Girls Byte Back

By Rachel Hartigan — April 01, 1999 18 min read
In Silicon Valley, the daughters of the technology revolution have a school of their own. A report from the newest skirmish in the gender wars.

Drive south from San Francisco down El Camino Real. Gas stations, fast food restaurants, motels, car dealerships-you could be anywhere. But turn left on Rengstorff Avenue in the town of Mountain View and left again into the parking lot of the Girls’ Middle School, get out of your car, and walk into the office of Kathleen Bennett. There, you’ll find the first tangible sign that you are in California’s famed Silicon Valley. Though Bennett holds the decidedly low-tech position of school director, two computers sit on her desk, each busily humming.

Bennett opened GMS, a private school, last fall. Bankrolled by technology moguls and backed by some of the computer industry’s top women thinkers, she aims to challenge girls with math, science, and technology while also tending to their emotional needs. A former social studies teacher who left the classroom for a career in computers, Bennett had long dreamed of opening such a school. Girls, she contends, lose ground academically in the middle school years as they become more concerned about being popular than about being smart. GMS, Bennett hopes, will be a place where girls won’t feel limited by what they think is feminine, where they’ll learn how to take apart a bike as well as to read, write, and do arithmetic. Above all, she is striving to create what she calls a “tinkering environment” where girls figure out how things work on their own.

Such a school is hardly new. Single-sex education has been a popular remedy in the ‘90s for all manner of education’s ills. What’s original in Bennett’s girl-centric vision is the tool that she is counting on to empower her students: the computer, the ultimate toy for boys. After more than 15 years of working in the testosterone-soaked computer industry, she firmly believes that technology is a boys’ club. And with 12 other entrepreneurs, educators, and scholars, she’s been asked by the American Association of University Women to find out why that club exists and how to help girls break it up.

The AAUW’s advocacy in this area began this fall after it issued a report claiming that girls are being shut out of the technology revolution. Since 1992, the report notes, girls’ test scores have climbed in every subject except computer science. What’s more, girls make up only 17 percent of the high school students taking the Advanced Placement computer science test. Such statistics, the group argues, suggest that employment opportunities for women will dwindle in the technology-based economy of the future. Others say there’s more at stake than careers. “If we don’t have representation in the heavy- duty science and engineering domain, we give up our choice about how the new science and technology affect us,” says Anita Borg, a GMS adviser and the founder of the Institute of Women and Technology at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. “There is no guarantee that if we hand over the decisions to somebody else, that they will make decisions that are good for us.”

Not everyone accepts the AAUW’s worldview, in part because of controversy surrounding the group itself. The report that the group issued last fall was a follow-up to research it released in 1992. In that study, the AAUW accused schools and teachers of short-changing girls by ignoring them in the classroom and discouraging them from such “masculine” pursuits as math and science. Though the report fueled new interest in single-sex education, critics in recent years have challenged the group’s research-and its motives. Boys are the ones who are really falling behind, they say; they get lower grades than girls and are more likely to drop out of school. “The shameful aspect of the AAUW’s phony crisis,” writes Diane Ravitch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, in the Wall Street Journal recently, “is that it diverts attention from the large and genuine gaps in American education, which are not between boys and girls, but among racial groups.”

Debate over the technology gender gap is not likely to fade anytime soon; schools are pumping millions of dollars into computers, and politicians have turned the phrase “a computer for every student” into a stump-speech standard, the modern equivalent of “a chicken in every pot.” Indeed, questions about girls and technology could give the issue of classroom gender bias staying power into the 21st century.

For Bennett, however, the debate’s been over for some time. Whatever the AAUW or anyone else concludes about the benefits of girls-only technology training, she’s convinced that girls need a school of their own. When the dispute dies down, she aims to step forward with the Girls’ Middle School as a model of what girls’ education should look like in the Information Age.

For all of Bennett’s ambition, GMS is very much a work in progress. It operates out of just three classrooms at one end of an old parochial school-space leased from a Catholic church in Mountain View. A daycare center occupies the rest of the building, so signs in the GMS halls remind students to be quiet during nap time.

GMS opened last fall with its first class, 31 6th graders. Weeks later, chaos still reigns. To get to Bennett’s “office,” which is really just the corner of a classroom, you squeeze through narrow aisles created by tables piled high with papers. Bennett shares a large cubicle with her assistant; the school’s teachers are squirreled away in smaller ones throughout the room. No sooner has Bennett brought some order to her office by clearing a chair of books for her guest, rescuing the school’s prospectus from the bottom of a towering pile, and pouring hot tea, then she bounds out of her chair and insists on a tour of the school.

