Equal Time in Girls-Only Computer Clubs

Community and private organizations are taking up the challenge to bring underserved girls across the digital divide. The need is great, according to a recent study, and for those who are making it to the other side, the rewards are mega.

Melanie is age 14 and in love-with the Web.

“If I had a modem at home to get on the Internet, I would be on all day,” said the member of the girls-only after-school computer club at Grand Street Settlement on New York City's Lower East Side.

She is among nearly 100 Latina, African-American and Asian-American girls who have joined the settlement house's Girls' and Young Women's Initiative. Founded in response to a 1995 community survey indicating that girls were underserved, the program created a space of the girl's own where they can develop and master computer skills.

Given the opportunity and a supportive environment, girls demonstrate that they don't inherently lack confidence around technology-they've been lacking access.

“Right down the block is the Boy's Club,” said LaQisha Jackson, activities specialist for the settlement house.” You can blatantly see that they have more resources-an entire building with a swimming pool and more computers.”

These young female techies are among thousands of girls and young women nationwide joining domains, real and virtual, that are springing up to provide them with cyber-rooms of their own. There, unimpeded by gender-bias, they can learn basic software applications, how to design websites, and experiment with animation and video editing.

Grand Street Settlement is one of various community organizations with programs to get girls up to speed on the information superhighway. Others include 25 YWCAs nationwide as well as the national Digital Clubhouse Network based in Sunnyvale, Calif.

The clubs are clearly filling a need. A recent study by the American Association of University Women said girls and young women are highly critical of computer culture, especially violent and redundant computer games. They are also uninspired by computer classes that focus on the technical properties of hardware instead of educational and innovative applications.

One apparent result of their turn-off is that women account for only 20 percent of those with information technology credentials, although women comprise half of the workforce.

Educators and community leaders need to change programs and practices in order to encourage girls and bring about authentic gender equality in information technology, says the report, “Tech Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age.”

The computer clubs for girls are doing just that.

Grand Street club members earned a stipend for working Fridays after school for a year to design two websites-one describing their club and another discussing community issues and school events for New York public television, Channel 13-WNET.

“LaQisha pushed us hard, and it was really tedious learning the HTML code,” said Denise, 13, “but once we got into it, the time flew by really fast.”

The Digital Clubhouse Network in California began a year after Grand Street. At first only a few girls came around. Now, there are as many girls as boys-about 50 from fifth grade through high school. Since girls as well as boys must donate 20 hours of service in exchange for membership, most of them become peer educators to new members.

At the YWCA's pilot TechGyrls program in Brooklyn, about twelve girls, nine to 13, meet twice a week for an hour and half for hands-on exploration of robotics technology with the guidance of young women mentors. Now there are 25 YWCA girls' projects. This stands in stark contrast to many of the girls' experiences at home or school where they receive both subtle and unmistakable messages that the ‘hard' sciences, like computer technology, are male preserves. “At home my stepfather hogs the computer,” said Jennifer, 14. “Even when I am on, he is right behind me watching everything I do-like I am going to break the computer!”

The Grand Street girls say it's also uncomfortable to log-on in class. “Even though we have computers in each room, we have to ask special permission to use them,” said Rosalyn, 13, “and only for projects, not just exploring and checking things out.”

Mary Ellen Lock, leader of the Girls and Technology at the Digital Clubhouse Network, says that despite the continental divide, the girls' in California have very similar experiences to those of their New York counterparts in New York.

“Boys come to the clubhouse with an already established relationship to a computer,” she said, adding that boys use it as a toy while girls use it as a tool to accomplish projects.

“Many of our members are second-generation Americans,” she added. “Parents don't think of the computer as the first thing to buy for girls.”

Local schools are also a source of technology frustration. Lock said many girls are bored by “drill and kill” programming classes. A former elementary school teacher, she helps Silicon Valley teachers learn to teach more interesting programs, like drawing software.

One of the galvanized girls of the California Clubhouse, Jo Lin, 12, is working on a national project profiling all of the top women in technology companies. She also gave Attorney General Janet Reno a tour of the club.

Lin and other technical assistants are editing a digital documentary film about breast cancer survivors, funded by Cisco Systems, Mitsubishi, Adobe Systems and Hewlett Packard.

The Grand Street girls clearly enjoy their achievements for their own sake, but their projects also increase their confidence and self-image. “Since the majority of computer-related jobs are still male-dominated,” Grand Street's Jackson said, “we celebrate sisterhood here.”

Melanie has gotten the message. Thanks to her club experiences, she will attend the New York High School for Economics and Finance next year. She was also honored with an additional stipend to work alongside Jackson as an instructor.

Jennifer argues in favor of girls-only settings, away from boisterous, elbowing boys. “Otherwise, girls would pay mind to boys,” she said, “and be distracted.”