Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Fewer Women Joining the IT Ranks

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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