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Computing Gender Bias.

Women have moved forward over the last fifty years. In fact, their progress over just this period may be unprecedented in the history of the world. After all, as columnist Molly Ivins tells us, women have gone from earning 69 percent of men's income to 74 percent. At that rate of increase, equal pay will be reached some time in the twenty-second century. Ta-da!

We can cheerfully await the time when women receive up to 84 percent, 99 percent, and--who knows--maybe even 99.44 percent of what men earn. Will women ever achieve absolute parity or even surpass men? I don't know. I do know there is considerable cultural lag, which keeps women in their place. This lag becomes more apparent when people, in unison, express themselves in terms of some all-absorbing event.

For example, everyone knows his or her place in war. A January 2000 Denver Post photo of some Chechnyan children illustrates this point. The photo shows three children, aged somewhere between eleven and thirteen (perhaps a bit older but suffering from malnutrition). Two of them--the boys--are holding assault rifles but don't look ferocious; they look pleased with themselves. They, after all, are precursors of their elders and no doubt look forward to growing into manhood so they, too, can fight the enemy. There is no way to tell from the photo if the boys are currently engaged in battle, but if not now surely not long from now.

The third child is a girl--clearly a child, not a young woman. She is wearing a sweater festooned with hearts. Not looking at the boys, she is sweetly smiling (self-consciously?) at the camera. Unlike the boys, who appear like anticipatory specialists at killing, she isn't holding a weapon. Her place in Chechnyan society seems clear: she is a generalist providing food, sex, children, warmth, emotional comfort, and mourning in the background while the boys provide specialized skills in the foreground.

That was the United States fifty years ago. But surely things are now different in our society, as women keep advancing upward toward the status of men.

For example, it won't be long before women in the United States are accepted as full-fledged members of the infantry. They will--quite differently from the Chechnyan girl--be trained to kill and, should the occasion arise, be expected to. At last they will have achieved equality! As privates they will receive the same pay as their male comrades; women and men alike will share the goal of achieving the combat infantry badge.

Despite such progress, however, are we assured that the United States differs profoundly from such "primitive" societies as Chechnya and that gender discrimination here is nearly an amusing, antique memory? I hope so, but I suspect that our core discrimination will endure for longer than we wish. We are immured in our archaic attitudes; they sneak up and confront us when we least expect it.

Christmas, like war, also unites people in an all-absorbing common identity --the holiday spirit of consumerism--and, again, our gender beliefs become apparent. This past Christmas season, Mattel offered at reasonable prices two versions of the same computer for young children. (Please pay close attention, as there will be a quiz later.)

One version was gray and festooned with deep pink flowers (some sort of daisy, I think), as were the keyboard, speakers, and compact-disc case. On the monitor was a picture of a sweet-faced, yellow-haired doll enclosed in a scalloped pink circle, decorated with pretty pins that seemed suitable for a sweater. The overall impression was one of a quiet and peaceful lifestyle, perhaps of a young person picking flowers.

The other version offered by the toymaker was dark blue and bright yellow. Both the monitor and computer had yellow flames surging up their sides, reminiscent of dragsters shooting down a quarter-mile track. The rest of the appurtenances had the same blue and yellow flame design. Instead of a sweet young face on the monitor, this version had a car zooming down a road, and in the lower right corner was a timer--the whole package redolent of cheering, competition, and winning.

Otherwise, the two versions were the same, except the pink-flowered computer came with a digital camera while the yellow-flamed one came with a steering wheel and pedals to play whatever racing game could be installed.

And, oh yes, there was the software. The flower-petaled computer came with an array of programs packaged mostly in pink. It had programs for dress-up, sticker designs, and paste-on tattoos. There was also a storymaker and one program that showed the user how to look "cool." None of these programs came with the flamed computer. Among its software were two math programs, one logic program, and a chess game--all notably absent from the flowered computer. And all of the flamed computer's programs were packaged in dark colors.

Now, here's the quiz:

1. Which computer was being marketed to girls and which to boys?

2. Will Mattel make money marketing computers this way?

3. Is marketing the same product by differentiating between girls and boys proper?

The answer to question one is easy. The answer to number two is probably obvious as well. But what about question three? There are two answers.

Software shops cater to violence, competition, bloody adventure, and, when there are women heroes, they are scantily clad and buxom. In arcades, the games are of the same sort, and the greater percentage of boys are playing them while the greater percentage of girls are watching and admiring the play (American-style Chechnya).

All this poses a problem. More girls must get basic experience with computers or they may always be a slight step behind boys and run up against the same disadvantage when adults. To encourage girls to use computers, it is wise to get them involved at an early age.

So perhaps computers marketed specifically for them--emphasizing the very antithesis of gender equality--paradoxically will give girls the proper experience they need to finally become men's equal as women. With that being the desired outcome, we should cheer Mattel who, while scooping up bucks, has so advanced the cause of equity.

However, the second answer to question three is more likely correct. There is much evidence that the gains women have made over the last fifty years are closer to cosmetic than we prefer to believe. There is much evidence that, underneath all the politically correct talk about "empowerment," the United States is not much different from the rest of the world.

Ivins is right that gains have been made, but society's core beliefs and values remain almost unchallenged. Women know this better than men. While making bucks is the American thing to do, perhaps product manufacturers could exercise some restraint rather than blatantly exploit social gender differences they, themselves, helped define.

Final question: do you buy either of the above computers? If your answer is yes, explain why in fewer than 10,000 words.

Bertram Rothschild is a retired clinical psychologist. His e-mail address is
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Author:Rothschild, Bertram
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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