Girls Welcome

By Sean Carroll | February 21, 2008 5:07 pm

Another strike against the tendency to see cultural predilections of the moment as direct reflections of underlying genetically-determined features of human nature. For years, everything related to computers has been a predominantly male domain. But the New York Times reports on a dramatic shift: these days, young girls are much more likely to be creating original Web content than young boys.

Indeed, a study published in December by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that among Web users ages 12 to 17, significantly more girls than boys blog (35 percent of girls compared with 20 percent of boys) and create or work on their own Web pages (32 percent of girls compared with 22 percent of boys).

Girls also eclipse boys when it comes to building or working on Web sites for other people and creating profiles on social networking sites (70 percent of girls 15 to 17 have one, versus 57 percent of boys 15 to 17). Video posting was the sole area in which boys outdid girls: boys are almost twice as likely as girls to post video files.

The explanation offered for boys’ dominance in the video-posting category was that this was the best way to brag about one’s skateboarding prowess, although evidence for that hypothesis seems to be largely anecdotal.

Note that this phenomenon should not be taken as evidence that women are genetically predisposed to make Web pages (or to blog) — although, as you might expect, there is no shortage of just-so explanations bandied about. But it’s great that the internet has lowered the considerable barrier to young girls becoming interested in computers, and we can hope that some of them get inspired to continue onto technical careers.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humanity, Women in Science
  • MercuryBlue

    Can we inspire them to continue to technical careers after we teach them how to use their native language properly? Because I’m used to seeing teen and preteen girls on the ‘Net–fanfiction.net is filled with them–and maybe one in twenty can produce prose with correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation and without txtspk.

  • Martin

    But it’s great that the internet has lowered the considerable barrier to young girls becoming interested in computers, and we can hope that some of them get inspired to continue onto technical careers.

    Probably won’t happen. The fact that women watch television in about equal numbers as men doesn’t mean that they choose engineering careers where they design new televisions. And, as the stereotype goes, they spend far more time on the telephone, but once again, telephones are mostly designed by men.

    There’s a simple, generic way to break it down: men like interacting with things, women like interacting with people. So they choose careers that fit their interests.

  • http://www.allysonbeatrice.com/blog Allyson

    This has been the case in online fandom for the past decade.

    And that fanfic does start getting better and better as girls get older and want to reach a wider audience with content.

  • http://www.allysonbeatrice.com/blog Allyson

    Probably won’t happen. The fact that women watch television in about equal numbers as men doesn’t mean that they choose engineering careers where they design new televisions.

    But they’re producing more television programs than ever before, and running more television studios.

    But to get back to the article, they’re not building computers (right at this moment), but they can code like the wind. And if they’re the ones using computers more and more to produce content by design and code, it makes more sense to have women marketing and designing computers for other women. The industry will follow to match consumer needs.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Probably won’t happen. The fact that women watch television in about equal numbers as men doesn’t mean that they choose engineering careers where they design new televisions.

    As allyson pointed pout, watching t.v. doesn’t require much brainpower. This requires logic. Now, if 8 year old girls (and boys) can write code then one has to wonder why we wait teaching children real math and physics until they are at university. The official reason is that abstract reasoning is too hard for children, but how on earth could 8 year olds kids then be writing programs?

    So, as I’ve pointed out some time ago here, the real reason why we don’t teach math to children in primary and high school is because Society has made the decision that for most people it is not useful. This has to change asap.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    I don’t know that this trend is really breaking stereotypes. It’s far too easy to interpret this as, “Obviously, girls like social interaction more than boys! They’re clearly genetically predisposed to write about their romantic lives on glittery pink and violet online diaries!” I mean, did you read the New York Times article? An example: “Girls are trained to make stories about themselves.” Frankly, this trend falls right in line with gender stereotypes.

  • fh

    Creating a facebook account != coding.

    “And if they’re the ones using computers more and more to produce content by design and code, it makes more sense to have women marketing and designing computers for other women.”

    Or maybe they will find that if girls interact in the same way with the technology as boys that they need to be marketed to largely in the same way as the boys are being marketed to already, instead of creating a separate but equal parallel market (ala, girls have started coding! Let’s ship a pink version of gcc!).

