Hangs Ups

19th April 1996 at 01:00
I had expected a chorus of "'snot fair" when I explained to a motley collection of teenage boys that 200 girls had been treated to a two-day "IT Camp-in" at BT's training college in Yarnfield, Stone. It was organised by Irene Ordidge of the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET). She wanted to hammer home the message "that it is possible, acceptable and essential for girls to use computers". It is certainly worth doing. At the moment only 20 per cent of IT professionals are female, and only 4 per cent are at "a managerial level".

Our economic salvation, as we're constantly being told, depends upon having a computer-literate workforce. So the NCET there's more than a touch of the Baden-Powells about this combined high-jinks with high tech in an effort to prove to the gels that gender doesn't matter when it comes to authoring multimedia or cutting a dash on the World Wide Web. But, regardless of the current shortage of women in the IT industry, is it fair that boys should be barred from such an event?

The teenage lads I was interviewing were unanimous that they would have loved to have to have been at Yarnfield. But it soon became clear that it wasn't the technology that appealed to them, but the prospect of two days with 200 girls. I had to modify the proposition: if offered, would they sign-up for "a boys only" weekend? I have to report that they were absolutely appalled by the idea. IT, it seems, is about as much fun as acne.

The girls at Yarnfield were given the opportunity to meet "a number of young female role models who are currently in successful IT careers". I'm sad to say that the boys would not have been impressed. I've watched pop music's Brit Awards and know who their role models are. It's hard to imagine the lugubrious Jarvis Cocker raving about a digital organiser; Oasis might have a site on the World Wide Web, but the group's members hardly seem the types who'd opt for a quiet evening at home so they could visit it.

The boys that I interviewed are certainly not technophobes. I've known most of them since they were in nappies and have marvelled over the years how undaunted they are by the new technology. That's part of the reason, of course, for their current indifference. Computers have no mystique for them: IT is as much a part of hum-drum daily life as the kettle or the hairdryer.

When they were little, I pointed out to them, they loved computers, so why have they suddenly decided to shun them? One of them mumbled a few monosyllables which I will paraphrase loosely as: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, understood as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things." It's only natural really that boys who, while their sisters played with My Little Pony, were brought up to think of computers as toys, should now be turning their backs on them.

There's about as much chance of persuading them to join an IT Camp-in as spending a weekend in Legoland or on a Rupert Bear fancy dress parade. Of course, their schools make a sterling effort to interest them in computers, but that only adds to the problem. Boys have always rebelled. And there glows the one faint glimmer of hope.

Instead of promoting IT, schools should actively campaign against it with "Just Say No!" posters in the foyer, diatribes in assembly and organising anti-IT Camp-ins. Hearts set on not doing what they are told to do, boys will return furtively to their keyboards and try to master the skills that the girls at Yarnfield have already mistressed.


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