At 53, Bennett is a slim woman who is almost overpowering in her energy and intensity. Though she taught middle school for four years in the 1970s, she’s a veteran of Silicon Valley’s hyper-speed business world. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, she wrote technical manuals and supporting materials for Apple Computer; later, she ran a consulting firm with a clientele that included industry giants Claris and Oracle.

After marrying her second husband, a vice president at Adobe Systems, Bennett quit work and began plotting a return to education. Initially, she considered getting her doctorate in education but realized that the snail’s pace of research didn’t suit her. I’m a person who wants to go out and figure out how it works by doing it,” she says.

Bennett wrote a prospectus for her dream school in 1996. Her daughter, Tashana Landray, then a junior at Brown University majoring in computer science, helped her pin down research on gender and technology. The resulting 101-page document references work by some of the decade’s most influential women writers, including Anne Lamott, Susan Faludi, and Mary Pipher. But the prose is rounded out by dozens of number-crunching studies pointing to how girls’ self-esteem and grades slide in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades.

Adolescent girls, Bennett argues in the prospectus, need nurturing and empowerment--away from boys. Her new school would emphasize math, science, and technology because research suggests that teachers too often adhere to-and girls too readily accept-stereotypes that boys are better at these subjects. A girls-only program, she writes, would “eliminate the possibility of boys taking over as class leaders, dominating experiments, and being deferred to by girls. In the absence of boys, girls will perform all the experiments, handle all the equipment, and ask all the questions.”

As the prospectus took shape, Bennett tapped her computer industry connections for the help and money to make her vision a reality. Within a few months, she had assembled an advisory council for the school that read like a Who’s Who of technology power women, including Donna Dubinsky, former president of Palm Computing, and Barbara Simons, a senior researcher at IBM who has been called an Internet “visionary.” Bennett then began shaking the Silicon Valley money tree. She and a few relatives and friends set an initial goal of raising $600,000. But by January 1998, they had reeled in more than $1 million. With $300,000 donated for financial aid, Bennett moved to ensure that her school would not be an enclave of white software heiresses. Tuition was set at $10,000, but she hired Barbara Bayardo, a Mexican American with a doctorate in education from Stanford, to recruit minority students from local elementary schools. (Thirty percent of the first class of students are minorities, and about a third of the students get generous scholarships.)

If technology executives were quick to ante up for the school, parents were even faster to line up to get their children enrolled. Bennett held two open houses for the school, and though she didn’t have a site for the school or a faculty to brag about, 250 people showed up at each event. When asked what they came for, Bennett leans forward and says, “Me and my vision.”

Bennett’s tour of GMS reveals classrooms and teaching that are remarkably low-tech. The first stop is Renee Fadiman’s humanities class, where Fadiman is describing Japanese culture to about fifteen kids sprawled across their desks. The class is in the midst of a unit on storytelling: They’ve already studied the oral tradition in Africa-student-made flags of African nations paper the walls-and later they’ll move on to the Cinderella fairy tale and how it has spread throughout the world.

Across the hall, Anna, self-possessed in braids and a blue “GMS Pioneer Class” sweatshirt, draws an oxygen atom and coolly explains the difference between an atom, a compound, and an element to her classmates. Science class alternates every other day with engineering, where the students learn about structure by building models of different types of bridges. The engineering class epitomizes Bennett’s “tinkering environment"; the girls construct bridges to understand weight and load but also to become more comfortable with the physical world.

Adolescent girls, Bennett argues in the prospectus, need nurturing and empowerment--away from boys.

In both classrooms, computers sit stolidly in the background, bolted to the walls and shut off. The machines are idle in part because Diana Reed, the school’s technology instructor and systems administrator, just recently set them up, having ambitiously hand-built the machines, motherboards and all, from a mishmash of donated equipment. But when the computers are up and running, GMS doesn’t plan to sit the girls in front of screens all day, deciphering code.

Though Reed, 25, is still nailing down the specifics of the computer curriculum, its philosophy will reflect her own technological coming of age. A classmate of Bennett’s daughter, Tashana, at Brown University, she was turned off by her first computer courses; technology, she says, seemed to be about grungy little rooms filled with boys “carrying these floppy things around and speaking gibberish.” But over time, Reed began to see computers as a powerful tool that could accomplish a myriad of tasks. By her junior year, she had decided to double major in computer science and creative writing. “Girls tend to be less interested in computers as their own end,” she says, “but as a means to an end.”

