Linda Drumright, VP of engineering, DigitalThink, wanted a career in IT since 7th grade.
When Linda Drumright was 12 years old, her father, an industrial engineer, brought home a professional development pamphlet from IBM Corp. The pamphlet sang the praises of a career in technology and made specific note of the fact that there were not a lot of women in the field.
When Drumright saw it, something immediately clicked for the seventh grader.
“I thought, ‘That is for me,'” says Drumright, now 39 and vice president of engineering at DigitalThink Inc. in San Francisco. “That was the day I decided what I was going to do, and from that moment I focused on that.”
Drumright, who says she’s a person who “always likes to go first,” realized that technology could offer her a career in a wide-open field, with high salaries and lots of flexibility.
But 26 years later, the call to technology that Drumright felt so strongly is the exception, and women remain a minority in the male-dominated world of the sciences.
While jobs in technology are expected to boom in the coming years, women continue to be severely underrepresented in the field. According to 1999 studies by the Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, women receive only 9% of engineering-related bachelor’s degrees and fewer than 28% of the computer science bachelor’s degrees, down from 37% in 1984.
Currently women are an estimated 20% of the IT workforce, and computer science is actually one of the few job groups where the percentage of women in the industry is decreasing, according to the Department of Labor, in Washington, D.C.
If this trend continues, women will be shut out of the most lucrative careers and will not be part of developing the new technologies that will affect their lives. Without a basic understanding of technology, women will also be left out of the decision-making process when it comes to discussions about technology.
The good news is that this growing divide is being closely watched by groups around the country, and a number of innovative programs, including some at the YWCA, the Institute for Women and Technology, and NASA, are working to turn the tide and bring women back into the technological fold.
Why are women so severely underrepresented in technology? It’s a combination of factors that start in the middle-school years and continue throughout a woman’s career, according to the experts.
Beginning sometime in adolescence, many girls start turning off to the sciences and technology, according to a recent study by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation in Washington D.C. Girls are not inspired by programming classes, find computer games too violent, and are not considering technology as a career option, according to the foundation’s April 2000 report, “Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age.”
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.”
Kristin Harkness, a software engineer with more than 15 years of experience, doesn’t feel that being a woman has been particularly relevant to her work. She has noticed, though, that it takes her longer to establish herself with her co-workers than it does her male counterparts.
“I’m not sure if that’s because I’m female or because I work from home,” says Harkness, who has telecommuted full-time as a contract programmer for several financial companies since her daughter was born 10 years ago. Harkness graduated from Wellesley College in 1985 with a BS in Computer Science.
Drumright works hard to make sure that women working for her don’t feel the alienation she sometimes felt as a woman in a male-dominated field. Although she doesn’t make hiring decisions based on gender, she does try to create diverse programming teams that include women. “I am very conscious of the need for women in technology to have good role models,” says Drumright. “So I look for female mentors when they are available.” To help women she has hired, she created a mentor program and a “buddy” program.
Mentors help junior staffers with professional growth issues, like business skills or technical skills. They also provide aspiring women technology professionals with role models, something that is sorely needed in the field, Drumright says. “Buddies” take a new employee under their wing, take her to meetings, or out to lunch, and make sure that she knows a friendly face in the new environment.
“As women, we forget to support each other as peers,” she says. “We don’t have a strong enough voice, but when we back each other good things start to happen. I am very conscious of the need for women in technology to have good role models, so I look for female mentors when they are available.”
Drumright also offers all of her employees a flexible schedule, a benefit that is especially attractive to working mothers. Her staff can work variable hours, work from home a few days, and stay home when their child is sick.
This kind of flexibility is what Harkness finds particularly appealing about her chosen career.
“This is a fabulous field for women,” she says. “It’s highly lucrative, and it’s a field that allows lots of flexibility. That combination makes it a powerful choice for working mothers.”
Turning it around
The key to combating the decline of women in technology is to fight the stereotype of computer professionals working in a solitary, sedentary world, according to the recommendations in the American Association of University Women report. Educators and employers need to let girls understand the reality that all jobs, from the arts to law and medicine, will require more computer knowledge. Women and girls must also learn that a career in the sciences can mean a flexible job with high pay.
Drumright, who knew as a girl that technology would have a huge impact on her life and on society, agrees with the report’s recommendations.
“We need to get out there and show girls what a career in technology can mean to them,” she says. //
Valle Dwight is a freelance writer in Northampton, Mass.
The key to attracting women to a career in technology is to get to them while they’re young. In its report on technology and girls, the American Association of University Women calls for the support and creation of computing clubs, summer-school classes, mentoring programs, science fairs, and other programs that encourage girls to see themselves as capable of careers in technology. Here’s a look at a few innovative programs around the country that support and encourage girls in the sciences: