Fewer Women Joining the IT Ranks

The numbers of women in IT are not only poor, they actually are worse than they used to be. What's going wrong and what can be done about it?
Posted November 12, 2004

Drew Robb

Drew Robb

In this age of increased gender equality when women are doctors, astronauts and Supreme Court Justices, the stats for women in IT are surprisingly poor.

According to the American Association of University Women based in Washington, D.C., women represent roughly 20 percent of IT professionals, and receive less than 28 percent of the bachelors degrees in computer science. That's down from a high of 37 percent in 1984. Computer science has the distinction of being the only field in which women's participation has actually decreased over time.

''The numbers for women trained in IT are down dramatically,'' says Dr. Telle Whitney, president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute for Women, a Palo Alto-based organization that provides a platform to allow women's voices, ideas and spirits to influence technology. Whitney received a Ph.D in computer science from Cal Tech.

In engineering, the numbers are even worse. According to the National Academy of Engineering, women account for only 19 percent of engineering graduates.

So while women make up about half of the U.S. workforce, why do they make such a poor showing in technical fields? And more importantly, what can and is being done about it?

Girls in Math Class

Problems in the American education system have been well documented. Particularly in the field of math, warring educational philosophies have meant that students generally score lower in math than their contemporaries in other developed nations. To make matters worse, many teachers don't expect girls to excel in math, so they don't focus on them in class and they don't push them to do better. Some girls pick up this cue and don't expect to do well either.

''At school, I was told that my B grades in math and science were really good for a girl,'' says Jasmine Noel, an IT analyst specializing in network management for New York-based Ptak, Noel & Associates. Noel now holds a bachelor of science degree from MIT and a master of science degree from the University of Southern California.

Unfortunately, little has changed since she was in school.

A few years back, a career awareness survey was conducted by The Futures Channel, a Los Angeles-based media company whose programming focuses on education, engineering, technology and space. Young girls named teacher, secretary and nurse as their main job possibilities.

''Students generally were very unfamiliar with the workplace and opportunities available to them,'' says Anne Prohov, education coordinator at The Futures Channel. ''This was especially the case for young girls. There was a surprising absence of awareness of engineering and technology-type jobs.''

This year's Lemelson-MIT Invention Index shows a new twist.

Instead of focusing on these traditional professions, girls appear to be increasingly influenced by America's seemingly celebrity-obsessed culture. Now 32 percent say they want to be an actress, while 24 percent want to be a musician and 22 percent want to be an athlete. Seventeen percent want to be elected president. Only 10 percent want to get into the field of science/innovation.

Fortunately, there are more organizations than ever intent on changing things.

The Anita Borg Institute, for example, just organized the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing Conference with more than 900 participants from academia and industry. This represents a big gain over past events which managed no more than 650 attendees.

''We often hear stories about students ready to drop out because they are fed up being the only woman,'' says Whitney. ''The conferences help them to network with their peers and provide access to mentors. Most return with a higher level of commitment to their course of studies.''

Another organization working hard to reverse the trend is the Math/Science Network, based at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. The organization's members oversee a set of conferences known as ''Expanding your Horizons (EYH) in Science and Mathematics.'' The purpose of these gatherings is to increase the participation of women in science, engineering, and mathematics. EYH conferences are held in approximately 100 sites in 30 states each year.

''We need to spread the word to young girls about the importance of taking all the math and science they can in high school in order to maximize their career choices,'' says Teri Perl, president of the Math/Science Network. Perl has a Ph.D in mathematics education from Stanford University. ''We also need to provide more role models through conference workshops like EYH.''

Perl spoke at last month's Grace Hopper Conference and utilized a series of three- to five-minute micro-documentaries provided by The Futures Channel. The films feature successful women discussing how they apply mathematics and science in their careers.

Some of the women documented include, New York architect Frances Halsband, whose team designed a new entrance to Penn Station; the work of Beth Richards, an engineer working in photovoltaics at a U.S. Energy Lab; Tracy Frankel, a sports photographer who speaks of images captured in fractions of a second; entomologist Jan Dietrick who uses ratios, statistics and biology in her work; renowned acoustician Elizabeth Cohen, and Eileen Schnock, chief engineer at New York's Department of Environmental Protection, who is working 55 stories underground on a new tunnel to bring water to New York City residents.

''I used the videos as an example to the audience of the kinds of software that educators should use,'' says Perl. ''These clips are designed to answer students' oft-asked question about subjects like math and science -- why do we need to learn this?''

Meantime, Perl continues to organize events. The Math/Science Network celebrates its 30th anniversary at the Lawrence Hall of Science on November 14, for example (details and an invitation are available at http://www.myimpactengine.com/go.asp?a=1&t=274225).

Making a Difference

With such a wealth of well-supported activities addressing the situation, and so many well-meaning individuals attempting to resolve the issue, the hope is that more and more girls will be lured into technical endeavors. While there is a long way to go, there also is plenty of room for optimism. Noel points out, for instance, that when she first attended IT conferences, she would be the only women in the room. That doesn't happen any more.

''I believe things are slowly getting better,'' says Noel.

She notes that part of the problem is the perception that folks in IT sit compiling code in an isolated room or fiddle with computers all day long. That's not an attractive proposition to the average teenage girl thinking about her future. But IT is evolving beyond its 'geeky' origins and business/communication skills are increasingly called for.

''That mix of problem solving, technical knowledge and interpersonal interaction needs more emphasis if more women are to be attracted into IT,'' says Noel. ''In addition, we teach technology as a means of advancing a career in business, not because you want to be a programmer.''

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