At GMS, Reed aims to incorporate computing as a tool in all subject areas. She believes that girls do better when they work in groups, with two per computer as the optimum. The kids have already started using word processing in “Fun With Descriptive Writing,” a short-term course to expand each student’s vocabulary. In math, Reed demonstrated spreadsheet software that will help the girls with homework.

Fadiman also hopes to incorporate computer-based group work in drama and art. The girls will videotape skits that they put on and then edit the tape on computer. During the photography unit in art, they’ll also digitally scan their photos. “I’m interested in their learning how to do it,” Fadiman says. “What they do with it doesn’t concern me that much. If they want to just scan in photos and send prints to their friends, that’s fine. If they want to create bizarre worlds with digital imaging, that’s great.”

Reed’s theories on how to interest girls in computers jibe with those of gender equity advocates. Even the most technically skilled women are interested in computers more as tools than as toys, says Cornelia Brunner of the Education Development Center in New York City and a member of the AAUW commission on technology. Men, on the other hand, are fascinated by technology’s raw power. They want it to “make them more godlike,” she says.

For now, GMS won’t have any classes devoted solely to computers. Reed’s goal is to introduce programming in 7th grade and robotics in 8th. A minisurvey of the girls earlier in the year indicated that they were eager to learn more about the Web, so Reed is considering using Web page construction and the Web-based computer language Java as the forum for teaching programming. Ultimately, her technology curriculum will be steered by whatever keeps the girls interested.

On a gray day in November, a few members of the AAUW’s commission on gender and technology descend on Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology in Northern Virginia. Co-chairwomen Sherry Turkle, a sociology professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Patricia Diaz Dennis, a former member of the Federal Communications Commission, are there, along with Janice Weinman, then AAUW’s executive director, and Karen Lebovich, director of the AAUW’s Educational Foundation. They’ve squeezed themselves around a table in the back of one of the high school’s science labs, along with about seven female students.

It’s the morning of the commission’s first meeting, and the AAUW contingent is at Thomas Jefferson to find out what it’s like to be a girl in a high-tech environment. Weinman starts the meeting by asking the girls if they feel comfortable with technology. The question elicits little in the way of a pointed response; the girls, who seem accustomed to being trotted out for adults doing fly-by tours of the nationally acclaimed high school, talk instead about the benefits of their school. Eventually, the conversation turns to computers, and a girl in a gray shirt allows that people assume that technology “comes easier to boys than to girls.”

That is exactly the stereotype that the AAUW is targeting. In the report the group issued this fall, the organization points to computer science course enrollment, test scores, and computer-use figures as evidence of a disparity between boys’ and girls’ attitudes toward technology. According to the report, girls are more likely to take lower-end computing classes (such as data entry or word-processing), less likely to identify computer science as a possible college major, and less likely to use computers on a weekly basis.

Girls display what Turkle calls “computer reticence” in part because culture and stereotypes steer them away from the machines. Computers and computer games are marketed so exclusively to boys, says the AAUW, that in the rigid gender geography of toy stores, shelves of software and Sony Playstations generally border aisles of toy cars and guns. Even those games purportedly for both sexes, like elementary math software, instill sexism, the group says: Only 12 percent of the characters in such games are female, and even then they’re generally portrayed as either a mother or a princess.

Schools just reinforce this boys-only view of computers, the AAUW charges. They often cater to the male perception of technology as valuable in and of itself. As a result, classes that teach programming for programming’s sake pack in the boys while alienating girls.

Critics of the AAUW say the idea of a technology gender gap is more bunk from a group whose research is tainted by a feminist agenda. U.S. News & World Report columnist John Leo recently wrote, “The AAUW is at it again....The truth is that our schools have many flaws, but the oppression of females isn’t one of them.”

Judith Kleinfeld, a psychology professor at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, is one of the leading critics of the AAUW. Last year, she published a searing critique of the group’s 1992 report on how schools shortchange girls, calling the group’s research shoddy and biased. Girls have better grades, she writes, higher reading scores, and higher class ranks, and they are more likely than boys to take Advanced Placement exams in English, social studies, and foreign languages. As for schools’ alleged bias against girls, she claims, “Both boys and girls agree: Schools favor girls. Teachers think girls are smarter, like being around them more, and hold higher expectations for them.”

