Is Equal Computer Time Fair for Girls? Potential Internet Inequities

Corina Koch and Rena Upitis <>
Faculty of Education
Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Tel.: +1 613 545 6000 ext. 7238
Fax: +1 613 545 6691

There is no doubt that the Internet will be an important learning tool in the decades to come. Our motivation for writing this paper is driven by our firm conviction in the value of having access to what Gardner (1990) calls the "tools" of this culture. Computers and the Internet are among the most powerful of these tools. A series of research investigations and software development initiatives emerged as a result of interest on the part of several researchers, educators, and game designers to explore the links between school learning, powerful cultural tools for learning, and some of the social implications surrounding the use of such tools in the context of mathematics and science learning. This paper is one of several studies on technology and gender based on the work of the Electronic Games for Education in Math and Science (E-GEMS) research and development team.

Gender preferences: A review of the literature

There are as many anecdotal accounts of girls preferring fairy tales and princesses over playing war and building machines as there are accounts of boys preferring to climb trees and play sports over dressing dolls. Although there are exceptions--some girls climb trees and some boys bake cookies--McDonnell (1994) sees the differences as firmly embedded in Western culture. She describes these differences as a natural part of "Kid Culture"--a phenomenon that "remains stubbornly sex-segregated, and . . . much of the pressure to keep it that way comes from kids themselves" (McDonnell, 1994, p. 45). She suggests that girls and boys express different interests in their play, with girls being interested in "friendship, fairy princesses, and talking animals," and boys showing interest in "blood and gore, fighting and death, good guys and bad guys" (McDonnell, 1994, pp. 15-16). Kinder (1991) argues that these differences are also reflected in popular technology. She notes that "[s]everal empirical studies have confirmed [a] strong male orientation in video games both in the arcade and the home--a bias that has helped make the games more popular with boys than with girls" (p. 102). Similarly, Hescox (1995)[1] notes that computer games and software in general appeal more to boys than to girls, stating that in order to interest girls in computer games, software should include complex webs of situations and relationships in order to appeal to the "networked" female brain.

Belenky et al. (1986) also support the view of marked preferential differences between the sexes. Inspired by William Perry's (1970) experiments on the epistemological development of male students, Belenky et al. (1986) developed a parallel model of cognition that characterizes the changes girls and women undergo in their quest for knowledge of the self. In the past, females have been measured by the male "ways of knowing." However, Belenky et al. discovered that girls and women not only have different preferences, but different ways of acquiring knowledge than boys and men. Further, McDonnell (1994) states that "[w]hile the things that males do and like have status by definition, the things that females do and like do not--a double standard that is still largely accepted by men and women alike. . . . [T]he problem of sex roles lies less with the fact that boys and girls prefer separate realms than with the low esteem in which girls' culture is almost universally held" (McDonnell, 1994, pp. 51-52).

The views of McDonnell (1994), Kinder (1991), Hescox (1995), and Belenky et al. (1986) have given us much food for thought--especially regarding our present interest in the Internet. If girls are to enjoy the intricate Internet network, it is critical that they have both the access and inclination for computer use. Accordingly, this two-year study was designed to gain some insights as to how girls responded to computers in the classroom.

After spending many afternoons in a grade 7/8 classroom, we discovered, not surprisingly, that the computers were being used mostly by boys while the girls were engaged in other activities. This phenomenon placed us in a curious position, as a journal entry from one of the researchers indicates:

Through Spender's book, Invisible Women (1982), I have learned that teacher attention is directed to boys between 75 and 80 percent of the time. This means that teachers direct their attention towards girls only 15-25 percent of the time. So, in an effort to battle statistics, I decided to talk to girls today. This meant that I would not be spending time around the computer, as girls have a tendency to avoid or "opt out" of computer use. At first, I felt guilty about this, considering that E-GEMS is a study intended to focus on students and computer use. However (I had to argue with myself), if I were to consistently observe those on the computer during free time, I would be drawing all of my information from boys. I wanted to know what mattered to girls. So one day, during language arts, I sat down with a group of three girls . . . (Journal, C.K., 23 March 1995).

