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Ghosts in the Machine: Women's Voices in Research with Technology

reviewed by Diane McGrath - 2004

coverTitle: Ghosts in the Machine: Women's Voices in Research with Technology
Author(s): Nicola Yelland, Andee Rubin, and Erica McWilliam (eds.)
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0820449113, Pages: 248, Year: 2002
Search for book at Amazon.com

The participation of women in computer-related occupations is roughly 20%, and their salaries in those jobs are about 85% of the salaries of men (AAUW, 2000, p. 56-57). Figures like these have provoked concern about the digital divide along gender lines, and indeed along racial, ethnic, and socio-economic status lines. In the area of schooling, successful involvement in modern technologies not only helps learners get through the gateways into the job “pipeline” but also provides access to learning tools that can help learners of all stripes learn subject matter in powerful ways.

The important AAUW report, Tech-Savvy (2000), helps set the context for Ghosts in the Machine: Girls believe that they can work with computers but don’t want to: they don’t like violent games, male software, computer science (boring, isolated), or much of anything about the computer culture. They are more interested in technology as a tool to accomplish things they want to do and less interested in the computer as a toy. Possible causes and solutions for the technology gender gap were explored by this AAUW Commission. Some of the issues Tech-Savvy raised were: software that is violent, teachers who are uncomfortable with technology themselves and so don’t fully understand how to integrate technology into content areas, the stereotype of computer as male, how to maintain one’s femininity if interested in technology, issues of girl-comfortable space, access to computers both in and out of school, and lack of awareness of what it might mean to need to use technology in one’s job. The AAUW Commission adopted an important goal put forth in 1999 by the NRC, called technological fluency: the ability to use technology in a way that recognizes that things change, goals differ, and we all need skills, concepts, and capabilities in technology.  To attain fluency, the Commission recommends, computing must be integrated into the curriculum, there need to be different pathways to computing, teachers must be prepared to use technology in an inclusive fashion that supports learning goals, and finally, the field of technology needs to take a good look at itself.

Ghosts in the Machine is an edited collection of chapters by researchers from around the world who have been studying this digital divide. Their studies of girls and computers build on the AAUW report. Indeed, three of the Ghosts in the Machine authors were also part of the AAUW project. Editor Nicola Yelland is a professor at Australia’s RMIT University; co-editor Andee Rubin is Senior Scientist at TERC. Both have considerable background in research on girls, technology, math, and science, and both have contributed to chapters. Other contributors are from the U.S., Australia, Canada, and England. The issues of girls and technology seem to play out in a remarkably similar way in all four countries.

One half of Ghosts in the Machine focuses on the ways in which technology is gendered in modern society, and the other half on girls’ lack of involvement in technology as a learning issue. Authors Littleton and Hayes set the stage with a discussion of the need to move beyond simply noticing that girls are absent from the field of technology and then blaming them for being absent. What they propose echoes Tech-Savvy: we need to “challenge the dominant paradigm of IT use in schools” (p. 13). Toward this end, the authors contend that teachers need to accept epistemologically plural (Turkle & Papert, 1990) approaches to technology, to integrate technology into classroom work that has learning goals rather than focusing on technology itself, and to use computers in the context of collaborative work.

Considerable attention is paid in the book to software and Websites that are predominantly male, and attempts to imagine and develop games and sites “for girls” and more recently, games and sites that are simply less gendered. Culp & Honey try to imagine a third path, “designing to ‘allow for’ or ‘invite’ gender on the player’s terms rather than dictating or narrating it to the player,” (p. 36). Bullen & Kenway look at cyberfeminism’s attempts to offer “alternative conceptual space from which to think about the education of girls in technology” (p. 67) and focus on more radical agenda, including ways to give girls a space and means of resisting masculine culture, and in schools, ways to bring what is important to girls into the computing arena. Brunner & Bennett present research findings that show that girls do in fact want to understand mechanical and scientific things, but they want to really understand them, to visualize their insides, to come to experience how and why they work as they do. Sofia concludes this section with an examination of the many ways that women artists relate to their technological design tools.