  • http://www.thechocolatefish.blogspot.com Yvette

    Could’ve told you this awhile ago, or else the stereotype of the angsty female teenage LiveJournaler would never have come to be.

    On a related note, who saw the xkcd comic on Monday? Linky: http://xkcd.com/385/

  • Haelfix

    I completely agree with the notion that we need to teach mathematics (in particular) at an accelerated rate earlier than is currently done.

    Children are remarkably malleable and will figure it out quickly given the proper teachers and schedule. Instead a typical homework assignment will barely have them toying with arithmetic and rudimentary algebra. Most of the time this exercise is pointless as sufficient time ‘tinkering’ isn’t alloted.

    I reject the notion that a child cannot learn what a teenager can. In fact, i’d probably argue that its easier in the former case. Its completely ironic that the situation is reversed for language. The hardest part (grammar) comes first and is typically forgotten after middleschool.

  • Bjorn

    No – this is not a case of girls conquering computers. I think that males are, on average, more geeky than girls and tend to tinker with computers for the sake of tinkering. Most of the women I know would call that playing or wasting ones time.

    What has happened is that web publishing and blogging has matured and requires no special expertise in computers and publishing anymore. Sure, you have to be proficient in using the web but most younger people are, regardless of sex. So with better tools, we’ll be seeing more and more of non-technical blogs as the barriers are removed.

  • jw kersten

    I Agree with Bjorn, blogging and facebook don’t require any special logical skills. More interesting would be a comparison with old fashioned diary-keeping, I think the real surprise is the great amount of boys who blog. When you see this as a training for writing and expressing oneself. I think the humanities are more likely to profit.

    Hans

  • http://www.allysonbeatrice.com/blog Allyson

    But you’re talking about typing into a template, like this form I’m using to post. I’m talking girls who design, from scratch, their own blogs and sites by hand. That’s what they’re talking about when they discuss the ire caused by hotlinking to other people’s designs.

    Instead of the paper ‘zines I used to design and trade when I was a kid, they’ve moved to an electronic format. They know when people hotlink to their designs because they’re checking the stats on their servers. That’s not facebook. And they teach themselves by looking at other people’s code.

  • tstr

    Making a webpage using FrontPage is not the same as writing HTML. Programming involves algorithms and control statements, neither of which is found in HTML.

  • http://www.allysonbeatrice.com/blog Allyson

    But you’re assuming that I’m talking about FrontPage. I’m not.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    There is a traditional strategy, when women begin to enter a domain previously dominated by men, to re-draw the boundaries so that what the women are doing remains excluded. It doesn’t really matter, what matters is what is actually happening.

  • http://www.allysonbeatrice.com/blog Allyson

    I learned HTML from other young women who were using C++ and Perl at the time. Many moons ago. Lots of these women went on to work professionally in IT, design, and programming. And it started with just wanting to put together a fansite.

  • Kim

    “There is a traditional strategy, when women begin to enter a domain previously dominated by men, to re-draw the boundaries so that what the women are doing remains excluded.”

    That seems true in many cases. Whatever the motive (or lack of a conscious one), women’s/girl’s contributions or accomplishments are often de-valued by some means. It’s subtle and it sneaks up on us– but it happens.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I haven’t a clue what this article is supposed to signify, other than girls are putting lots of personal content on the internet, and doing some coding while they’re at it. Predicting, or even hoping for, any kind of larger trend towards anything based on this fluff piece is a puzzling thing to do. And I agree with above commentators that where gender stereotypes come into the actual content of the article, the message seems to reinforce them more than anything. One boy and a number of girls are actually quoted making what I suppose could construed as sexist remarks about either theirs or the other gender:

    “I’m not surprised because girls are very creative,” she said, “sometimes more creative than men. We’re spunky. And boys … ” Her voice trailed off to laughter…

    “I think girls like to help with other people’s problems or questions, kind of, like, motherly, to everybody.”

    Asked whether the findings of the Pew study seemed accurate to him, he said: “That’s what I see happening. The girls are much more into putting something up and getting responses.”