In conversation with these girls, we found that what mattered to them was friendships, relationships, and the importance of the teacher's role in creating the classroom dynamic. Their concerns directed us to observe the ways in which their teacher managed the complex issues surrounding the creation of an equitable classroom environment.

Setting and data gathering

The research we describe took place over two years, with one classroom teacher and two groups of students. The first group of 27 students was comprised of a grade 7/8 classroom in a low-to-middle-income, primarily Caucasian, suburban school in a midsized Ontario city. In the second year, a grade 7 class of 24 students from a similar socioeconomic setting participated in the study. Four researchers gathered data over the two-year period, visiting the classroom on a weekly basis. During these visits, students were interviewed, observed, and asked to take part in specific tasks and activities related to the research. Because we spent many hours in the classrooms over the two-year period, we became familiar not only with the students' patterns and views, but with the work of the classroom teacher, Mrs. Sharon Saxton[2] as well. In terms of the role of the classroom teacher, we both observed and influenced the evolution of her approaches over the two-year period. One of the changes we documented was her evolving practices in terms of assigning students for computer use.

Findings--year one

Role of teacher intervention

Partway through the first year of the study, one of the researchers observed what she regarded as a remarkable math lesson given by Sharon. During the lesson, Sharon silenced the raging hormones and chattering voices long enough to captivate the attention of her students and launch them into a "world of fractions." Her use of visual props and mind-bending puzzles was engaging. But when she asked for student participation, there was a small group of people that raised their hands to answer--about 11 in all. Eight of them were boys. Even though the scales were tipped in favor of the boys, Sharon accepted equal numbers of male and female responses. Before long, a few more girls had the courage to raise their hands. This was only one of many contexts in which we observed Sharon's sensitivity to gender: She was well aware that girls can be disadvantaged in classroom settings simply because they typically speak less often than boys (Spender, 1982).

Despite the sensitivity Sharon displayed in her teaching, girls were not using the computers during free time. Any student was allowed to use the computer once the assigned work had been completed. Yet, during math and technology periods, we observed that girls did not use the computers, partly because they took this time to put what were arguably unnecessary finishing touches on their math assignments. Some girls were involved in remedial math instruction as well. In either case, as Dubois and Schubert (1986) observed in a related study, these girls "never finish[ed] while computers [were] still available" (Dubois and Schubert, 1986, p. 42). The boys also dominated the computers during technology time. In the technology context, even though many of the girls had completed their in-class assignments, they still chose to help other female students with their projects rather than to take advantage of free computer time.

The girls used computers during math and technology periods if they needed a computer to complete an assignment. Further, their access to computers was only guaranteed by Sharon's permission or intervention. This scenario was not unlike the discoveries of other E-GEMS researchers who, when observing thousands of children at Science World, B.C., noted that intervention was necessary in order to create a space for girls if the computers were already occupied by boys or by other girls (Inkpen, et al., 1994).

When we interviewed the girls, the general consensus was that they "didn't use [computers] because the boys did." One girl even remarked that it was the "same boys all the time." Another added the fact that the "boys always get there first." One student, when asked why she thought the girls used the computers less often, replied:

Marie: I don't know. Maybe they were like the last ones to there. I'm not sure.
Corina: How do the people at the computer get there so quickly?
Marie: Well, they sit close to the computer, if Mrs. Saxton asks who needs using the computers, people raise their hands, she picks four people. . . and they race.

There was, in McDonnell's (1994) terms, a strong boy culture in effect--girls felt excluded from this culture that was fused seamlessly with computer use. Jennifer, another grade 7 student who seldom used the computer, seemed to think that there wasn't any free-time computer use during math. When we informed her that the free-time rule applied to anyone at any time, she didn't buy it. When she was then told that if she wanted to use the computer, one could be made available, she responded in disbelief, "You can?" This was another example of females using computers when given permission. We had offered to create a space for Jennifer--much like Sharon created a space for girls in answering math questions. Unfortunately, we couldn't always be there to create that space.