The second half of the book takes a decidedly constructionist stance as the authors examine practices that might change learning environments in positive ways for girls, in particular collaborative projects that are designed to help them construct their understanding. Not surprisingly, these approaches rely heavily on Papert and on Logo environments. Edwards describes a girls-only Science and Math Equity project– a LEGO/Logo environment in which girls were encouraged to learn through bricolage or tinkering. Yelland’s work demonstrates situations in which pairs of girls successfully use technology to engage more deeply in mathematical understanding, a situation that she did not find possible without the technology. Ching, Kafai and Marshall bring two important new lenses to better see the problems of young girls engaging in programming a game: an analysis of change in time spent on three types/levels of activities (traditional, constancy and enriching) over a period of eight weeks in a collaborative project, and an analysis of the kinds of space that girls need to be successful in this environment (social, physical, and cognitive space). As the space was made for girls, their participation in enriching technological activities increased, as it had for boys; and their involvement in traditional activities that did not use technology decreased, again, as it did for boys. Evard designed a Virtual Expert, a system in which students could post questions and answer each other’s questions, and the accumulated Qs & As were used help each other with problems in their Logo programs. Girls and boys interacted in this virtual environment in positive ways, ways in which they would not interact in class. The final chapter, by Klawe, Inkpen, Phillips, Upitis and Rubin, reports on Project E-GEMS (Electronic Games for Education in Math and Science), which, alas, is no longer an active project at this writing. They report on their development of Phoenix Quest, an online story/game with clues to collect and mathematical puzzles to solve. Although it was designed using features particularly interesting to girls, it proved to be highly popular with both girls and boys.

In any book one can find things we wish the author(s) had done or had done differently. For example, in several chapters the authors denigrate the BarbieTM approach to computing games and sites for girls, without any acknowledgement of the lofty goals for girls that Laurel’s Purple Moon site began with and how the project ended with the demise of the company that Laurel founded and the sale and transformation of the site to the now familiar Mattel Barbie site (Laurel, date not given). Although cloaked in the form of Barbie, the Purple Moon project was important in what its designers were trying to accomplish by addressing important concerns of girls– “recurring themes of affiliation, exclusion, secrets, and self-esteem” (p. 2). Some of the researchers could perhaps have used Laurel’s and her collaborators’ observations and experience to help them in their own project designs.

Ghosts doesn’t connect the research observations of girls failing to join in technology projects, or successfully joining in some well-designed ones, with the psychological literature of the impact these settings and situations have on girls’ self esteem and related issues. On the other hand, the book is an excellent companion to a more recent book that does focus exactly on those issues (Cooper & Weaver, 2003).  And the good news is that Ghosts looks at the need to reform the computer culture, and the classroom computing culture, not just find ways to make girls accept these as they are. What they are finding out about the design of girl-friendly learning environments will help all kids learn better.

So much of the literature on the gender gap in technology has focused on a series of studies that came on the scene in the early to mid-1980’s. The world of technology in the classroom has changed dramatically since then. In the early ‘80’s teachers using classroom computers had very little available to them except programming in BASIC and drill-and-practice software. Now the focus has shifted to research using the Internet and the use of technology as a tool for learning through constructing cognitive, communicative and collaborative objects, Websites, projects. It is both refreshing and informative for modern educators to see research telling us something about the situations that girls and teachers face today, and the ways we might help make technology more attractive to all learners.


American Association of University Women (AAUW), Commission on Technology, Gender, and Teacher Education. (2000). Tech-Savvy: Educating girls in the new computer age. Washington, DC: AAUW Foundation. Executive Summary available: http://www.aauw.org

Cooper, J. & Weaver, K.D. (2003). Gender and computers: Understanding the digital divide. Mahweh, NJ: Erlbaum.

Laurel, B. (date not given). Just one of the girls. SIGNUM: Media, method, meaning, 5(3). Webzine, available: http://www.slm-net.com/signum/Issue6/marrow/girls.html

National Research Council (NRC), Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, (1999). Being fluent with information technology. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Turkle, S. & Papert, S. (1990). Epistemological pluralism and the revaluation of the concrete. SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 16 (1), 128-157. Available: http://www.papert.org/articles/EpistemologicalPluralism.html

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 5, 2004, p. 1041-1044
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11217, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 2:26:15 AM

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About the Author
  • Diane McGrath
    Kansas State University
    E-mail Author
    Diane McGrath, Associate Professor of Educational Computing, Design & Online Learning at Kansas State University, is past editor of the Journal of Research on Computing in Education, and writes a column on Project-Based Learning using Technology for Learning & Leading with Technology. Her research has focused on constructivist multimedia and hypermedia learning environments with a particular eye to involving girls in technology, mathematics, and science.
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