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How Middle School Boys and Girls View Today’s Computer Culture

Alice A. Christie

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This paper summarizes a yearlong qualitative study of uses and mental concepts of computers and computer culture in seventh and eighth grade boys and girls. A social-constructivist stance formed the theoretical framework for this study. I used interpretive methods in technology-rich, middle school classrooms to study gender-specific meanings for the technology tools used by students. My goal was to gain insight into how adolescent boys and girls conceptualized and used computers in the current computer culture. By focusing particularly though not exclusively on girls, I hoped to shed light on how girls view their experiences with technology. The focus of this study was not to further investigate the perceived gender gap regarding technology, but rather to address the meanings that adolescents assign to computers as they interact with them. Adolescent boys and girls view and use computers differently. Each gender seems to accept this as a natural part of its culture, and, in general, is accepting of each other’s visions and uses.


A social-constructivist stance forms the theoretical framework for this study. I view both gender and computers as social constructions that exist in particular contexts. Gender is assumed to be constructed within a culture and not genetically inherent in an individual. West and Fenstermaker (1993) believe that gender is “a mechanism whereby situated social action contributes to the reproduction of social structure in which people do gender; and men and women do it differently” (p. 158). In a similar vein, objects, such as computers, take on meanings constructed by individuals as they interact with these objects. Technologies do not exist in a vacuum – with no history and no social implications or connections. Technologies exist only in social contexts. People negotiate and renegotiate meaning as they personally interact with objects, thereby constructing a social order as well as a personal meaning. Within this perspective, gender and computers are social constructions that vary from person to person. This research delves into these personal meanings.

The focus of this yearlong qualitative study of seventh and eighth grade boys and girls was not to investigate further the perceived gender gap regarding technology, but rather to address the meanings that adolescents assign to computers and the ways they interact with computers. By focusing particularly though not exclusively on girls, who historically are either left out or are underrepresented in studies of technology, I hoped to shed light on how girls and boys view their experiences with technology. In my role as teacher/researcher, I used interpretive methods in technology-rich, middle school classrooms to study gender-specific meanings for the technology tools used by students.

One of the major challenges of such a study is that it focuses on three moving targets: students developing from their formative years to adolescence, a culture with evolving and changing gender roles, and, as Volman and van Eck (2001) indicate, an evolving and changing computer culture within educational settings. The term computer culture emerged in the mid 1980s and was used commonly in the literature on technology and gender by the early 1990s. Its origins stem from the work of Turkle (1984) who identified two different computer programming styles, that of hard masters and soft masters. Hard masters tend to be male and soft masters tend to be female. “In our culture girls are taught the characteristics of soft mastery--negotiation, compromise, give-and-take, while models of male behavior stress decisiveness and the imposition of will” (Turkle, 1984, p. 109).

In 1990, Turkle and Papert argued that, within the computer culture, we must accept the “validity of multiple ways of knowing and thinking” (p. 113). They discuss two major approaches to computer programming: the dominant, structured approach used by “planners” (often associated with males) and the more suspect artistic, intuitive approach used by “bricoleurs” (often associated with females). Turkle and Papert labeled this concept epistemological pluralism; they called for the development of a new computer culture which “would require a new social construction of the computer” (1990, p. 133), which would be, in turn, more inclusive than the existing male-dominated culture. They cited the work of feminist scholar, Gilligan (1982), who questioned the “idea of one privileged, mature way of thinking” (p. 123) as parallel to their view of “the computer as a projective screen for different approaches to knowledge” (p. 134). And finally, these researchers stated:

Feminist scholarship could make a crucial contribution to the (until now) male computer culture by promoting the recognition of the diverse ways that people think about and appropriate formal systems and by encouraging the acceptance of our profound human connection with our tools (Turkle & Papert, 1990, p. 136).

More recently, Herring (1999) delineated communication styles of males and females in cyberspace. The male style is characterized by adversity while the female style is characterized by supportiveness. This leads her to suggest that men and women are indeed creating different electronic cultures.


Literature Review

A review of empirical studies on gender and computers conducted between 1984 and the present paints an overall picture of male dominance. Not only are females alarmingly underrepresented in computer science and technology fields, girls continue to view “a computer person as male and antisocial” (AAUW, 2000, p. 2). The most recent AAUW study, Tech Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age (2000), which gathered data from 900 teachers and 700 middle and high school girls, found that girls still see computers as associated with the male computer nerd. Further, they report that girls say, “We can do this, we’re just not interested.” Girls wish to change the computer culture, rather than change for it. This report indicated a need to take girls’ views seriously and transform the existing computer culture by integrating the insights of girls and women into this emerging culture. Finally, they found that such a transformation needs to focus on increasing technological fluency for girls and women, not simply as consumers or end users of technology, but as designers, leaders, and shapers of the computer culture (AAUW, 2000).