Differences in student and teacher perspectives

We stated earlier that Sharon had demonstrated sensitivity in terms of traditional classroom practices and female involvement. However, she appeared unaware of the inequities that we commonly observed in terms of computer use. For instance, in an excerpt from her journal midway through the first year, Sharon commented only on the positive aspects of computer use, with no mention of gender:

The areas of which I have been particularly impressed, although not terribly surprised, have been those involving the networking of information. The usual social strains that occur at the intermediate level are completely repressed when the networking of computer information is involved. Students who have had a history of social difficulties can magically combine into cooperative teams in front of the computer screen. This sharing is done freely on the part of the "giver" of information as well as the "receiver," since both are profiting from their dialogue. The giver feels greater self-worth for having and sharing something that is valued by another, and the receiver obtains valued information or skills. The carry-over into non-computer environments, while not a panacea for all negative social interactions, certainly provides some positive building blocks for future cooperative tasks. Those students who have low self-esteem and/or poor social interaction skills seem to particularly benefit from the networking of computer experiences (Journal, S.S., 6 January 1995).

Although Sharon did not identify a gender bias in the networking she described, the girls reported feeling excluded from such a network. We report an example here. When the classroom computers were networked, it was necessary to name the computers so that students could communicate with other computers by name. As it turns out, the computers were named "Pubert," "Enzo," "Big G," and "X-Com." When asked how the names were selected, Desiree, a grade 8 girl, claimed to know their genesis. She described her angst:

Desiree: Get some different names for the computers.
Corina: You'd give the computers different names? What would you name them?
Desiree: (annoyed) I don't know. I just don't like the ones we have now. . . . They're all thought up by the same group of people. There's no . . . individualism.
Corina: Who was responsible for naming them?
Desiree: I think [the boys] named most of them.
Corina: If you had a chance to do it again, how would you do it?
Desiree: They should be voted on . . . by the whole class.

Desiree's perceptions were well-founded. Three of the four Macintosh computers were named by boys, during an afternoon recess, when only a handful of the class members were present. It was not unusual for Sharon to forego her afternoon break and lunch hour so that students could stay indoors and work on the computers under her supervision. According to Sharon, girls never asked to stay in to use the computers during recess. It was under these circumstances that the computers were named.

Desiree's grievance with the naming of the computers brings to light an important issue. Her comments reveal that she was not a part of the "recess club"--a definite computer in-group--and because of this, she and many others like her did not have the opportunity to claim ownership of the classroom equipment through naming or through use.

In order to get another perspective, we asked a couple of boys about who they viewed as using the computers the most and what they thought the reasons for this were. Blair, a reluctant computer user, responded with a list of names that consisted mostly of boys. He indicated that these people were frequent computer users " 'cause they have a computer at home . . . and that's why they like it because they can get used to it and they play it a lot." Similarly, Tyler also attributed frequent use to liking computers; and when asked who he thought used the computers the most, he answered: "Probably the boys use it more than the girls." What we can derive from the comments of these students is that in order to be a member of the in-group, one must use and be exposed to computers frequently during free time, which we discovered was not always an option for girls, at least not without teacher or researcher intervention. What Sharon stated as the positive effects of student networking in her journal entry becomes beneficial only to those who have the opportunity to experience it.

Modifications to practices--suggestions for the second year

After sharing our observations with Sharon during and at the end of the first year of the study, Sharon proposed that we suggest a number of strategies that might help her address the inequities of use. She was anticipating Internet access in the classroom setting for the second year and was concerned that girls would be excluded from exploring the Internet, given the patterns of computer use from the first year of the study. Sharon's acknowledgment and endorsement of the importance of learning through networked social interactions made this issue one of critical importance to her teaching. The suggestions described below were operationalized in the second year of the study.

