Angela McFarlane asks whether it's going to be he-mail or e-mail on the Internet, as questions of gender stereotyping arrive in cyberspace. You may have seen the cartoon. Two parents are watching their teenage daughter who has clearly been on the 'phone for some time. One parent says to the other; "Do you remember how eagerly we waited for her first words?"
Hardly a politically correct joke, but apparently there are those who believe that women are more communicative than men, at least in the telephone department. Will the readiness with which females took to the telephone, using and operating the technology from the outset, have a parallel in the sphere of computer-based telecommunications?
The evidence that females are less likely than males to use computers in schools is widespread. The reasons why this happens are less clear. The favourites at the moment are that the more assertive boys dominate the computers, making it difficult for the girls to get a look in, and that girls are less intrinsically excited about fiddling around with a computer - unless, of course. they see a clear purpose to the activity beyond the use of the computer for its own sake. In the portables pilot run by the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) last year, involving some 250 schools, the evaluation found that when students had access to portable personal computers to use as tools to support their studies, there was no evidence of any gender bias in the results.
So far, the evaluation of electronic mail (e-mail) in schools is in its early days. In her observations of school-based users, Julie Wright at the NCET found that girls were highly articulate users. They were also sufficiently confident in their use to act as mentors for other pupils. Again, it seems that the key here is that girls are just as enthusiastic and capable users when there is a clear and interesting outcome.
Observations made at Cherry Hinton Community Junior School, Cambridge, during an LEA initiative are interesting. Over two terms the teachers of a Year 5 class found that one group of students were happy to log on, look for mail and information and download it. At that point their interest waned. These pupils were all male. One of the teachers, Peter Halford, named these "the engineers". They showed remarkable enthusiasm for the project, and were extremely diligent in performing these tasks.
Another group liked to read the messages, work out how to respond and link in to classroom activities. These were predominantly female. They were "the managers". Could it be that the process of telecommunications is more interesting to males, but the actual exchange and use of the information obtained is of more interest to the females?
The views of a group of Cambridge undergraduates on the apparent differences in use of e-mail by males and females were sought. The undergraduates in question, on a maths course, had the opportunity to access World Wide Web pages carrying the lecture notes and related points of interest relevant to the subject area and current course in general. They were told about the findings among the school-based group and asked if the differences in behaviour, apparently related to gender, might also apply to them. The course lecturer, Professor Richard Weber, also asked about the use students had made of the course pages. Naturally no one likes to be stereotyped, so it was hardly surprising that some of the student responses were very dismissive of the whole idea of gender differences here. However none of the 35 female students in the lecture had accessed the pages; 24 of the 119 male students had. Interestingly a majority of the female students, and about half of the males, said they would access the pages in the future. This could of course be an example of another piece of stereotyping; students offering an answer they think "teacher" wants to hear.
From primary school onwards, it seems that the use of e-mail by males or females is like any other computer-related activity. Unless the use of the computer has clear relevance and offers a recognised advantage, girls will vote with their feet.