    I mean, good grief, there’s enough in this article alone alone to feed armchair theorists’ just-so stories about biological predilections for years to come. Somehow we come away with “Girls are getting into computers! Woohoo!”??

  • http://name99.org/blog99 Maynard Handley

    “But to get back to the article, they’re not building computers (right at this moment), but they can code like the wind.”

    And your evidence for this is what? The fact that the NY Times is dumb enough to consider the ability to write CSS “coding” doesn’t make it so, any more than the ability to touch up a car has any bearing on the design of car engines.

    Now if we were seeing a large number of women getting involved in the OSS movement, THAT would actually have some relevance to Sean’s general point. Right now, I’m afraid martin has it exactly right.

  • http://name99.org/blog99 Maynard Handley

    “Children are remarkably malleable and will figure it out quickly given the proper teachers and schedule.”

    And your evidence for this claim is what?
    We know that children trivially soak up language — plenty of studies have shown it, as has every day experience.
    I’ve seen neither studies nor everyday experience that shows that most children spontaneously and easily understand abstraction and advanced mathematics.

  • Pingback: sysrick.com » links for 2008-02-22()

  • jw kersten

    I would very much welcome a growing trend of women into science and stuff, but I just don’t see it happening on the basis of this study.
    I’m sure everybody’s experience is genuine and there are changes ( especially the ratio girls/boys in univeristy in the western world). However on the basis of this study as it is reported, I only see a shift from diary’s to blogging , a shift from private to public and a greater participation of boys in writing about their thoughts.

    “In American high schools, girls comprised fewer than 15 percent of students who took the AP computer science exam in 2006, and there was a 70 percent decline in the number of incoming undergraduate women choosing to major in computer science from 2000 to 2005, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.”

    “Research by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, the result of focus groups and interviews with young people 13 to 22, suggests that girls’ online practices tend to be about their desire to express themselves, particularly their originality.”

  • jw kersten

    stereotype = an image or idea of a particular type of person or thing that has become fixed through being widely held. (Concise Oxford English Dictionary)

    of course stereotypes can be wrong, but widely held opinions are mostly not wrong.
    whether they are right or wrong is up to good investigational research.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    There was a study mentioned on NGC channel’s “My brillaint brain”, in which babies were taught to play certain intelectually challenging games. The study showed that when they had grown up they did on average much better in school.

    This was the NGC program that featured Susan Polgar who, together with her two other sisters, was taught to play chess when she was two or three years old.

    A functional MRI scan has reveiled that, unlike most other chess players, she uses the brain part that normal people use for recognizing faces for recognizing patterns on the chess board. This enables her to see the right moves she has to do without thinking a lot as most of the processing is done by lower level brain systems.

    But since that part of the brain is no longer accessible for rewiring when you are grown up, most chessplayers have to think hard before they can make their move.

    Of course, we can’t just take a textbook on quantum groups and make it part of the Kindergarten curriculum. But we can design computer games that involves abstract reasoning in a playful way. Even chimps can learn to talk this way, so why can’t we teach small children some math?

    And another thing is the fact that almost no math is taught to 12 to 18 year olds. There is no good excuse for that at all.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    i just don’t think it’s a very good article, and I’m not sure the message is really all that positive. Actually, the author seems to be trying to be coy about it, and I would have taken them severely to task had I been given any editorial power. I mean, what’s the point? “Grrrrls compute!” or “Even geeking out, girls are just girls”? To paraphrase Inigo Montoya, “Ah don’ think it means hwhatchoo think it means…”

  • http://name99.org/blog99 Maynard Handley

    “There was a study mentioned on NGC channel’s “My brillaint brain”, in which babies were taught to play certain intelectually challenging games. The study showed that when they had grown up they did on average much better in school.”

    This is mildly interesting but I’d have to see a lot more evidence to be convinced. I suspect what we may have here is much like the claims that playing Mozart to your baby will make it smarter (or at least a musical genius).
    Was there, for example, a control population, that was also treated specially, but just not given “intellectually challenging games”. ie was the effect perhaps just the result of extra TLC in childhood? Or was it a selection effect, ie parents who are willing to enroll in and then sustain having there children in these sorts of programs probably have children that are going to do better than average anyway through either genetics or home culture.

