls tend to see computers as a means of achieving a concrete goal. Girls are likely to conceptualize computers as a tool, be it for email or word processing, but still a medium with which to accomplish a task" (Chaika, 1999). Software designed specifically for girls tends to be a learning tool. According to the research of Grunner, "Women commonly saw technological instruments as people connectors, communications and collaborations devices" (Grunner, et. al., 1990). Yet again, it can be seen that women look at computers as instruments to complete a task. To the contrary, boys usually view computers as recreational (Gaicquinta, et. al., 1990). They see them as toys to be played with and explored. Thus boys explore, challenge the limits, and often shape computers and computer use. Computers are viewed differently by males and females.

The gender gap in technology is a vicious cycle. Girls are not as interested in computers thus fewer products are made for them and less research is done to develop games for them. As a result, there is less of an interest in computer by girls, and the cycle continues. According to the article, Computer Toys R Us vs. Them, "according to industry researchers . . . (the top computer games for September of 1996 were) Duke Nukem 3D, Warcraft II, Civilization 2, Final Doom and Myst (Adelson, 1996). All five of these games appeal to the largely male market. There are games out there for girls, but not all meet the needs of girls. Many games designed for girls are centered around shopping, putting on make-up, boys and dating, etc. Few software programs are out there that encourage intelligent thinking, challenge skill development, advocate positive role models, and/or broaden mastery of skills.

The Internet is a source of both positive and negative sites for girls. There are a numerous sources on the Internet that can help parents and teachers find child friendly and girl-friendly sites. Parents and educators need to first be educated about positive and negative sites for girls on the Internet. An excellent source for more information on Internet sites for children and those that exploit children can be found the Pedophilia on the Internet site. The Internet has the potential to open up opportunities for girls on the Internet and computers. An Educator's Guide To Commercialism provides informative insight on opportunities for children online. Girls can gain a great deal from the vast amount of information on the Internet, but it is essential to be cautious and careful.

It is essential to make a final note about the role of parents, teachers, and software manufacturers and providers in addressing gender bias in technology. As any experienced, successful teacher knows, all children are different. Alice Ann Leidel, one-time president of the AAUW Educational Foundation, states it best, "To reach girls effectively, educators must look at each child as an individual and tailor their strategies accordingly. Unlike the T-shirt industry, one size doesn't fit all. America can no longer afford to ignore this valuable lesson" (Technology Gender Gap Develops While Gaps in Math and Science Narrow, 1998). Every girl is a unique individual with different needs, interests, aspirations,and goals in life. Parents, educators, and manufacturers of technologies must keep this in mind as they work on the behalf of girls and with girls to eliminate the gender gap in computer and technology use.


CONCLUSION:

The gender gap and gender bias in technology are complicated issues. Gender bias in the world has its origins in numerous places and it is reinforced in just as many ways. Equal accessibility for girls can only come when parents, school districts, and manufacturers work together for equal accessibility. Parents need to participate both in the home and school settings to ensure their girls are computer literate. School districts, through the administration and teachers, must actively encourage young girls' interests in computer science. Hard and software manufacturers as well as Internet services also need to begin providing interesting and constructive materials for girls. When these major influences, parents, school districts, and manufacturers, make encouraging female participation in computer use a priority, equality in accessibility for females will eventually be achieved.


Bibliography:

1.Adelson, Rachel "Computer Toys R Us vs. Them." Computer Confidence for Women, 1996.

2.Canter, Lee & Canter, Marlene. Parents On Your Side: A comprehensive parent involvement program for teachers. Lee Canter and Associates, USA, 1991.

3. Chaika, Melissa. "Ethical Considerations in Gender-Oriented Entertainment Technology," Crossroads, Association for Computing Machinery, 1999.

4."Closing the Gender Gap: Gender Gaps Fact Sheet." American Association of University Women,1997.

5."Educators play key role in promoting gender equity." Horizons. Midwest Desegregation Assistance Center, 1998.

6."Expecting the Best from A Girl. That's What You'll Get." Women's College Coalition. Mount Holyoke College.

7.Gaicquinta, Joseph B., Baur, Jo Anne, and Levin, Jane. Beyond Technology's Promise: An examination of children's educational computing at home. Cambridge University Press:Great Britain, 1993.

8.Grunner, C., Bennet, D., Clements, M., Hawkins, J., Honey, M., and Moeller, B. "Gender and technological imagination." presented at the American Educational Research Association, Boston, MA., 1990.

9.Miller, Leslie, Chaika, Melissa, Groppe, Laura. "Girls' Preferences in Software Design: Insights from a Focus Group." Center for Technology in Teaching and Learning and Center for Research on Parallel Computations, Interpersonal Computing and Technology: An Electronic Journal for the 21st Century, 1996.

10.Sakamoto, A. Video game use and the development of socio-cognitive abilities in children: Three Surveys of elementary school students. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 24, 1994.

11. Swanson, Dr. Janese Ed.D. "What We Can Do to Get Girls Involved in Technology," 1999.

12."Technology Gender Gap Develops While Gaps in Math and Science Narrow, AAUW Foundation Report Shows." American Association of University Women, 1998.

13.The American Heritage Dictionary. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1986.

14."Title IX at 25: Report Card On Gender Equity, Executive Summary." American Association of University Women.

15. Wilder, Gita, Mackie, Diana, Cooper, Joel. Gender and Computers: Two Surveys of Computer Related Attitudes. Sex Roles, Vol. 13, 3-4, 1985.


Helpful Links:

1. Community Learning Network A great starting point for teachers on a multitude of subjects. It has helpful links to women's issues and technology. "CLN is designed to help K-12 teachers integrate technology into their classrooms. We have over 240 menu pages with more than 4,400 annotated links to educational WWW sites, as well as over 100 WWW resources of our own -- all organized within an intuitive structure.

2. Celebrating Women Theme Page This is a good source of materials for teachers looking to provide gender education. It has suggestions for "girl-friendly" sites, lesson plan ideas, and information on minimizing gender bias.

3. Phelps-Borrowman, Martha C.. "Gender Equity in Education." 1998. This gender equity page provides links to a wealth of information on gender equity.


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