Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2005, Volume 25, No. 2
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Gender Differences in Computer-Mediated Communication Among
Adolescents with Disabilities: A Case Study

Sheryl Burgstahler
University of Washington
E-mail: sherylb@u.washington.edu

Andrea Doyle
University of Washington
E-mail: adoyle@u.washington.edu


In this study researchers explored gender differences in computer-mediated communication between peers with disabilities and between these young people and adult mentors. Contents of 10,044 email messages of teens with disabilities within a mentoring community were analyzed. Participants were part of a nationally-recognized program to promote the participation of individuals with disabilities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Differences in the content of communications between male and female participants were found to be consistent with traditional gender roles. Males were more likely to both provide and seek information about the Internet and technology than females, yet females communicated more frequently overall, shared more personal information, and sent more messages with a "personal tone." Research findings can be used to guide programs in mediating electronic communities by attending to gender differences. They can also inform project activities designed to help young women claim roles in challenging fields where they are underrepresented.

Keywords: Young people with disabilities, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, gender differences, computer-mediated communication, mentoring, science-related careers for people with disabilities


In spite of legislation to ensure equal opportunities for marginalized groups, inequities continue in many areas of academic participation. Women, people of color, and individuals with disabilities have long been underrepresented in fields such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Peer and mentor support have been identified as interventions that can increase the success of various groups in academic and career fields in which they have been underrepresented; in recent years, some support of this type has been increasingly provided via computer-mediated communication (CMC). In the study reported in this article, the authors' aim was to determine whether male and female adolescents with disabilities differ in their use of CMC with peers and mentors in a program that promotes participation in STEM, and, if differences do exist, to determine whether the differences perpetuate gender stereotypes. As background to this research, published research in the areas of disabilities, gender, and STEM fields is summarized in the following sections, followed by a review of successful interventions for increasing the participation of women and people with disabilities in STEM academic programs and careers.

Disability and STEM

Individuals with disabilities experience far less career achievement than their nondisabled peers (Benz, Doren, & Yavonoff, 1998; Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; McNeil, 1997; National Organization on Disability, 1998). Adults with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed and often experience underemployment, dislike their job status, and work in jobs with low socioeconomic status (Blackorby & Wagner; Harris & Associates, 1998; Horn & Berktold, 1999; MacLeod-Gallinger, 1992). Individuals with disabilities are underrepresented in STEM professions, and scientists and engineers with disabilities experience higher unemployment rates than do other scientists and engineers (National Science Foundation, 2000).

Several factors contribute to low success rates of people with disabilities in postsecondary programs and careers in general. Some students with disabilities experience isolation as a result of not being accepted by their peers. They rarely have access to positive role models with disabilities (Seymour & Hunter, 1998). Support systems available in high school cease after graduation, and many students with disabilities lack the self-determination, college and employment preparation, and independent living skills necessary to make successful transitions to adulthood. Youth with disabilities continue to live with their parents or in other dependent living situations after high school more often than their peers without disabilities; they also engage in fewer social activities (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Harris & Associates, 1998). Social isolation has a negative affect on personal as well as academic and career success (Seymour & Hunter; Smith & Nelson, 1993).

Few students with disabilities pursue academic studies in STEM, and the attrition rate of those who do is high (National Science Foundation, 2000; Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2001). Completion of a postsecondary education is required for many STEM careers. Although the number of students with disabilities in higher education continues to increase (Henderson, 1999, 2001), overall, fewer students with disabilities graduate from high school and enroll in postsecondary institutions than their nondisabled peers; of those who do, fewer earn a degree or certificate (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Harris & Associates, 1998; Henderson, 1999; Horn & Berktold, 1999).

There are many reasons for the underrepresentation of individuals with disabilities in STEM fields. Low expectations and lack of encouragement from educators, counselors, and others with whom they interact impede the realization of their full potential in challenging fields such as those in STEM (Cunningham & Noble, 1998; National Science Foundation, 2000; Seymour & Hunter, 1998; The Task Force, 1989). High school and college students with disabilities, counselors, social service agency staff, and special education teachers often lack knowledge about the content and requirements of STEM programs in higher education and of technology that make it possible for students with disabilities to pursue these fields. Since they do not consider STEM careers an achievable goal, students with disabilities do not take the courses necessary to prepare for postsecondary studies in these areas. Barriers are also imposed by inaccessible facilities, curriculum materials, computers, scientific equipment, and electronic resources; inadequate academic supports to bridge pre-college, college, and employment; and lack of understanding about accommodations on the part of pre-college and postsecondary educators (Brazier, Parry, & Fischbach, 2000; Heidare, 1996; Presidential Task Force, 1999; Stevens, Steele, Jutai, Kalnins, Bortolussi, & Biggar, 1996; The Task Force; Womble & Walker, 2001).

Multiple sets of factors contribute to low success rates of people with disabilities who are simultaneously members of one or more other underrepresented groups. For example, individuals with disabilities who are also racial/ethnic minorities, female, from rural areas, and/or living in poverty face greater challenges to pursuing STEM careers than individuals with disabilities who are not also members of other underrepresented groups (Atkins, 1988; Canedy, 2001; Pfeiffer & Finn, 1997; Schmidt-Davis, Hayward, & Kay,1999/2000).

