Brotherly love stops in front of the screen

What happens when boys log on to their computers at home? Their confidence breeds an arrogance which excludes their sisters. So is it up to schools to break this male monopoly, asks Reva Klein

Okay, so there is a new sociological phenomenon called the new male - not only soft but positively invertebrate; not so much alienated as utterly directionless; as much defeated as just plain desperate to reclaim an identity for himself. Like the guys in The Full Monty.

But in some arenas, boys will still be boys in the old sense. And one of those areas, according to a paper presented recently by Dr Elaine Millard of Sheffield University at the British Educational Research Association in York, is computers. What is clear is that the way boys use computers, how they relate to them, how they perceive their competency and how they wield them within social environments is more Rambo than Ross in the television series Friends.

Dr Millard's paper "New Technologies, Old Inequalities" examines the relationship between home computer use and that in schools. Although her findings on the gender divide will not be news to most of us, their juxtaposition with an analysis of socio-economic differences make for disquieting reading. So too, does her reference to the continuing failure of schools to redress this balance in persisting to present computers as scientific technology rather than as a means to an infinite number of ends. Dr Millard's report should be sounding alarm bells up and down the country about the costs of allowing inequalities to go unchallenged.

The paper is based on a small study involving 100 boys and 90 girls from four comprehensive schools in a large northern city. Two of the schools are in prosperous suburbs and two are located in inner-city, economically deprived areas. Given the cultural and economic diversity of populations, its findings can be generalised.

Completed questionnaires reveal that almost twice as many boys as girls say they have a computer in their own room. Only 8 per cent of girls said they were very good at computing compared with 40 per cent of boys. And no wonder. Almost double the number of boys than girls said they used their computers a lot. Given that, in follow-up interviews, boys portrayed themselves as computer bouncers, giving or denying access to their sisters as they saw fit, it would appear that most girls can't get near the things even if they want to.

Dr Millard quotes one boy as saying: "Dad's bought the PC for me and it's mine and I play on it when I want and say who goes on and who doesn't. My sister can go on it, play for 15 minutes and then she's off." We can assume that she doesn't just wander off. You can almost hear her squeals of protest as Big Brother removes her by the scruff of her neck.

But this is where class raises its inevitable head. Where computers - almost invariably games consoles - are given to the boys of the family in working-class homes, hardware is more equitably shared out in middle-class households, where the whole family tend to share a PC. This has a positive knock-on effect academically since, as Dr Millard states, "where girls were given home access to personal computers and had been supported in their use of IT, they were equally enthusiastic about its use to support school work".

In a poignant example, the author shows that girls' computer use can, if given the chance, take more creative, not to say therapeutic, directions too. Cathy uses the family PC downstairs and has her own computer in her room. She explains how it has come into its own. "My mum and dad went through a really bad patch where they were shouting at each other . . . So I used to go upstairs and shut my door and go on the computer. It was like a way of getting out of this world and just like writing how I felt without other people coming up and going 'oh, what are you writing?' I found I couldn't write like this at school, because if someone read it they'd think I was silly."

Dr Millard found that Cathy's experience reflected a general trend. "When allowed free access to technology, girls do not find the culture of the machine alienating but adapt it to their own purposes and interests."

Also important is the presence of a machine shared by all the family and which is seen to be used by a computer literate parent or other family member. As in early literacy development, this offers children a model as well as a support.

Attitudes to computers are formulated for the children of poorer families at school. And it is not surprising that girls feel put off when, in most secondary schools, computers tend to inhabit computer studies departments. An IT-competent female teacher remarked to Dr Millard that the computer studies suite in her school was "so alienating" that she strongly disliked taking classes there. Substitute that otherwise confident teacher with a 14-year-old girl with little or no proficiency and you have a recipe for a lack of interest which can be formidable. "In an ideal teaching environment, IT would be integrated seamlessly into everyday practice, as it is in the best primary classrooms," says Dr Millard.

She makes a strong case for educational planners and policy makers at all levels to "take account of home experience when formulating policies related to technological advancement", as they do in regard to literacy in the more conventional sense of reading and writing. "Initiatives for taking new literacies into every community are badly needed and, until they are better established, schools require greater sensitivity to the needs of parents, as well as those of children, in creating opportunities for new forms of shared authentic literacies."

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