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