The career achievements of some people with disabilities, including individuals who are members of other underrepresented groups, suggest that there is potential to significantly increase the representation of people with disabilities in STEM fields (Blumenkopf, Stern, Swanson, & Wohlers, 1996; Burgstahler, 2004; Unger, Wehman, Yasuda, Campbell, & Green, 2001). High-tech careers are particularly accessible to individuals with disabilities because of advances in assistive technology that provide access to computers and scientific equipment. However, the inaccessible design of software, Web pages, distance learning courses, and facilities continues to erect barriers to high-tech fields for individuals with some types of disabilities (Burgstahler, 2002; National Center for Educational Statistics, 2000a, 2000b; Schmetzke, 2001).

Gender and STEM

Even today, women receive less encouragement than their male counterparts to pursue careers in STEM and the proportion of women in these fields continues to fall far below that for men (Galpin, Sanders,Turner, & Venter, 2003; Snyder, 1999, 1997). Sex role stereotyping has been posited as an explanation for this continued socialization into adult careers. Sex role stereotyping suggests that boys are better at math than girls and that math is more important for boys, whereas girls have greater verbal acumen (Eccles, 1994; Jacobs & Eccles, 1985). Gender bias in science teachers makes it more difficult for girls to achieve self-efficacy in science and perpetuates the gender inequity within math and science careers at the societal level (Bianchini, Cavazos, & Helms, 2000). Young women tend to be heard less in the classroom when males are present and to be asked less challenging and complex questions than those asked of their male peers (Gurer & Camp, 2002).

Girls and boys are similar in their math performance during elementary school; however, differences increase with time and schooling (Fennema & Sherman, 1978). Girls' self-esteem regarding their mathematical ability tends to become less positive with age (IRMA, 2004). As early as grade eight (Kaminski, Erickson, Ross, & Bradfield, 1976), even when they earn good grades in math, girls rate themselves less positively than boys in terms of their mathematical ability (Levine, 1976). Gender divergence on quantitative tasks declined in the last two decades of the 20th century (Pajares & Miller, 1994). An outcome study of the College Board's Advanced Placement and Achievement Tests (Stumpf & Stanley, 1996) found a reduction in the differences between test scores of male and female students, though male students scored moderately higher in physics, chemistry, and computer science and women students scored slightly higher on language examinations. These findings suggest a possible gap between performance and self-concept in women, given that so few enter STEM fields today.

Gender differences in self-concept are, at least in part, a result of social interactions and interpersonal experiences that characterize men and women from infancy through adulthood (Josephs, Markus, & Tafarodi, 1992; Tenenbaum & Leaper, 2003). There is strong evidence that girls in mixed-gender peer groups tend to direct their attention to boys and that gender stereotypes are strengthened within traditional school settings (Webb, 1984). The performance of females has been found to decrease when boys are present even in language activities (Weisfeld, Muczenski, Weisfeld, & Omark, 1987). Many studies report that adolescent girls often lack self-confidence (Stipek & Gralinski, 1991; Takayoshi, Huot, & Huot, 1999) and that lack of self-confidence is a driving force that leads many women to leave STEM fields (Gurer & Camp, 2002). Women in male-dominated programs report lower self-concept scores than other students in these programs (Ulki-Steiner, Kurtz-Costes, & Kinlaw, 2000).

It has been argued that girls' self-esteem is compromised as a result of "loss of voice" when they identify with and internalize the images of quiet and demure women from previous generations (Gilligan, 1982; Gilligan, Lyons, & Hanmer, 1989). In early studies, one of the primary reasons cited for women not pursuing mathematics is fear of appearing unfeminine (Luchins, 1976; Rossi, 1965). More recent research (Harter, Waters, & Whitesell, 1998; Harter, Waters, Whitesell, & Kastelic, 1998; Mullis & Chapman, 2000) suggests that there are only small differences in global self-esteem measures between males and females and that looking at gender differences in multidimensional domains might prove more useful (Marsh, Byrne, & Shavelson, 1988; Skaalvik & Rankin, 1990). Several decades ago, the National Science Foundation found that boys behave more negatively toward girls who perform well in mathematics (Levine, 1976), suggesting a capitulation to social pressure on the part of girls. Relationships and interdependence with others are thought by many to be more central to the self-concepts of women (Miller, 1986; Roberts, 1991) than to more task-oriented men. However, there is considerable debate on this issue (Josephs, Markus, & Tafarodi), since current culture allows for more blurring of traditional gender roles on the part of both men and women.

Sex role stereotypes are transmitted through cultural norms (Steele, 1997). Acceptance of stereotypes of women as less competent than men in STEM fields limits women's exploration of careers in less "traditional" fields. A review of the literature (IRMA, 2004) identified three factors that preclude women entering STEM fields:

  • external structural barriers such as discrimination,
  • social pressure from parents and peers, and
  • internalized negative attitudes and beliefs about mathematics.