1. Ownership

All students in the classroom, boys and girls alike, should be enabled to claim ownership over the computer equipment. If computers are to be named, a teacher can ensure that boys and girls have an equal voice in the naming, or even to suggest that computers might have more than one name. If naming is not an issue (the students in the second year gave no indication that they wanted to name the computers), ownership can be exhibited in other ways, not the least of which is by use.

2. Creating a space

At Science World, B.C., Inkpen et al. (1994) discovered that girls were more likely to play electronic games if there were no people present at the computers, as "many girls left if there were others already playing" (p. 393). Instead of allowing students to use computers during free time on a first come, first served basis--a situation that is primarily dominated by boys--it may be useful to have assigned computer times. A similar way of granting fair access to girls would be to designate certain computers as "girls only" (Sanders, 1995).

3. Social interaction

Inkpen et al. (1994) demonstrated that girls need to be given the option "of interacting with others while they play" (p. 393; see also Sanders, 1985). If a teacher decides to allot time to each student for computer use, the teacher might wish to consider offering girls the option to work on the computer with a friend. Inkpen et al. (1995) show how female/female pairs, playing together on one machine, will enable girls to perform well in certain problem-solving situations. Instead of requiring a teacher or researcher to explain how a particular game is played, girls can collaborate in order to problem-solve. "Human networking," the phenomenon observed by Sharon, potentially benefits all students, but it is a must for girls if teachers wish to encourage them to use computers more frequently and with greater purpose and success.

Findings--year two

Back to school

The new school year has started. Perched on the edge of my chair at the back of the room, I study Sharon's eager-faced students as she gives instructions for activity centres. Students whose names are called out to use the computer throw their hands up in victory; the others slump in their seats. These dramatic gestures are punctuated with triumphant "yeses" and disappointed "aws." Within minutes, the chosen boys are charging hastily towards the computers. One boy's uncontained enthusiasm causes him to leap effortlessly over a desk en route to his computer. Only one of the chosen girls walks quietly to her computer, unsure as to what she is supposed to do. She calls over a friend--also a girl--who is busy at another activity centre. The two solve various problems as they learn to open and use a program. From my corner of the room, I can't help but smile (Journal, C.K., 20 September 1995).

When the second year of the study began, we watched the familiar patterns of gender use emerge. At the beginning of the school year, computers were used more by boys than by girls, and boys "raced" to the computers, as expected. However, the second year was different in that Sharon knew what to expect, and indeed, had asked for and embraced the suggestions noted above so that she could make the access to computers more fair for girls. As the journal quotation above suggests, while the boys were rushing to the computers, the girls were not. However, Sharon made it possible for two girls to work together, even though one of them had not originally been assigned to a computer.

Operationalizing the suggestions

While there were times that a small delay was enough for two girls to claim their "girls only" computers, there were other times when the two "girls only" computers were simply not used. This was a source of some frustration for Sharon and for some of the students. In November, Sharon explained that she had been trying for three months to create a space for girls to use the computers, and she indicated that the process of encouragement was a laborious one. When she designated the computers to be used only by girls, the computers would often remain vacant. This was difficult for Sharon to accept because she preferred to see the technology used--even if it was by boys. As we were discussing these concerns, Donald, a student who had been assigned to the technology and art group, asked, "Can we [he and Dan] use the computers? The girls aren't using them." Sharon explained that she would wait 10 more minutes, and if the computers were still vacant, she would allow the boys to use them. Upon hearing this, Jane remarked, "We'll have to go 'cuz Donald wants on." Within minutes, both Jasmine and Lisa were on the computers. They were later joined by Jane and Kate. Meanwhile, Donald and Dan hovered around the computers, waiting for the girls to leave. The girls did not leave; eventually Donald and Dan turned their attention to other things. Gradually, the class became accustomed to this new culture, and stopped questioning Sharon when computers were not being used. At the same time, there were fewer and fewer instances when the "girls only" computers were left vacant. In this way, the girls began to claim their share of time with less teacher or researcher intervention.

