March 01, 1998 5 min read

Gayle Beland’s computer-based women’s history class is technically open to boys, but she doesn’t really expect them to take it. She designed the course, after all, specifically to introduce girls to computers. “What we’re trying to do is show girls that there have been lots of achieving women throughout history and hopefully raise their self-esteem,” says Beland, a computer-literacy teacher at Parkside Junior High School in Manchester, New Hampshire. “We’re going to see if that helps them to go into math and science and computers.”

Beland is just one of a growing number of public school teachers around the country who are tailoring computer courses specifically for girls. They share a concern that girls could miss out on important education and career opportunities if they aren’t encouraged to study and use computer technology.

Girls, it seems, are not as eager as boys to join the technology craze. Indeed, boys dominate most elective computer classes. For each of the past three years, girls made up only 12 percent of the students who took the AB-level Advanced Placement computer-science exam, which tests students who have taken a full year of computer science. One reason girls are less inclined to study computers than boys, says Jane Margolis, a visiting research scientist in education and women’s studies at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is the “geek stereotype—the idea that if you’re interested in computer science, you don’t have a social life.”

The way computer science is usually taught—as an abstract subject in and of itself—contributes to this perception, Margolis says. “Girls are more interested in computers to do something else,” she notes. “It’s not just hacking for hacking’s sake. It’s computing to do medicine, or art, or science.”

Washington Middle School in Olympia, Washington, is using this approach with an “Alternative Technology” course that combines technology skills with study of issues seen as particularly interesting to adolescent girls, such as nutrition, eating disorders, career exploration, and women’s self-defense. During the unit on eating disorders, the all-girl class talks about how advertising influences the way girls and women view their bodies. The students also analyze the World Wide Web sites of companies that make products for girls and send the companies critiques via e-mail.

“While we’re learning about important topics, we’re getting to know the computers better,” says 8th grader Erika Perez. “A lot of girls that are shyer around boys will feel more comfortable in a class like this and will not be afraid to ask questions.”

Before the class was offered at Washington, twice as many boys as girls signed up for technology electives. With the new course offering, the ratio of girls to boys is almost equal.

Of course, single-sex classes are not new, particularly in subjects such as math and science. But the practice is controversial. “We don’t really know whether single-sex classes are better for girls,” says Jo Sanders, director for the gender-equity program at Washington Research Institute in Seattle. “What we know is that a lot of girls prefer the atmosphere, and a lot of teachers prefer the atmosphere in a girls’ class because girls don’t act out as much as boys.”

From a legal standpoint, single-sex classes are “problematic,” says Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 states that a school receiving federal money “shall not provide any course or otherwise carry out any of its education program or activity separately on the basis of sex.” But the law includes a provision that could be used as a justification for offering single-sex technology classes, Greenberger says. A school may, in certain circumstances, take affirmative action to overcome conditions that have limited participation by boys or girls.

Given how computer programs and courses have been geared toward boys, the lawyer says, “technology is one of those areas where trying to set up a program for young girls could be considered consistent with Title IX.”

To be safe, schools that offer such courses usually make it clear that the classes are open to boys. Washington Middle School instructors hold a promotional meeting only for girls when recruiting students for its Alternative Technology course, but they say they probably wouldn’t bar boys from taking the class. “If we’re doing something wrong, I think we’d have to quit, but I don’t think we are,” says Patrick Gill, assistant superintendent for the 9,000-student Olympia district. “We’re doing it for the right reasons.”

Black Hawk High School in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, has had success with a less-radical approach. Instead of offering single-sex classes, the school actively recruits girls for its grade 8-12 computer, science, and math offerings.

Each year, Nancy Mahosky, a math and technology teacher, holds an assembly for all 8th grade girls, during which she shows a video she made featuring girls in her Advanced Placement computer-science class. She also leads an after-school Young Women’s Technology Club—boys can join but don’t—and holds breakfast meetings where girls in advanced math, technology, and science classes talk with 9th grade girls about the importance of those subjects. “It’s not like you can just hope girls show up in your class,” Mahosky says.

Her efforts, plus a new basic-computer class requirement for 8th graders, helped boost the enrollment of girls in the school’s computer programming and Advanced Placement computer science courses from about 10 percent of the total enrollment in 1990 to about 30 percent last year. This past semester, the number of girls enrolled dipped to 15 percent, in part, Mahosky says, because advanced math and science classes were scheduled at the same time as advanced computer classes.

Once she gets girls into the computer classes, Mahosky says, they do well. But she’s also learned ways to keep girls interested, such as emphasizing cooperative learning and using computer programs that appeal to girls, including simulation programs. “Before I knew anything about attracting females, I used to put a girl in a group of boys,” she says. “Even though the girls had good ideas, the boys sort of took over.”

Now, she says, “I put the girls together, and it works great.”

—Mary Ann Zehr