Interventions to Increase the Participation of Females with Disabilities in STEM

Even if women do make it into nontraditional fields such as engineering, lack of support and encouragement can be a significant barrier to their educational advancement (Bandalos, Yates, & Thorndike-Christ,1995; Gandhi, 2003). Positive role models and mentors can enhance self-concept. Ulki-Steiner, Kurtz-Costes, and Kinlaw examined experiences of male and female graduate students in programs containing male-dominated and gender-balanced faculty. Women in male-dominated programs expressed lower academic self-concept and lower career commitment than men. Having the support of a mentor and a strong academic self-concept enhanced the career commitment of both male and female students. The gender of the mentor providing support does not appear to matter, according to this study.

In order to level the playing field for men and women in technology fields, Venkatesh, Morris, Sykes, and Ackerman (2000) concluded that technology adoption decisions must incorporate "social factors" and "facilitating conditions" important to women in addition to "productivity-oriented" factors important to men. In a review of the literature, Christie (1997) identified four different approaches to disrupting the digital divide:

  • resocialize females to have more favorable attitudes toward computers and technology, and focus on efforts to increase female representation in this area;
  • reorganize pedagogy to honor women's ways of knowing/viewing computers and technology so that the practices of technology are no longer male dominated;
  • transform schools and other institutions that maintain the reproduction of gender divisions and stereotypes; and
  • reverse hegemonic relations between students and technology.

In discussing categorization of concepts of self, Gilligan (1982) delineated "separate" versus "connected" knowing, which follow male and female gender lines, respectively. Separate knowing, the world of logic, rigor, and deduction, typifies STEM fields and may explain the disproportionate number of men pursuing them. Valuing connected knowing, that of intuition, context, and induction, may be an avenue for drawing and retaining women in STEM fields.

Projects for youth with disabilities, racial/ethnic minorities, and women have identified promising practices for bringing students from underrepresented groups into STEM fields. Key among these activities are:

  • hands-on science experiences in pre-college environments,
  • work-based and research experiences, bridge programs between academic levels, tutoring,
  • preparation of educators and support staff, and
  • peer support and mentoring(American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2001; Benz, Doren, & Yovanoff, 1998; Burgstahler, 1996; Burgstahler, 1998; Doren & Benz, 1998; Leyser, Vogel, & Wyland, 1998; National Science Foundation, 2001; Phelps & Hanley-Maxwell, 1997).

In the next three subsections of this article, the authors explore research on peer and mentor support as an intervention, including published research on the role of peer and mentor relationships in the DO-IT Scholars program.

Peer and Mentor Support

Peer-peer and mentor-protégé networks for support and informal instruction are promising practices for increasing the participation of underrepresented groups in STEM fields (National Science Foundation, 2001). Mentors and peers can help young people explore academic and career options, set goals, identify resources, strengthen interpersonal skills, and develop a sense of identity (Byers-Lang & McCall, 1993; Kram & Isabella, 1985, Saito & Blyth, 1992). Peers and mentors can serve as role models; provide friendship, advice, and information; and enhance a sense of belonging (Kram & Isabella; Stainback, Stainback, & Wilkinson, 1992). Adolescence is a critical time for reworking of earlier conflicts (Blos, 1979) and identity formation (Erikson, 1950, 1968; Turkle, 1984). During late adolescence (ages 16 to 22), individuals' self-concepts become integrated sets of beliefs that include morals and personal choices (Jacobs, Bleeker, & Constantino, 2003). Peers are particularly important and influential during this life stage. Social support can ease the transition period following high school, when a student's structured environment ends and many support systems are no longer in place (Stainback, Stainback, & Wilkinson, 1992).

Forming peer support groups and mentor relationships can be problematic for students with disabilities, however. Individuals with disabilities are often isolated from potential role models, mentors, and peers who face challenges at school or work that are similar to their own (Brown & Foster, 1990; Moore & Nye, 1986). Most of these students are included in regular elementary and secondary school classrooms and may have few interactions with other students with disabilities. Barriers to social activities—lack of the ability to speak, unavailability of accessible transportation, need for an interpreter or a personal assistant, inaccessibility of buildings—inhibit connections between students with disabilities and others.

There is some evidence that women benefit more from receiving social support than men (Day & Livingstone, 2003; Thatcher & Perrewe, 2002). Further, a recent study reported that those in female gender roles, be they male or female, reacted more positively to social support than those in male gender roles (Beehr, Farmer, Glazer, Gudanowski, & Nair, 2003). Women tend to have larger social support networks than men. Women have been socialized to seek out social support and confide in others, whereas men are taught to be independent and refrain from expressing emotions (Ragins, 1989; Monnier, Stone, Hobfoll, & Johnson, 1998). There is also evidence that women turn to friends more easily whereas men more readily seek support from superiors (Greenglass, 1993).

Online Mentoring and Peer Support

Computer-mediated communication (CMC), in which people use computers and networking technologies to communicate with one another, can connect people separated in time and space who might not otherwise meet. The removal of social cues and distinctions such as disability, race, and facial expression through text-only communication can lead socially anxious individuals to feel more confident about communicating with others. Young adults can learn through sharing information, questioning information, verbalizing opinions, and weighing arguments online (Harasim & Winkelmans, 1990; Wighton, 1993). Although proximity is critical to developing peer and mentor support in most settings (Stainback, Stainback, & Wilkinson, 1992), the Internet provides a medium with the potential to build and sustain human relationships over great distances. Online life allows space for adolescents to develop confidence, friendship, and social skills and escape the pressures of the world offline (Turkle, 1995).