Turkle (2003) states “the computer culture is still, in the main, made by engineers for engineers and by men for men” (¶ 1). In feminist research, computing is portrayed as reflective of male characteristics of aggression, competition, and dominance (Winkelman, 1997). This tendency is found in elementary classrooms where boys tend to dominate computer use and often crowd girls out (Elkjaer, 1992; Inkpen, Booth, & Klawe, 1992, Sadker & Sadker, 1994). By broadening our definition of computer culture so it is more inclusive of female voices, we would invite more girls to participate more fully in that culture (Turkle, 2003).

Three times as many boys as girls participated in summer computer camps, and parents were more likely to purchase computers, computer software, and peripherals for boys than for girls. Males used computers more than females, especially for programming and game playing. By high school, the gender gap in computer use was even more pronounced. Boys were more likely to own a computer, understand the electronic operations of computers, and be part of extracurricular computer classes. Lack of female role models, gender-stereotyped computer course materials, and male-oriented names of computer science courses also contributed to students’ existing connotation of computers as male domains (Schofield, 1995). The trend continued at the university level where, in an introductory computer course, more than half the males used the computer lab after hours while almost none of the females took advantage of this opportunity.

At all levels, boys were more likely to be chosen to assist the teacher with technology than were girls (Sanders, 1990). Christie (1995) and de Castell and Bryson (1998) observed that girls generally enjoyed computing less than boys because most available software appealed to boys rather than to girls; the software used gaming formats that were competitive and often violent and which pitted two players against each other or one player against the computer. Girls preferred to explore feelings, solve problems, and work cooperatively and interactively at the computer. They also preferred adventure, friendship, or creativity as the focus of software (AAUW, 2000; Fiore, 1999). And finally, male teachers used computers more than female teachers at the elementary, secondary, and university levels (Hattie & Fitzgerald, 1987). Therefore students lacked female role models in this domain.

Gender stereotyping attitudes would appear to be prevalent (AAUW, 2000). When surveying 1,600 kindergarten through grade 12 students, Wilder, Mackie, and Cooper (1985) found that both boys and girls considered computers as more appropriate for males than females. When asked to draw a computer user, both boys and girls were more likely to draw boys/men in this role (Martin, Heller, and Mahmoud, 1992). Gender stereotypes were reinforced by parents, peers, and the educational system (Walkerdine, 1990).

This cultural gender bias is found extensively in advertising and is perpetuated through advertising (Gooler, 1986; Nye, 1991). Although this trend has begun to change in the last five years, technology advertising is more likely to picture a male “computer nerd” or “computer geek” than a female computer scientist. Similarly, computer users tend to be pictured as females. Margolis and Fisher (2002) reported that women and girls are using computers and the Internet in equal proportions to men and boys, but few women and girls are learning to invent, create, or design computer technology. The old adage that boys make things and girls use things that boys make is still unfortunately true (Margolis & Fisher, 2002). The perception that males are programmers and females are users is captured well in a recent Microsoft News Event. The caption under a picture of Bill Gates reads: XP called an operating system even your mother would love. The implicit meaning, however, is that male computer scientists have made XP so simple even a woman can use it.

The lack of female-in-control of technology examples, coupled with the plethora of female-needing-help using computers examples deters girls from exploring computers and computer-related careers. One further deterrent for females is the use of sex as an advertising tool. A controversial Palm Pilot advertisement pictured front and back views of a nude female figure holding a Palm Pilot. Such advertising degrades females and discourages them not only from using the technology tools that are available today, but also from choosing to become participants or leaders in technology-centered careers.

Kramer and Lehman (1990) contended that the male-as-computer-programmer image was accurate when computers were nothing more than number-crunching machines. With the rapid changes and advancements in technology, however, the presumption that maleness and computers are closely related domains contributes to an “increasingly inaccurate portrayal” (p.170) of computer use in the 1990 and 2000s. Hoyles (1988) summed up this tendency succinctly: “computers tend to be conceptually assimilated to the category of science, mathematics, and technology and acquire some of the traditional qualities of differentiated interest amongst boys and girls” (p. 10). This outdated view of computers, which disadvantages any “non-logical” person, and women are perceived to be highly represented in this category, serves to reinforce the bias that women are less competent and confident with computers than males.

Turkle and Papert (1990) called for a new social construction of the computer to contribute to our understanding of the ways males and females think about and use computers. After reviewing ten years of research on gender, ethnicity, and social class differences in the uses of computers in K-12 classrooms, Sutton (1991) concluded that there is a need to understand more fully the complexities of inequities in computer use in schools. This study answers these calls.



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Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal
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Volume 8, Issue 1, Winter 2005
ISSN 1097 9778
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