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Trying to head off high-tech gender gap before it grows

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Everywhere you look, boys and computers seem to go together. If past trends hold, most youngsters packing their bags for computer camps this summer will be male. In most high school computer classes, boys outnumber girls by at least 2 to 1 and often 3 or 4 to 1. Television ads for video games often feature an older brother introducing an action-packed game to an enthusiastic younger brother.

Whatever the cause - and educators agree that traditional social attitudes of parents, teachers, and peers play a very large role - girls have been approaching computer science with much the same reluctance they once showed for math and the physical sciences.

Experts say the implications of this newest gender gap, in computer literacy, are considerably greater in terms of future jobs and daily living. By some estimates, the number of computer-related jobs will rise to a whopping 30 million by 1990. And some computer experts contend that the computer is teaching a whole different pattern of thinking that is altering the way problems are solved.

Yet ironically it is technology that has made many of the old physical skill criteria for jobs obsolete and is credited with making job competition between the sexes much fairer. And the United States Department of Labor predicts that 7 of every 10 new job openings in this decade will go to women.

''There is an opportunity for women in the work force that just didn't exist in the past,'' notes Andrew Molnar of the National Science Foundation's science education group. ''If women are unprepared or ill-prepared (in computer skills), there's going to be a serious problem.''

What particularly troubles experts is that many studies suggest that boys and girls are equally adept at computer skills when both have equal access to them.

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