The Internet has been found to offer a way for students with disabilities and mentors to network effectively (Burgstahler, 1997; Burgstahler & Cronheim, 2001). For those for whom standard keyboards, mice, and monitors erect barriers, assistive technology makes it possible to participate in computer-mediated communication. For example, people with mobility impairments can use speech input and alternative keyboards, and those who are visually impaired can access computers using text-to-speech and screen enlargement software. People with hearing and speech impairments can communicate more independently than in face-to-face interactions. The combination of assistive technology and electronic mail can help overcome geographic, temporal, and disability-related barriers to establishing peer and mentor support groups. CMC can reduce social isolation and allow independent access to information resources (Burgstahler & Cronheim, 2001).

Although computer-mediated communication has the potential to empower women as well as those with disabilities, CMC does not always create a level playing field. Rickly (1999) points out that the computer environment allows "equal opportunity" to participate that face-to-face communication often denies, but she notes that the discourse is not necessarily egalitarian. Gurak (1999) argues that men still dominate on the Internet and women still ask questions in self-effacing fashion. Because using email is "both social and technical" (Christie, 1997, p. 170), it has the potential to support both separate and connected knowing, for both masculine and feminine orientations.

One Interventive Approach: DO-IT Scholars

Harter (1990) suggests that interventions to enhance self-esteem should focus on improving skills in specific domains important to the developing person. McClelland's (2001) research demonstrates that the bridges needed to close the gap in representation of marginal groups in computer environments include positive role models, access, skills, encouragement, and self-confidence. The DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Scholars program is designed to do just that.

DO-IT's interventions are based on an understanding of adolescent development, an awareness of barriers to STEM fields, and a knowledge of assistive technology that provides computer access to people with disabilities. DO-IT's success in using CMC to help students with disabilities minimize social isolation and achieve academic and career goals has been documented by research (Kim-Rupnow & Burgstahler, 2004) and recognized by awards that include the President's Award for "embodying excellence in mentoring underrepresented students and encouraging their significant achievement in science, mathematics, and engineering" and the National Information Infrastructure Award for using the Internet to support educational goals. DO-IT is directed by the University of Washington and primarily funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and the State of Washington. DO-IT works to increase the participation of students with disabilities in academic programs and challenging careers in STEM. DO-IT Scholars are college-bound high school students with disabilities. They meet face to face during live-in summer study programs at the University of Washington in Seattle and communicate year-round with each other and adult mentors via the Internet. A wide range of disabilities is represented in the group, including hearing impairments, mobility impairments, visual impairments, specific learning disabilities, and health impairments. DO-IT provides a computer, assistive technology, and an Internet connection in each Scholar's home.

Research Study

Given an understanding of the effects of gender differences on involvement in STEM fields and of the value of peer and mentor support, the researchers set out to discover whether differences exist in how male and female DO-IT Scholars communicate with their peers and mentors. Understanding that "fundamental conceptual categories" (Turkle, 1984, p. 165) are forged in adolescence through computer use, the authors were interested in determining what topical categories preoccupy DO-IT Scholars as they communicate with each other and with mentors. It was expected that knowledge about what constitutes adolescent cyber talk may shine light on what young people value and may provide insights about differences in their emerging self-concepts. Much has been written on differences in ways women and men communicate. Concerns about self-efficacy and self-concept are also discussed in the disability literature, but less is known about how disability interacts with gender to influence academic self-concepts. The ultimate goal of the current research is to provide evidence-based direction to educators seeking to enhance the academic and career self-concepts, interests, and skills of women with disabilities and to interest more girls with disabilities in STEM and other fields where they have been underrepresented.

The DO-IT electronic community is designed to ease the social isolation and advance the academic and career goals of students with disabilities. In earlier studies (Burgstahler, 1997; Burgstahler & Cronheim, 2001), content analysis of email messages identified several conceptual categories in the text of email messages between DO-IT Scholars and Mentors. Building on this earlier work, an exploratory study was undertaken to examine the differences between males and females regarding their use of CMC in this electronic community. In the current study, researchers studied gender differences in CMC messages of DO-IT Scholars. They also explored whether or not the gender dominance of males in information technology arenas holds true in an electronic community of young people with disabilities.

Research Questions

This study addresses the following research questions:

  1. Are male and female adolescents with disabilities different in their use of CMC with peers and mentors? If so, how?

  2. If differences do exist in CMC between males and females, do they perpetuate gender stereotypes with respect to STEM?


Subjects. Subjects in this research study were 16 female and 24 male DO-IT Scholars and 34 DO-IT Mentors. Participation in this research activity was voluntary and did not affect participation in other DO-IT activities. Written consent was obtained from all participants and also from parents of those under 18 years of age.

Procedure. Data were collected from email messages. DO-IT Scholars who participated in the study agreed to allow copies of their email messages to be coded by research staff. Email accounts of participating Scholars were configured to automatically transmit copies of their messages to research staff; Scholars were shown how to turn off the automatic message copy feature and allowed to do so at will. Messages that participants elected not to copy to the research archive were not included in the study. Anecdotal information suggested that these numbers were relatively small. To encourage candid participation, research staff who coded messages did not interact with the Scholars participating in the study and did not share the names of authors of specific messages with others.

