Monday, October 26, 1998 Published at 00:35 GMT
Software sex bias 'puts girls off'
Girls can be held back by lower expectations
Research suggests schoolgirls would be just as good as boys in computing if the software were made 'gender neutral'.
A study by a team from Bournemouth University, the Open University and the University of Hertfordshire suggests that boys are not inherently better at using computers, but that it is preconceptions and the 'male' qualities of the software that negatively affects girls' performance.
Studies on UK school pupils at all levels typically reveal significant gender differences in attitudes to computing, with boys being more positive.
This runs counter to the general performance of girls - who usually do better than boys.
So the researchers looked at how well 11 to 12-year-old boys and girls were able to solve complex problems using computers.
Pirates and ponies
When the children were asked to solve a reasoning problem in the form of an adventure game involving kings, pirates, and mechanical forms of transport such as ships and planes, the boys did substantially better than the girls.
However, when the characters in the game were 'honeybears' and the transport included a pony and a balloon, the gender difference totally disappeared. The boys did slightly worse, but the girls' performance improved almost twofold and they did a little better than the boys.
Another aspect of the trial suggests that there is a vicious circle at work, in that everyone including the children themselves now expects boys to be better with computers - so they are.
The team examined the interaction between boys and girls. When a boy and a girl worked together on a task on one computer, they did just as well as each other.
But when they worked next to each other on separate machines, the boys did much better than the girls, both at the time and in subsequent individual tests.
Bournemouth University's Professor Paul Light says: "It's thought the performances are a product of gendered expectations about computer-related abilities.
"If girls expect that boys are going to be better with computers, or if boys think that they should be better than girls, then the absence of any actual interaction may allow these expectations to become self-fulfilling prophesies."
He says that while there is no evidence of 'real' gender differences, girls may often approach computer tasks with lower expectations of success than boys.
Writing in the journal Educational Psychology, the researchers say their results stand as a caution to all who develop software for children, for use in the home or school - the imagery that is used can have an influence out of all proportion to its significance to the designer.
The schools involved in the study were the Alex Campbell Middle School, Bletchley, and Bradwell Village Middle School, Milton Keynes.
Funding came from the Leverhulme Trust and the Economic and Social Research Council.
The team now intends to study how university students use computers to see if some of the gender issues will be just as prominent as with school children.