Girls Warm Up to IT

Statistic: 18% of teenage girls online believe they could hack into their schools' computers. That's according to a survey of more than 1,000 young women ages 13 to 18 conducted last summer and released last week by the Girl Scouts. Could these kids actually break into school computers? Nobody knows - but they think they can.

And 58% of them believe they know more about computers than anyone else at home, including mom, dad - and their brothers.

In other words, everything the worrywarts have been telling us about girls and their future in IT is wrong.

Those worrywarts say girls are uncomfortable with computers, unsure about their abilities with technology and generally not good candidates to work in IT shops.

They point to some statistics of their own, such as a survey by UCLA researchers of more than 250,000 students who entered 434 colleges in the fall of 2000. That survey found that freshman women were only half as likely as men to rate their computer skills as above average (23% vs. 46%) and less likely than men to frequent Internet chat rooms (17% for women, vs. 23% for men) or use the Web in general (48% vs. 58%).

They point to the steady decline in the percentage of undergraduate computer science degrees going to women - from 37% in 1984 to 20% in 1999, according to Tracy Camp, an associate professor at engineering university Colorado School of Mines.

And they point to the fact that only about 25% of the people in IT today are women.

Boys, they say, get hooked on computers early with games - shoot 'em up, smash 'em up or chop 'em up. They graduate to wanting to build their own games, and that's their path into programming. Girls, who aren't much interested in shooting, smashing and chopping, don't start computing until later - and never catch up in either motivation or enthusiasm.

That's the theory, anyhow. And if the worrywarts are right, it really will require a concerted effort to overcome girls' resistance to computers. Even then, it might take generations for them to pull even.

But if the statistics from the Girl Scout researchers are right, that has all changed in just a few years. These kids are swaggeringly confident, and they're in front of a screen whenever they can be. Something is different - radically different - for the current crop of teenage girls.

That something appears to be instant messaging (IM). IM is turning into the kind of addictive application for girls that computer games have always been for boys. They've got to be online. Girls quoted in the Girl Scout researchers' survey say things like, "Being grounded from IM was the worst," and "I need the Internet." Two-thirds of them are online several times a day, seven days a week.

And IM shows signs of becoming a gateway addiction for these girls. Not just to chat rooms, but to self-built Web pages - complete with macho real-webheads-code-their-own-HTML attitudes. And for some, after HTML comes JavaScript - and sometimes full-blown programming languages.

Does this mean that a few years from now we'll be awash in female programmers? Maybe. But what could be even more important is how today's IM-happy teenage girls think about computer technology.

They see it mainly as a way to socialize. And it's a short step from socializing to doing business - which is what corporate IT is all about these days.

Which means that girls who cut their teeth on IM and wrote-it-themselves Web pages start out a lot closer to what we do than boys who play Grand Theft Auto.

So maybe we should stop worrying about how to get girls enthusiastic about IT.

If instant messaging really has solved that problem, we should be figuring out how soon we'll be able to put them to work.

Frank Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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