A coding system was devised to reflect the content of each message, which was also identified by whether the sender was providing or seeking information and was or was not using a personal "tone" in the message. Content codes were developed through a review of DO-IT program goals and of the literature on mentoring, peer support, and computer-mediated communication (Burgstahler & Cronheim, 2001). Messages were assigned a single code or multiple codes according to content. Each code is described below.

Academics, SEM (science, engineering, and mathematics): References to subjects in science, engineering, or mathematics, including school, work, and hobbies.

Academics, Non-SEM: References to subjects other than SEM (e.g., Spanish, history, literature, physical education) and general references to school, extracurricular activities, homework, and so on.

Career/Volunteer/Work: References to work, volunteering, and careers, including position descriptions, application processes, interviewing, and opportunities.

Personal: Information about participants' personal lives, including content about family, feelings, friendships, activities, and hobbies, that are not already captured by other codes.

Disability: References to disabilities or disability-related information, including accommodations, legal issues, and access issues.

Technical/Internet: References to computer and network-related content, including technical support, information about the Internet and resources, hardware, software, and troubleshooting.

DO-IT Activities/Opportunities: References to DO-IT, including project information, events, scheduling, and staff.

Other Activities/Opportunities: References to activities or projects that are not directly related to DO-IT, such as science contests, field trips, presentations, and other outreach programs.

College Transition: References to information related to college or preparation for college, including financial aid, letters of recommendation, instructors, college names and locations, and resources.

Data Analysis

While there are several potential approaches to analysis of gender differences, researchers in this study compared relative proportions; in the language of a probability structure, this means that questions addressed are in the form "If a message contains content on SEM, what is the likelihood that it was sent by a male or a female?" Hence, relative proportions in this study refer to gender. To test differences in means between male and female Scholar messages, the researchers employed the independent samples t-test using the summed variable created across all content codes for seeking information and providing information behaviors.


Research Question 1: Are male and female adolescents with disabilities different in their use of CMC with peers and mentors? If so, how?

The results of the current study suggest that male and female adolescents with disabilities have both similarities and differences in their use of CMC with peers and mentors.

Scholar to Scholar messages. As indicated in Table 1, of the 7,071 total email messages between DO-IT Scholars in this study, 3,609 were sent by male Scholars and 3,462 by female Scholars. As Table 2 indicates, Scholars sent 2,973 messages to Mentors. Because there were more male than female Scholars, the researchers first examined the relative proportions of messages sent and determined that, on average, females sent out 10% more messages than males. Visual examination of the relative frequencies of email messages and their themes reveals that female Scholars communicate more frequently and on a greater variety of themes than their male peers. Both male and female Scholars are likely to use a personal tone in their email communications. Ninety-five percent of male Scholar messages used a personal tone, compared to 97% of female Scholar messages.

Tables 1 and 2 provide data, much of which is illustrated in Figures 1 and 2, that demonstrate that, overall, female Scholars communicated more than male Scholars in all content areas except Internet/technical, in which males communicate more than females. Female Scholars are more likely to both provide and seek information about SEM, non-SEM, personal issues, activities and opportunities, and college transition than the male Scholars. Females are also more likely to seek and provide personal information. Female and male Scholars are equally likely to provide information about career/volunteer/work and disability, but female Scholars are more likely to seek information in these areas than male Scholars. Male Scholars are much more likely to both provide and seek information about the Internet and other technical issues than the female Scholars.

Table 3 displays the results of independent samples t-tests examining the differences between the total number of providing (n=8) and seeking (n=6) behaviors in the peer-peer dyads. Female Scholars are significantly more likely than male Scholars (M=0.73, SD = 0.90 compared to M=0.57, SD = .77, respectively) to seek information across all content codes (t(3609)= -5.12, p<.001, two-tailed and t(3462)= -6.648 , p<.001, two-tailed). Female Scholars are also significantly more likely to provide information (M=1.87, SD= 1.21 compared to M=1.70, SD=1.16, respectively) across all content codes.

Scholar to Mentor messages. Of the 2,973 messages sent to Mentors in this study, 1,679 were from male and 1,274 were from female Scholars. Female Scholars communicate more with Mentors on SEM and non-SEM academic topics than do male Scholars. Males and females communicate at about the same levels with Mentors about career, volunteer, and work topics. Male Scholars both seek information from and provide information to Mentors about the Internet and technology much more than their female peers.

Research Question 2: If differences do exist in CMC between males and females, do they perpetuate gender stereotypes with respect to STEM?

Consistent with the literature review, the results reported above indicate that there is a tendency for gender stereotyping in the expected direction. Female Scholars chat more about personal issues. Male Scholars are more preoccupied with information technology than female Scholars. The following quotations provide examples of the content in messages with specific codes:

Female Scholar providing information on academics, SEM: "Don't worry.... I don't need to re-take it [calculus]. I did quite well in the end...If I didn't tell you already, I will be happy to repeat it..." (Note: This female scholar exhibited self-efficacy after doing well on an exam—3.7 on a final after getting a 2.4 on the midterm. Previous messages by this same subject indicate low confidence about her mathematical ability.)