    One has to be really careful with these sorts of studies because what one finds is often really subtle. For example (properly done) studies have shown that yes, children from English speaking homes, if exposed to Mandarin Chinese when young, will find it easier to learn the language as they grow older. BUT, and who would have guessed it, certainly not me, the exposure has to be in HUMAN form, ie caregivers chattering to the kids, making faces and so on. Just hearing the language in the background, or even watching TV with various types of Mandarin content has a statistically insignificant effect.

    Unfortunately education seems to be a field that is massively driven by what people believe HAS to be true, and more so than most fields (for obvious reasons) has a wide gap between the “consumers” of education (the kids), and those that pay for it (partially parents, mostly the state), so it is especially susceptible to “research” showing that whatever ails kids, the answer is to buy my product or hire my consultancy.
    There’s precious little good research done in education, and that which is done is then buried when it turns up results people don’t want to hear (vide the lack of widespread adoption of directed learning in spite of the substantial evidence that, for the class of students for which it is intended, it works better than anything else currently known.)

  • ts

    Whatever the original article intends to convey, it’s a great news for online predators.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    “And another thing is the fact that almost no math is taught to 12 to 18 year olds. There is no good excuse for that at all.”

    What about algebra, trig, and (sometimes) calculus?

  • Haelfix

    Theres like a ridiculous lull period somewhere between the age of 9-13 in mathematics in the US, where more or less the entire curriculum could be condensed into a one year course. Theres no added difficulty really, its just more memorization (and we know kids can do that). Thats where the majority of serious students have the opportunity to start skipping grades/classes (I skipped some when I was younger, but could have again somewhere around there). Their are societal issues with kids skipping grades though, so i’d just assume everyone did it… Moreover, other countries do it with great results.

    Its no coincidence one summer at say a math/physics/computer camp can put people like 3 years ahead of everyone else.

  • Martin

    Allyson said: But they’re producing more television programs than ever before, and running more television studios.

    That only proves my point that women like interacting more with people, men like interacting more with things. And putting content online is about artistic expression, it just uses a new (albeit technological) medium. Women have always been doing that. The point here is that there is no indicator that women are going to flood science or engineering jobs any time soon.

    It’s not that they’re aren’t smart enough or that they think differently. Hell, we could use more women in science and engineering. It’s just that they have different interests.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Maynard, I agree that more rigorous tests have to be performed. However, one can just try to teach math, physics etc. to kids and see what the results are. Today we don’t do that at all.

    Haelfix, that’s my experience too. In primary school you learn arithmetic and after spending a few years there you have mastered it. My father taught me some math when I was 10 years old. By age 12 I had mastered calculus. I could set up differential equations and solve them.

    Thought experiment. Suppose you randomly select 100 average children of age 12. You then offer them $1000,000 if they pass graduate level exams on Quantum Mechanics, Electromagnetism and General Relativity at age 18. They will get all the necessary tutoring for free. How many will win the prize? :)

  • http://h Rev. Bob “Bob” Crispen

    Hey, tstr, wrt control statements being so essential to coding, maybe control statements are overrated. Rule-based systems aren’t just recursion-friendly, they’re recursion-cuddly. I already have gobs of fun with XSLT (in its non-horribly procedural manifestation) and expect to be learning lots more things like it.

    What about helping girls hack their Barbie dolls so that, instead of saying “Math is hard” they’ll say “Linear algebra is cool.”

  • http://www.physiology-physics.blogspot.com/ Amiya Sarkar

    Girls are taking to blogs: Doomsday is indeed near!

  • http://www.mt-regensburg.com/blog/ Tammy

    Sean,
    I read this article and thought the first half was great. It even drew on the historical context of women in computers, but by the end I felt like the entire theme had shifted. Rather than talking about these smart, talented young women leading technology, the author basically decided that girls only do it so they can talk more (because girls like to talk, you know). As a woman physicist (and lover of technology) I get annoyed at these kind of articles because there is this unspoken assumption that things related to technology are somehow unfeminine! I ranted about it here just a little. It felt like the author had to justify why these young women were attracted to technology by tying it to a gender stereotype – though I must say that a lot of my male colleagues talk MUCH more than I do.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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