An emergent strategy: "Any two, any time"

Sharon managed to create equity not only by following some of the suggestions given in the previous section of this paper (creating a space, allowing girls to work together), but by developing a strategy of her own. Instead of designating two computers as "girls only," Sharon allowed all computers to be used either by boys or girls once classroom work had been completed. Generally, the boys would race to the computers at the first available opportunity (often with classroom work incomplete); and within the first few minutes, the computers would be occupied solely by boys. However, when a girl had completed her work or needed this time to complete class-related work on the computer, she had the option of "bumping" any one of the four boys off of the computer--a ritual performed with great relish. Girls were given equal ownership of the computers as they owned the rights to any two computers in the classroom at any time. In this way, the girls who were intent on finishing their assignments before turning their attention to the computer could still do so, but not at the expense of "losing" their computer time.


Equal and fair access

By January of the second year, computer use in Sharon's classroom was equitable. We noticed changes occurring throughout the fall term as Sharon and the students became sensitized to the access issue; and in January, this change was confirmed by a time-sample analysis. By tabulating computer use at 10-minute intervals throughout the day (including the time before school, lunch, and recess) over a nine-day period, we were able to determine that girls used the computers just as often as boys. (There were equal numbers of boys and girls in the classroom.)

Arrival of the Internet

In February of the second year, the classroom was wired for Internet access. Because of the strategies that had been established during the fall months, we observed that the Internet was equally available and accessible to girls and to boys. Even though the Internet is, at present, only available on one of the classroom computers, the "bumping" strategy described above makes it possible for girls to use the computer with Internet access. Were it not for the concerted efforts of the classroom teacher, we have every reason to believe that it would be the boys in the group who would be surfing the Net, leaving the girls far behind. Not only would they be left behind, but the "complex web of connections" on the Net--something that Hescox (1995) and others expect that girls would find appealing--would remain unexplored.


This research was supported by a Collaborative Research and Development grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC CRD0166856: HCI Research on Interactive Multi-Media for Learning Mathematics ), by the Media and Graphics Interdisciplinary Centre at the University of British Columbia (MAGIC), and by Graduate Studies and Research, Faculty of Education, Queen's University. Our thanks goes to the classroom teacher, principal, and students of the Frontenac County School who willingly took part in the research.


Belenky, M., B. Clinchy, N. Goldberger, and J. Tarule. 1986. Women's ways of knowing. NY: Basic Books.

Dubois, P.A., and J.G. Schubert. 1986. "Do your school policies provide equal access to computers? Are you sure?" Educational Leadership 43 (6), 41-44.

Gardner, H. 1990. "The development of competence in culturally defined domains." In J.W. Stigler, R. A. Schweder, and G. Herdt (Eds.), Cultural psychology: Essays on comparative human development. Cambridge University Press.

Hescox, D. 1995. "The situation and how we got there: Game markets and gender." or DennisH@Lightside.Net.

Inkpen, K., R. Upitis, M. Klawe, D. Hsu, S. Leroux, J. Lawry, A. Anderson, M. Ndunda, and K. Sedighian. 1994. "We have never forgetful flowers in our garden: Girls' responses to electronic games." Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching 13 (4), 383-403.

Inkpen, K., K. Booth, M. Klawe, and R. Upitis. 1995. "Playing together beats playing alone, especially for girls." Presented at the Computer Support for Collaborative Learning '95 (CSCL 95), Bloomington, Indiana, October 1995.

Kinder, M. 1991. Playing with power in movies, television, and video games: From muppet babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McDonnell, K. 1994. Kid culture: Children and adults and popular culture. Toronto: Second Story Press.

Perry, W.G. 1970. Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years. NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Sanders, J.S. 1985. "Making the computer neuter." The Computing Teacher 12(7), 23-27.

Spender, D. 1982. Invisible women: The schooling scandal. Great Britain: Redwood Burn.



[2] All names used are pseudonyms.