Male Scholar seeking academic, non-SEM related information: "I am wondering how to get up-to-date quotes from the stock exchange. My teacher can do it from America-on-line, but I can't."

Male Scholar providing academic, SEM information: "Let's study together, by playing the program on the modem."

Male Scholar seeking career information : "Can you help me find an internship in any science related setting?"

Female Scholar providing personal information: "Hey—guess who came to visit me today...Charles my X-boyfriend; [I] guess that was a late Christmas gift from god or someone..."

Male Scholar providing information on disability: "Last week, I went on a tour of Canine Companions in Santa Rosa, California. Now I can't wait to get a dog."

Female Scholar providing disability-related technical information: "I notice that the Braille 'n' Speak supposedly comes with a sophisticated scientific calculator and disk....You can print your calculations if you have the Braille translator off (ASCII). You can also insert calculations into text, which may be valuable to you for papers...."

Female Scholar providing technical/Internet information: "Well, a MOO is a central computer site that ppl from all over the world net to conversate and such. A wizard basically is the head programmer there. It is a whole electronic world...and *I* help lead it." (Note: This quotation bodes well for women in technical leadership roles.)

Male Scholar seeking technical information: "I was wondering if any of you are familiar in programming with the C/C++ language. I have been writing programs in it for over a year now, but just recently became real 'serious' about it." (Note: Here we see a male Scholar who has come into the DO-IT program with a year of programming expertise. He is able to solidify an already strong technological self-concept.)

Male Scholar providing information about DO-IT: "There's a directory that has all the articles that have been related to DO-IT stuff..."

Female Scholar providing information about college transition: "Chemistry is a pain and socializing is fun...*grin*"

Male Scholar providing information on college transition: "Well, I'm graduating this Sunday. Then I'm off to Bozeman to college in the Fall Chemical Engineering. I'm either going to live in the dorm or in married housing so I can have an attendant. No I'm not married. Don't want to ruin my college life!!!!!! or my reputation as babe cruiser...So far, I have had no accommodation problems in college. It has [been] fine academically, though it has been a flop in the social sense. When those of you who haven't gone yet go, I suggest being aggressive in enjoying the student body activities available." (Note: This message suggests a possible need for males to be supported in getting more personally/socially "connected.")

Discussion, Limitations, and Future Research

True to gender stereotypes, boys in this study were more preoccupied with the Internet and technology and girls with "personal issues." These results suggest that information technology is still a male bastion and that more work may be needed to encourage women to enhance their "Internet and technology" self-concepts to achieve equity in this area. The fact that male Scholars communicated more with Mentors about the Internet and technology than female Scholars partially supports Greenglass's (1993) finding that males are more likely to consult a superior than females. Because of the important role mentors can play in promoting success in college and careers, finding ways to encourage females to seek such support is of critical importance. However, it is encouraging that female Scholars communicated more about science, engineering, and mathematics with both peers and Mentors. Here is evidence of the "blurring of existing gender stereotypes" (Christie, 1997, p. 172).

Identifying what domains are important to specific Scholars and even what might be left out because of gender role socialization suggests areas of needed intervention. A "one size fits all" approach is not supported by the results of the current study. As suggested in previous research reported in this article, valuing "connected knowing" may be one inroad to closing the digital divide between males and females.

In considering limitations of the study, it is important to note that the population under investigation was a group of college-capable Scholars with interest in one of the STEM fields as a criterion for admission into the program. Despite this being an elite group, however, we know from the literature that women with aptitudes in STEM fields often do not persist in these fields and those who do often hit a "glass ceiling" in spite of competence in a chosen STEM profession. Encouraging women to develop their mathematical and technological self-concepts must go hand in hand with public policy to ensure equal access to jobs and mitigation of "overt sex discrimination" (IRMA, 2004, p. 2) toward women in STEM fields.

The authors have focused on female Scholars in this study; this focus is but one side of the equation. What we have not considered is how boys might be encouraged to defy gender stereotypes and use CMC for increasing the opportunity for connection, e.g., for addressing "personal issues." Another limitation results from the participants' ability to turn off the archive saving function; some messages were lost in the process. The authors also did not code the data for gender of the DO-IT Mentor; however, previous research suggests that the gender of the mentor does not matter (Ulki-Steiner et al., 2000).

While data collected in the reported research was from a convenience sample with non-normal distributions, the t-tests have been shown to be robust to Type I errors despite violations of the assumptions (Reichardt & Gollob, 1999; Sawilowsky & Hillman, 1992). The sample sizes of both Scholars and the messages they generated were large enough to ensure adequate power (see Cohen, 1988).

This study suggests the following questions for future research:

  1. Besides gender, what other factors influence the level and content of peer-peer and mentor-protégé interactions (e.g., age, academic interest, disability type)?
  2. Is the level of online interaction related to the degree to which a participant's disability limits other social interactions?
  3. What effect does meeting face to face have on peer-peer relationships primarily sustained online?
  4. How does the content of CMC between peers and between protégés and mentors change over time?
  5. With targeted intervention aimed at supporting female Scholars in feeling a sense of mastery in computer technology, does the gender dynamic shift—in other words, does female Scholars' cyber talk about technology increase?
  6. How is the gender of the receiver of email messages related to their content?
  7. How do the results of this study compare with those from a group of adolescents who do not have disabilities?


