When the world’s first electronic tube computer, the University of Pennsylvania’s ENIAC, went on line in 1945, all six of its programmers were women.
One of those programmers, Betty Holberton, later designed the control console for UNIVAC I, wrote the FORTRAN test suites for the National Bureau of Standards and chaired the committee that set the standards for COBOL.
But 60 years later, walk the aisles at Comdex and it’s clear that IT has evolved into a largely male profession. In this article we look at the declining number of women pursuing computer-related career paths and what is being done to attract and keep more women in the field.
The percentage of women has been gradually rising in most formerly male-dominated professions. According to the Census Bureau, women have received more bachelor’s degrees than men each year since 1982. In terms of higher degrees, the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession reports that in 1970 women made up only 10% of first-year law students, but by 1999 they comprised 49% of the freshman class.
The opposite, however, appears to be occurring in IT. While women online may outnumber men, the number of women being trained in the field has dropped.
“When it comes to today’s computer culture, the bottom line is that while more girls are on the train, they aren’t the ones driving,” says Pamela Haag, director of research for the American Association of University Women’s Educational Foundation Commission on Technology, Gender and Teacher Education.
The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) Taskforce on Workforce and Education’s study, Building the 21st Century Information Technology Work Force: Underrepresented Groups in the Information Technology Workforce, states that while women make up 41% of the total IT workforce, once you factor out data entry, only one quarter of computer professionals are female.
“To get girls ‘under the hood’ of technology, they need to see that it gets them where they want to go,” Haag continues. “And for a large part of the population, that process must start in the classroom.”
But that process isn’t occurring. And, unlike other professions where women are underrepresented, the situation has been getting worse. While women make up 55% of those studying toward bachelor’s and master’s degrees, they only comprise 21% of those pursuing IT degrees. In 1984, 35.8% of all computer science degrees were awarded to women, but only 28.4% in 1996. Looking earlier in the pipeline, the College Board reports that only 17% of those taking the Advanced Placement test for Computer Science were female.
What lies behind this trend? A primary barrier to getting more women interested in pursuing an IT career is one of perception.
“Girls tend to imagine that computer professionals or those who work heavily with information technology live in a solitary, antisocial world,” says the AAUW report Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age. “This is an alienating — and incorrect — perception.”
Several initiatives are underway to provide a more human face of high-tech professionals, and show that women are active in these fields. These programs are not limited to computer science alone, but also other types of science or technology.
Hollywood’s Women in Film organization, for example, produced two television public service announcements, with sponsorship from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, to encourage girls and minorities to pursue tech fields. One spot was directed at teenagers and the other was directed toward adults, encouraging them to mentor children.
On an ongoing basis, the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau has teamed up with NASA in hosting conferences and events throughout the country to increase interest in technology professions. Through this partnership, four Girl Scouts were invited to act as reporters the 100th space shuttle launch, shadowing and interviewing women working for NASA. Their reports were then webcast by NASA.
The Women in NASA site (ltp.arc.nasa.gov/women/) provides biographies and pictures of hundreds of employees and shows that they do have a life outside of the laboratory and away from the keyboard. The site also includes online chats with many of these people. There is even a Young Women’s Advisory Council, composed of high school students who participate in NASA activities.
But beyond changing the image of the field, ongoing guidance is needed to help someone along their career path.
“You need to find a mentor, even if it is a man, who can advise you on career steps and growth along the way,” says Mountain View, Calif.-based Catherine Kitcho, formerly director of new ventures at TRW and now a successful consultant (www.LaunchDoctor.com) who has helped companies such as Cisco Systems, Nortel and NCR launch new products. The man who hired her at TRW has remained her mentor for the past 12 years, even though she no longer works there.
“We still have lunch now and then,” Kitcho says. “I bounce ideas off him and always value his opinion.”
Several online projects have been set up to fulfill the need for mentoring girls and young women. MentorNet (www.advancingwomen.com/wk_mentornet.html) is one designed for undergraduate and graduate students.
The Rochester Institute of Technology’s Project EDGE (www.rit.edu/~edge/) targets young women with mentoring as well as training teachers, counselors and professors in gender equality techniques for the classroom.
The Computing Research Association’s Distributed Mentor Project (www.cra.org/Activities/craw/dmp/) provides summer research programs for undergraduates in computer science and computer engineering.
Support is also available for those already working in the field through groups such as Women in Technology International (www.witi.org), the Computer Research Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research (www.cra.org/activities/craw), the IEEE’s Women in Engineering committee (services3.ieee.org/organizations/committee/women/), the Association for Women in Computing (www.acw-hq.org) and the Association for Computing Machinery’s Committee on Women in Computing (www.acm.org/women/).
For More Information
Many of the organizations mentioned in this article also provide links to other resources for women. Other useful websites include: