Laura Wolkowitz broke the computer hacker's stereotype when she began taking an advanced programming class at Wilde Lake High School this year. It happened naturally.
"I'm the only girl among a lot of guys. That's kind of fun, but there should be more girls in the class," said Laura, a 16-year-old junior. "My grades are just as high as the guys. It doesn't matter if you're a girl, because you can do just as well in computer classes."
Still, Laura and the other girls in Howard County high school computer classes remain in a distinct minority -- a situation that school officials and members of the local business community are hoping to change through such programs as a computer fair held last weekend that was aimed at pre-teen girls.
By actively promoting interest in computers among elementary and middle school girls, school officials hope that gender inequities in computer interest and expertise will be reduced at the high-school level.
Right now, the gender distribution in computer programming classes at county high schools in the county is similar to the situation at Wilde Lake High, where more than 80 percent of the students enrolled in these classes are boys, according to Shelley Johnson, a supervisor in the school system's Office of Educational Technologies.
This translates into higher numbers of men entering the high-paying computer- and technology-related fields. A National Science Foundation study of 1991 math and computer science graduates found that men earned more than 65 percent of the bachelor's degrees in these fields and more than 80 percent of the doctoral degrees, according to the Association for Women in Science, based in Washington, D.C.
Experts believe if girls are helped to feel more comfortable using computers when they're younger, by the time they become teen-agers they will be less self-conscious when tackling math and technology topics -- areas where they now typically defer to boys.
"They don't seem to go into these fields as readily as boys and young men do, and it has a lot to do with comfort level," said Susan Shaffer, a gender equity specialist and the associate director of the Mid-Atlantic Center in Chevy Chase. "Anything that you can do [early on] in terms of modeling and behavior, the better the girls will [be able] to fight against whatever bias is there."
Even among young children, computers tend to be oriented toward boys, as exemplified by computer games' predominant emphasis on sports and violence, Ms. Shaffer said. When girls are shown the importance of computers and how they may be used, they'll be more successful later on.
To combat the gender bias in computers and science, Howard school officials say they'll continue to look for new ways to interest pre-teen girls in computers, such as after school clubs and classroom presentations. Although boys are not prohibited from such activities, they would be aimed primarily at girls.
At last Saturday's computer fair -- dubbed "Computermania" -- 200 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade girls and a handful of boys spent three hours learning about using computers in such fields as music, education, traffic engineering and journalism.
Teaching each of the small-group seminars were women who are experts in each field -- "role models" to inspire the girls.
"All of the girls I talked to said they learned a lot, and just for that alone the program was worth it," Ms. Johnson said. "Flipping through their evaluation forms, the words that kept coming up were 'fun,' 'educational' and 'cool.' "
'A fun time'
Even those girls who did not want to wake up early on a weekend morning to learn about computers appeared to be having a good time.
"I didn't want to come here, but my mom had signed me up and she made me," said Kelly Thomas, 10, a fifth-grader at Swansfield Elementary School. "But I'm having a fun time here. . . . I think that this is making me more interested in using computers."
The next challenge for the school system will be to target those girls who did not volunteer to attend Computermania, while maintaining the interest among those who did.
"For girls who already are interested in computers or girls whose parents believe they should be using computers, it's easy to get them to be active," said Shirley D. Collier, president of Paragon Computer Services Inc. and an organizer of Computermania. "That third group, where the girls aren't interested in computers and their parents aren't aware, is going to be the hardest to reach."
The organizers of Computermania plan to meet in about a month to talk about ways to continue their efforts next year.
Weekend programs similar to Computermania may be repeated on a countywide basis -- not just for girls in schools feeding to Wilde Lake High, as was the case with last weekend's event, Ms. Johnson said. Specific classroom programs also will be developed for girls who might not sign up for weekend programs.
"We don't want to let the enthusiasm of that one day slip away," she said. "The more that parents and teachers become aware of the problem and help to encourage their girls to be interested in computers, the better chance we have of being successful in the long run."