The study reported in this article focused on gender differences in email communication between peers with disabilities and between these young people and their mentors. This is to the authors' knowledge the first study of its kind and, although caution must be exercised in generalizing to the larger population, the results provide a foundational warrant for pursuit of this kind of gender research. While there is evidence to support the notion that women are forging conceptual categories that conceivably influence their self-concepts related to STEM, there is still work needed to enhance their comfort with technology. With understanding of females, such as that described here, both female and male educators and mentors can be better equipped to provide girls with disabilities with the skills, confidence, and motivation to excel in high-tech fields. Results provide evidence-based direction to educators seeking to enhance the academic and career self-concepts, interests, and skills of women with disabilities and to interest more girls with disabilities in STEM and other fields where they have been underrepresented. Conclusions from this study can guide programs in mediating electronic communities by attending to gender differences. They suggest that when promoting universal access, we must incorporate a perspective that considers not only disability but also the effects of gender.


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The development of this publication is supported by the National Science Foundation (Cooperative Agreement #HRD-0227995) and the U.S. Department of Education (Grant #P333A020044). The opinions, positions, and recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding agencies.

Text Description of Table 1. Content of Scholar to Scholar E-mail Messages Broken Down by Scholar Gender

Of the 7,071 total email messages between DO-IT Scholars in this study, 3,609 were sent by male Scholars and 3,462 by female Scholars. Content codes are listed on the left margin in the following order: SEM, Non-SEM, Career/volunteer/work, Personal, Disability, Technical Internet, DO-IT activities/opportunities, Other activities/opportunities, College transition. Associated with each of these content codes reading from left to right are the number of messages within each content code sent by male Scholars, per cent of those messages within each content code sent by males, number of messages within each content code sent by female Scholars, per cent of those messages within each content code sent by females. The overall trend depicted in this table reveals that the majority of email messages between Scholars, male or female, included personal content (39 % and 43 %, respectively). Females discussed more non-SEM topics than males (12% versus 9%). Males discussed more technical/Internet content than females (27% and 20%, respectively). Overall, males and females had similar discussion patterns in all other content code categories. With respect to seeking information, females sought more personal information than males (26% versus 19%), discussed more non-SEM topics (6% versus 3%), DO-IT activities/opportunities (11% versus 9%), and college transition topics (4% versus 2%). Males sought more technical/Internet information (20% versus 16%). Males and females had similar discussion patterns on all other content code categories with respect to seeking information within these categories. Females provided slightly more information regarding SEM (12% versus 10%) and DO-IT activities/opportunities (31% versus 29%) than males. Females provided more information regarding non-SEM (21% versus 17%), personal information (58% versus 51%), and college transition (14% versus 8%). Males provided more information regarding technical/Internet content (50% versus 42%).

  Scholar to Scholar
N = 7071
  Male messages
N =3609
  Female messages
N =3462
Overall content by gender seeking or providing: No. of messages % of n   No. of messages % of n
SEM 342 6   302 6
Non-SEM 500 9   558 12
Career/volunteer/work 147 3   106 2
Personal 2085 39   2061 43
Disability 178 3   157 3
Technical Internet 1436 27   932 20
DO-IT activities/opportunities 443 8   489 10
Other activities/opportunities 24 0   35 1
College transition 59 1   81 2

Seeking information regarding content:          
SEM 99 2   136 3
Non-SEM 181 3   284 6
Career/volunteer/work 75 1   84 2
Personal 1005 19   1229 26
Disability 126 2   147 3
Technical Internet 1046 20   741 16
DO-IT activities/opportunities 479 9   543 11
Other activities/opportunities 25 0   45 1
College transition 119 2   173 4

Providing information regarding content:          
SEM 535 10   575 12
Non-SEM 886 17   1021 21
Career/volunteer/work 485 9   424 9
Personal 2703 51   2768 58
Disability 619 12   564 12
Technical Internet 2652 50   2014 42
DO-IT activities/opportunities 1556 29   1462 31
Other activities/opportunities 49 1   76 2
College transition 446 8   682 14

*Note: In both Tables 1 and 2, the total percentages reported in each sector exceed 100% because it is possible for a communication to be coded against two or more headings.