Kleinfeld also dismisses the claim in the AAUW’s new report that there’s a crisis in education when it comes to girls and computers. The AAUW is hyping its findings to turn on the “funding gusher,” she says. The students facing the real crisis, she contends, are African American boys, whose test scores and achievement lag far behind their peers.

Still, Kleinfeld doesn’t quibble with the AAUW’s numbers. The gender gap that the group has identified is a real one, she says: Girls are less likely than boys to study computers, and women are less likely to go into computer careers than men. Like Bennett and Reed at GMS, Kleinfeld believes that boys and girls see the value of computers differently. Girls will get interested in technology, she says, if schools can teach them its value as a tool.

Are single-sex classrooms the right setting for such instruction? Many technology boosters and gender equity advocates think so. For her recent book, Does Jane Compute? , Roberta Furger visited a number of girls-only computer clubs and school programs. “Without exception,” Furger writes, “every girl I spoke with...valued the girls-only environment and believed that allowing boys in their program would dilute its purpose.” But Furger, a contributing editor at PC World, cautions that single-sex classes aren’t the answer to the technology gender gap. “Fundamental, long-lasting changes will only occur when we rethink what goes on every day in coed classrooms.”

The AAUW is silent on the subject, for now. Though the group promoted single-sex pilot programs after its 1992 re port, it has since backtracked; a review of research on gender-based programs, it announced last year, shows little evidence that they are any better than coed schools. What really matters, AAUW concluded, are small classes and schools, unbiased teaching, and a focused curriculum.

At Thomas Jefferson, commission members talked with the girls about whether they would like an all-girls programming class. But single-sex education is not on the commission’s agenda, says Priscilla Little, director of research at the AAUW’s Educational Foundation. “We’ve so many topics to discuss: software, hardware, teacher education, teacher training. It just hasn’t come up.”

This frustrates Bennett. If girls don’t do better at single-sex schools, she asks, then why were so many of the Girls’ Middle School’s first supporters women graduates of single-sex schools “who came and said that that was such an important piece of my life that I really want my daughters to have a single-sex education and I’m going to give you my money and my time?”

The classic argument against single-gender schools is that the real world is coed, and education must prepare kids for the real world. Girls must learn to negotiate and succeed in a coed environment, critics say. Girls’ schools simply perpetuate the idea that its students are victims who need extra help to succeed.

Sara, one of the students at Thomas Jefferson, scoffs at the idea that girls require extra assistance to learn and use technology. “Everyone races to get the best computers” in the labs, she says. “If the boys elbow us, we elbow right back.”

Bennett, of course, pounces on Sara’s words when they are recounted to her. “Notice that the boys start the elbowing. It is like you have to be trained to defend yourself in order to get the best computer.” And perhaps she’s right. After the AAUW commission’s discussion with the girls at Jefferson High, several members took a quick tour of the school, pausing briefly to admire a state-of-the-art computer lab. The lab was crowded with about 30 students, only three of them girls.

The AAUW plans to issue a report early next year on how to get girls into those labs. In the meantime, the commission is caught up in a debate over the goals that they should set for girls: Should every girl be able take apart a computer, or should they just be able to use it? Knowledge of how something works is empowering, some in the group argue. When Turkle asks one of the girls at Thomas Jefferson whether learning computer programming has made her interested in how other things work, the student replies, “I want to learn about cars.”

“Why?” asks Turkle.

“Because it gives me more control,” the girl says.

In the commission’s debate, Bennett favors more nuts-and-bolts goals for girls, her Silicon Valley career having taught her that the computer industry’s leaders are often techies. “I’m very uncomfortable with having women be players in the technological arena but not hard-core players,” she says. “I did that [at Apple]. All my friends did it....We all made good money, but we never had the power.”

Bennett and her staff have been fielding calls lately from teachers and parents at other schools asking for advice on single-sex computer classes. Those are calls that Bennett is eager to return because she hopes to make GMS a lighthouse school. Thanks to Bennett’s computer industry background, the school has the right connections-and enough cash-to experiment and try out different technology and teaching strategies and see what works for girls. “We are in a privileged position, we know that,” she says.

“What we want to do is say we had everything,” she continues, “and what we figured out is what really captured the girls’ imagination, what’s really worth spending money on. We may find that you don’t have to spend that much money. We may find that they love programming and they hate robotics or that the most bang for the buck comes from Web page programming. We see ourselves as the research arm of the world.”

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