Where have all the women gone?: Page 2

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By the time they get to high school, girls are more likely than their male classmates to use computers for word processing and less likely to take computer programming classes or to use the computer to solve math and science problems, according to a 1999 study, "Computers and Classrooms: The Status of Technology in U.S. Schools," by the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J.

This difference in computer use and technology achievement happens in part because society lets girls off the hook when it comes to their lack of interest in the sciences, according to Kathy Richardson, a senior researcher at the Institute for Women and Technology, in Palo Alto, Calif.

"Our culture doesn't encourage women to pursue sciences," she says. "Girls are always given excuses why they don't have to work at it--we don't even have to try."

While this problem is starting to be addressed in programs around the country, the sad truth is that the sciences are becoming more male-dominated, which makes it even harder for women to fit in and feel comfortable, according to Richardson.

Relevancy impacts choice of career

Stereotypes of engineers and technology professionals give girls the wrong idea about technology, Richardson says. She cites a 1999 Vancouver study by Supporting Women in InFormation Technology (SWIFT) of high-school students. The study found that girls want careers in a field that they feel has a positive impact on society, and that girls did not see a connection between the sciences and quality of life. SWIFT is a five-year research, action, and implementation project to increase the participation of women in IT. Richardson says she'd characterize one of the findings this way: Females are more concerned than males about choosing a career that makes the world a better place.

"People don't understand the implications of having telephone service, or fetal monitors, or even having clean water," says Richardson, who graduated from the University of New Mexico in 1984 with a BS in engineering. "The message that technology is doing good things for society is not getting across."

When Drumright, a 1983 graduate of UC Berkeley with a BS in Computer Science, recently returned to her all-girl high school for career day, she noticed that the sessions on fashion design were packed, while her talk on technology had barely 30 girls.

"The girls said they thought that computer programmers spent the day sitting at a computer," she says. "But then I showed them the salary ranges for computer professionals, and they sat right up."

The stereotype of computer programmers working in isolation is a common one. "Women think of engineers sitting around in cubes all day long, and it's really not right," says Janet Lin, a software engineer at Fujitsu in Pearl River, N.Y. She says that only about 30% of her job is writing code, and the rest is designing and testing--all of which involves communication with other people. Lin graduated in 1988 with an MS in Computer Science from the University of Texas, Dallas.

The mission of the Institute for Women and Technology is to change this perception of technology and to show women how technology is relevant to their lives. Richardson and IWT run workshops made up of women of all ages, cultures, and abilities to get their ideas for technology and how their ideas might help their families. She brings the groups' ideas to IWT's Virtual Development Center, where technologists work to make them a reality.

In its first year (1999-2000), the Virtual Development Center worked on three women-inspired projects, including one called the "Family Buddy," which is a system that uses hand-held devices, pagers, and home computers to help families organize their lives, share information, and keep in contact with other family members.

"It's amazing the ideas we hear in the workshops," Richardson says. "Every person has valuable ideas. Our society tends to tune out so many people."

IWT hopes that by getting women involved in technology, the technology will begin to better reflect their needs. Once women see the value of technology, they might be interested in participating, Richardson says.

Women at work

For women in the field, the dearth of women at work can create an uncomfortable atmosphere.

"I felt I had to prove myself a lot, especially in my first couple of jobs," says Drumright, who as vice president is now in a position to hire women herself. "I felt prejudices. I was the junior person and I needed to establish my ground."


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