Text Description of Table 2. Content of Scholar to Mentor E-mail Messages Broken Down by Scholar Gender

Of 2,973 messages sent by Scholars to Mentors in this study, 1,679 were from male and 1,274 were from female Scholars. Content codes are listed on the left margin in the following order: SEM, Non-SEM, Career/volunteer/work, Personal, Disability, Technical/Internet, DO-IT activities/opportunities, Other activities/opportunities, College transition. Associated with each of these content codes reading from left to right are the number of messages within each content code sent by male Scholars, per cent of those messages within each content code sent by males, number of messages within each content code sent by female Scholars, per cent of those messages within each content code sent by females. The overall trend depicted in this table reveals that except for technical/Internet, females communicated more with Mentors than males in all categories: SEM (24% versus 17%), Career/volunteer/work, Personal (48% versus 40%), Disability (23% versus 19%). Sixty-nine per cent of messages sent by males to Mentors concerned technical/Internet versus 51% for females. Females sought slightly more information from Mentors regarding SEM (5% versus 3 %), career/volunteer/work (3% versus 1%), personal (14% versus 11%), and college transition (5% versus 3%). Males sought more information from Mentors regarding technical/Internet content than females (26% versus 16%). except for personal information, females provided more information to Mentors on SEM (22% versus 10 %), Non-SEM (21% versus 17%), career/volunteer/work (15% versus 9%), disability (21% versus 12%), technical/Internet (47% versus 50%), DO-IT activities (47% versus 50%), Other activities/opportunities (3% versus 1%), and college transition (23% versus %). Of messages provided to Mentors by males, 50% were personal; of messages provided to Mentors by females, 45% were personal.

Table 2*

Content of Scholar to Mentor E-mail Messages Broken Down by Scholar Gender

  Scholar to Mentor
N = 2973
  Male messages
N =1679
  Female messages
N =1274
Overall content by gender seeking or providing: No. of messages % of n   No. of messages % of n
SEM 286 17   311 24
Non-SEM 297 18   272 21
Career/volunteer/work 274 16   210 16
Personal 677 40   621 48
Disability 327 19   295 23
Technical Internet 1155 69   660 51
DO-IT activities/opportunities 797 47   634 49
Other activities/opportunities 43 03   46 4
College transition 262 16   323 25

Seeking information regarding:          
SEM 42 3   60 5
Non-SEM 28 2   21 2
Career/volunteer/work 20 1   44 3
Personal 190 11   179 14
Disability 68 4   68 5
Technical Internet 434 26   207 16
DO-IT activities/opportunities 234 14   192 15
Other activities/opportunities 16 1   22 2
College transition 50 3   64 5

Providing information regarding:          
SEM 535 10   290 22
Non-SEM 886 17   266 21
Career/volunteer/work 485 9   191 15
Personal 2703 51   586 45
Disability 619 12   270 21
Technical Internet 2652 50   602 47
DO-IT activities/opportunities 1556 29   576 45
Other activities/opportunities 49 1   35 3
College transition 446 8   302 23

Text description of Table 3. Means and Standard Deviations by Gender on Providing vs. Seeking Behaviors between Scholars

Table 3 displays the results of independent samples t-tests examining the differences between the total number of providing (n=8) and seeking (n=6) behaviors in the peer-peer dyads. Female Scholars are significantly more likely than male Scholars (mean=0.73, standard deviation = 0.90 compared to mean=0.57, standard deviation = .77, respectively) to seek information across all content codes. Female Scholars are also significantly more likely to provide information (mean =1.87, standard deviation = 1.21 compared to mean =1.70, standard deviation =1.16, respectively) across all content codes. Results are significant at the .001 level.

Table 3

Means and Standard Deviations by Gender on Providing vs. Seeking Behaviors between Scholars

Variable   n M SD

Provide** Male 3609 1.70 1.16
Female 3462 1.87 1.21
Seek** Male 3609 1.70 1.16
  Female 3462 1.87 1.21

Note: For the 'provide' information, equal variances could not be assumed (per Levene's Test of Equality of Variances) and appropriate adjustments were made. Range of behaviors varied from 0 to 8 types of providing behaviors and 0 to 6 types of seeking behaviors.

**Gender difference significant at p<.001.

Text Description of Figure 1. Providing Information Within Content Code by Gender

Figure 1 is a bar graph comparing the content codes by gender. On the vertical axis are relative proportions (relative to gender), ranging from 0 to .7. The horizontal axis depicts the content codes in the following order: SEM, Non-SEM, Career/Volunteer/Work, Personal, Disability, DO-IT, Opportunities, Transition. Males and females are compared within each content code in that order; the first darker bar represents the level of communication of male Scholars, the second lighter bar represents the level of communication of female Scholars. With respect to general trends, visual inspection reveals that Personal and Technical/Internet are higher than all other variables, and Opportunities are very low. Hence, the majority of CMC communication centered on Personal and Technical/Internet and the least discussion took place on Opportunities. Little or no gender differences are evident in Volunteer/Work, and Disability categories. In all other categories except Technical/Internet females are higher.

Figure 1

Text Description of Figure 2. Seeking Information Within Content Code by Gender

Figure 2 is a bar graph comparing the content codes by gender. On the vertical axis are relative proportions (relative to gender), ranging from 0 to .3. The horizontal axis depicts the content codes in the following order: SEM, Non-SEM, Career/Volunteer/Work, Personal, Disability, DO-IT, Opportunities, Transition. Male and females are compared within in each content code in that order; the first darker bar represents the level of communication of male Scholars, the second lighter bar represents the level of communication of female Scholars. With respect to general trends, visual inspection reveals that Personal and Technical/Internet are than higher all other variables, and Opportunities are very low. Hence, the majority of CMC communication centered on Personal and Technical/Internet and the least discussion took place on Opportunities. Little or no gender differences are evident in Volunteer/Work, and Disability categories. On all other categories except Technical/Internet females are higher.

Figure 2 -