Woman aims to bring girls into high-tech fold; Gadgets: Girl Tech's Web site and electronic products cater to a market its founder felt was being ignored.


A few years ago, when Janese Swanson and her daughter, Jackie, then 8, searched the Internet for the word girl, they came up with nothing but pornography.

At the same time, Swanson was doing doctoral research on gender differences and the use of technology. She came across a troubling study: Both boys and girls feel that boys are valued more by society.

The computer programmer and former educator set out right then to change that.

With a few friends and a fistful of credit cards, she started Girl Tech, first with a Web site for girls ages 8 to 14, and then with technological toys and gadgets geared toward girls.

Her creations aim at what is important to girls -- privacy. They include a journal with an electronic password lock, a treasure box that can be opened across the room with an electronic key, a bedroom door entry monitor that asks for the secret password and counts intruders.

Last year, Swanson sold Girl Tech to Radica Games Ltd. for $6 million. The company designs, develops and sells a variety of hand-held and tabletop toys, including a virtual fishing game, but this is one of the first toy lines aimed expressly at girls.

The award-winning Web site, www.girltech.com, gets more than 1 million hits a day and offers a safe place for girls to interact online, as well as links to other girl sites.

Swanson, a former teacher and flight attendant, gained prominence as a programmer when she helped develop the software "Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?"

She sat down with reporter Laura Griffin to discuss why girls need to be involved in technology. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Tell me more about how your daughter inspired you to start Girl Tech.

We were watching a commercial about one of our inventions in the toy industry. It was the first time we'd seen a commercial for one of ours. What we found were the boys were holding the devices and the girls were treated like props, cheerleaders within the commercials. And the message to Jackie was, "Why did they invent this for boys?" She told me that.

I was just finishing my doctoral research on gender and play practices using technology as a medium. What I found was this glaring hole, a gap, in technology and it seemed to be growing. Here we were inventing gadgets and toys. And here we were involved in the software industry. And what we were doing subconsciously was setting up a bias against girls.

And girls were picking it up, and they were shying away from the computer as well as other technology. So right then, we decided to start Girl Tech. We built a Web site. And that Web site now attracts girls from over 100 countries. We get millions and millions of hits, and it's all been word of mouth.

What's been the reaction from toy makers?

The [toy] industry wasn't prepared for girls having electronic products like this. They were still used to products that were pink, that were nurturing, that were fashion dolls. And the girls were telling me at 8 years old and up that "pink is for young girls. And it's not for us. We're different from that, and we want variety and more depth in play. We want more."

Toy companies, video game companies, software companies all told me that if you build it for a boy, the girls might buy it. But if you build it for girls, boys won't buy it. So don't build it for girls. So it's feeding this cycle of leaving girls out.

Why is it important to encourage girls to become involved with technology?

Because today is the age of the knowledge worker, and that's not going to change. If we don't offer play opportunities for girls to try on different roles of who they might become, or who they already are, to find out more about themselves and also give them an opportunity to play with technology, then they may limit their future career choices.

My daughter and I just went to NASA to see the first female astronaut fly the shuttle. What a wonderful experience that was. It was exciting to see role models like that. For me, I remember I was in sixth grade when the first man walked on the moon.

I clearly remember that time in my life. It was a really important age, 8 to 12. A lot of issues come in. You're ready for them.

What role did Jackie play in developing these gadgets and the technology for girls?

She wrote on her door: "Do not enter. Say the secret password. Knock three times. Keep out."

Privacy is a huge issue for girls 8 to 12. So we created together Door Pass, which has a voice recognition chip and a motion sensor. So you place it on the door and record your password and leave for school. Someone knocks on the door and tries to open it, it activates and says, "Say the password." If the password is incorrect, it says, "Access denied."

And it counts the intruders. A small alarm goes off. They can hear it, and the person knows they were accounted for. When you come home from school, it says, "Welcome back. Four intruders." And that was what Jackie wanted.

Why target girls 8 to 12?

These issues begin by then. They're really aware at 8. They put down Barbie about 7. And the toy industry finally recognized that girls were leaving toy stores and they weren't getting customers.

This is one solution to bringing girls back in as customers -- to offer them a variety of different types of experiences with products that are more sophisticated, that are based on their play preferences like open-ended play. And also role models.

Some experts say kids spend too much time on computers and not enough time outside or engaged in physical activity. Here you're developing ways to get girls to spend more time on computers. What about that?

There's always a balance. But we have to have a place for girls in that world. And we do have a place for them. They do come. They don't spend 10 hours or eight hours on the computer. But they spend some time on the Internet now.

There weren't girls on the Internet when we started. We're bringing them there. And now think about it: Girls from 100 countries, talking to us and we're putting it on the Internet, and there's a place that's safe for them to talk about their issues and their differences. It's a wonderful classroom or place that girls are really proud of, and I don't see anything wrong with offering that.

How do you plan to fulfill your vision of changing the way society views girls and girls view themselves?

I would encourage that adventurous spirit so there are more Eileen Collinses on the space shuttle and more women who contribute to our society and maybe a woman president some day.

It's up to us to validate each other, and technology is the tool and Girl Tech is an innovative kind of company that promotes the use of technology for girls, offering them the hippest, coolest technology.

I went all around the block to figure out that that was what I was supposed to do.

When I was a kid, I took the tests in high school that gave you the results and said, "Here are your career choices and a little affirmation card to put in your wallet." And the areas were like, "Be a model, be a flight attendant, be a schoolteacher and retail salesperson."

I did all those things and I did them well, but at the same time I was fiddling with the technology that was in our home -- taking things apart and trying to make them work differently and better.

No one ever said, "Gee Janese, you're really good at math. You should be an engineer -- maybe you should think about engineering school," and just that encouragement could have had a big effect on me.

I want my daughter to be awake in life. I heard the messages from society. Cognitive theory says I'm a girl, so I'll do girl things, and social theory says I'll imitate role models, and my role models are dolls and movie stars that look like those dolls. That's going to have an effect on my life.

If there are other people, variety, and we're sending messages that girls are very valued in our society and in our world and their contributions are important no matter what they do and that we validate each other, then things will be different for women.

Is your daughter proud of you?

Yeah. She's my role model. I tell her that all the time.

Pub Date: 09/13/99

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