Hang Ups

4th November 1994 at 00:00
An IT co-ordinator reminisced fondly about that dim and distant day when the school took possession of its first computer. It was a pea-brained dinosaur that had been donated by a local firm in the hope that "some of the boys might find it of interest". She impulsively volunteered to be in charge of it.

Needing somewhere to house the brute, she found a small room that was no longer being used for its original purpose. The plaque on the door said "Gents". It had been given a hygienic coat or three of paint, and the tell-tale porcelain had been removed but she still had to make her first faltering steps with interruptions from red-faced little boys who hadn't yet learnt that the signs on school doors weren't necessarily an indication of what was to be found within.

Sixth formers were free to use the machine whenever they wanted, but she found it was invariably boys who took advantage of the opportunity. Girls, she quickly concluded, were naturally reticent about pushing open any door labelled Gents. So she broke a fingernail or two wrestling with the rusty screws and removing the sign. She keeps it on her desk as a memento of those halcyon days.

She left the Gents a long time ago and now has a spanking new computer suite equipped with all the latest hardware. But she still finds that girls aren't nearly as keen as the boys on using it. It's not that they are technophobic. Nor do they think computing is a particularly masculine activity. The word that they'd be more likely to use is "nerdy". They're scared that if they spend too long in front of a VDU, they might suddenly sprout anoraks.

It used to worry the IT co-ordinator. If girls didn't acquire the necessary IT skills, she thought, it would seriously damage their chances of making a mark in a world which is increasingly being dominated by the new technology.

But as the recent Panorama programme, "The Future is Feminine", made clear, it's the boys that should be giving her cause for concern. While they are kicking footballs, messing around in class, and wasting hours in front of mindless video games, girls are getting on with their studies.

Well motivated, industrious and determined to succeed, they are doing better than boys in all subjects at GCSE and at A-level. What's more, they seem to have exactly the right skills for tomorrow's workplace: problem solving, people management, communicating ideas and such like.

Panorama concentrated on the increasing number of girls taking up key posts in accountancy and building societies. But, as I wrote in last week's Hang Ups, traditionally male industries such as car manufacturing are equally anxious to recruit employees of the highest calibre and that means they're unashamedly out to court girls. Indeed, the Equal Opportunities Commission predicts that by the end of the century there will be 500,000 new jobs for women but 300,000 fewer for men.

The one important area in which boys still seem to have the upper hand is IT. But that's unlikely to be the case for much longer. Pressure groups such as WIT (Women Into Technology) , and GETSET (Girls Entering Tomorrow's Science, Engineering and Technology ) are hell bent on encouraging girls to be every bit as enthusiastic about computers as their brothers.

Even screwing a Gents plaque on to the door of the spanking new computer suite won't be enough to keep this generation of high-flying schoolgirls at bay.

GETSET, 1 Frederick Sanger Road, Surrey Research Park, Guildford, Surrey GU2 5YD. WIT, NCET, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7JJ.

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