Matilija Press
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Published Article
by Patricia Fry

2001 – Silicon2.0

Women in Technology
Who Are They? Where Are They?

Over half of the college students in America today are women and an impressive number of them are entering scientific fields. But statistics tell a different story in computer science. Men comprise a whopping 80-85 percent of the enrollment in many of the top university programs. In fact, men outnumbered women ten to one in the computer science program at Carnegie Mellon University a couple of years ago.

With an abundance of career opportunities in the technology field and lots of money to be made, why are so few women stepping up to the computer?

According to Julie Pandosh, mathematics teacher at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo. “I think it has a lot to do with cultivating interest early on. I think girls are still underestimating themselves when it comes to their ability in technical skills.”

Seventeen-year-old Jen Schnidman founder of her own web design business, Jenard Productions, is well aware that the world of computers is dominated by boys and men. “None of my female friends are interested in computers besides using them to do homework and Instant Message friends,” says Schnidman. “Last year, when I signed up for computer programming as an elective at school, I was one of two girls in the class and the other girl was my friend who I forced into taking the class. This year, I’m the only girl.”

You don’t generally find girls sitting for hours in front of a computer facing off against a villain in a gruesome automated battle. Twelve-year-old Sarah of Ojai says, “We have about a hundred computer games at home and I only play a few of them. They’re all made for boys. If you watch TV commercials, you might see fifty games advertised for boys and one for girls. It’s that way when you go to buy computer games, too.”

Allan Fisher and Jane Margolis, who are on staff at the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon, speak to Sarah’s concern through an article. “The under-representation of women among the creators of information technology has serious consequences, not only for those women whose potential goes unrealized, but also for a society increasingly shaped by that technology."

Men design computers and programming for men and this draws more men into the technology field to design more programs for men. Even electronic gadgetry favors men’s needs, as is confirmed by the many women who complain about the size, shape and mechanics of the pager. As one female executive puts it, “Bulky pagers in the breast pocket or hanging on the belt just doesn’t work for women.”

And women have a very different relationship with their computers than men do. In an executive summary of Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age, a report published by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), it’s stated that “In the Commission’s inquiries into gender issues in computers and education, the commission found that girls reject the violence, redundancy and tedium of computer games and they dislike narrowly technically focused programming classes. Too often, these concerns are dismissed as symptoms of anxiety or incompetence that will diminish once girls ‘catch up’ with the technology.”

Rather the Commission sees that “The computer culture would do well to catch up with the girls as girls are pointing to important deficits in the technology and the culture and this needs to be integrated into our general thinking about computers and education.”

Sherry Turkle, professor of sociology at MIT and co-chair of the commission says, “Instead of trying to make girls fit into the existing computer culture, the computer culture must become more inviting for girls.”

Schnidman predicts, “Women will make a positive difference in computer culture and not just in the area of e-commerce and shopping, as some analysts say. We do more than just shop. There’s a sense of community that women have found online and that will impact the way we use computers in the future.”

What will it take to get women more involved in computer technology? Educators at Carnegie Mellon are among those who want to know and in 1995, they launched a study among students. Based on their findings, they made some changes in their programming. Peter Lee, Professor and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in the Department of Computers and Science, outlines some of the changes. “We do not require any prior computer programming experience for admission to the program and we have designed the upper-level curriculum (junior and senior years) to accommodate a wider diversity of interests.”

These changes and a hard-hitting recruitment program aimed at young women with impressive math and science aptitude, has gained Carnegie Mellon a stronger female enrollment for their fall, 2000 semester—up 37 percent from only 8 percent in 1985. As for how many young women will complete the program, the jury is still out.

Not the least of those who want to bring more women into the technology age is the corporate sector. The IBM Corporation, for example, is trying to pique the interest of females by offering computer camps for middle school girls during the summer months. “IBM funds the project,” says Flor Estevez. Throughout this four-day program, thirty 8th grade girls will have the opportunity to build a web site and they are each paired with a mentor with whom they can continue to correspond during the school year.

On the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, 150 girls in grades 6 and 9 focus on math and science in a special program each year.

Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts offers a program called, SummerMath for girls in the eighth through twelfth grades.

In March of 2002, Cuesta College will host Expanding Your Horizons, a nationally known program sponsored by the Math/Science Network. According to local coordinator, Pandosh, “Our target audience for the conference is girls in grades 7 through 9 and the mission of the conference is to get them interested in math and science-related careers by providing hands-on workshops and role models that are local—local women who are working in the field.”

Lori Fisher is one local success story who will be participating as a mentor and an example at the Expanding Your Horizons Conference. Until a few weeks ago, Fisher was Vice President of Technology for AmeriComUSA as well as President of a company she started in 1993, Kiosk Software in San Luis Obispo. The fact that her company is faltering, doesn’t dampen Fisher’s spirits when it comes to women in technology. She says, “The Expanding Your Horizons program is designed to introduce girls to women who have been successful in technical professions. There will be many demonstrations that will show the girls how they can use a foundation in math and science to lead them into interesting and profitable careers.”

Are programs like these effective? Studies involving former participants in the Expanding Your Horizons program indicate that they are. Sixty-four percent of the youthful participants in a conference held in San Bruno, California, for example, claimed that they were definitely more interested in math and science after the conference and 40% planned to take more math and science classes in the future. Eighty percent of those attending the conference in San Jose said the experience caused them to rethink their careers.

Programs such as these are enlightening for young girls, but some experts believe these girls need nudging and role modeling even earlier in life—only that which can be provided by their family.

Schnidman agrees. She says, “School and parents are to blame for the lack of encouragement girls are getting when it comes to technology. My dad works for IBM, so I’ve been around computers since I was born.”

Pandosh also believes that family makes a difference. She says, “It’s like the baker’s son or daughter becoming a baker. My father was an engineer, so it was sort of a family tradition to go into the math and sciences. I was raised in the ‘70s and there was a lot more consciousness at that time about promoting opportunities for girls. My mom was very adamant about making sure we understood that we children could do anything we wanted to do.”

Lori Fisher helped pay her way through college by tutoring and she saw firsthand the difference parental involvement and extra support could make in kids. She shares this story: “This girl’s father was concerned because he had been notified by her teacher that she was not able to pass the timed multiplication tests. The rest of the class had moved on to division and she was falling behind. The father told me that she had always been a very good student.

“When I arrived at their house, the young girl had a friend over who commented, ‘I’m leaving, I hate math.’ To which my student agreed. We said goodbye to the friend and spent about an hour and a half talking about her concerns and fear of math. I convinced this young girl that there was nothing to be afraid of. I taught her a couple of tricks and, hopefully, changed her mind about hating math. The next day she passed both her multiplication and division tests.”

Expressing an interest in your child’s schoolwork is one major way parents can help guide their girls toward lucrative and exciting careers in technology. Here are some additional tips:

  • Make sure your daughters have easy access to a home computer.
  • Invest in educational software programs that pique her interest.
  • Become computer literate yourself so you can help her to excel.
  • Challenge your daughters to learn new things and try new things on the computer.
  • Look for hands-on supplemental programs that blend the adventure of camping, for example, with learning math/computer skills.
  • Make sure your daughter has good role models. Find her a mentor.
  • Buy her books and point out magazine articles that feature successful women in technology.

Exciting and lucrative careers in technology are attainable for women as well as men. Next month Silicon2.0 will feature local women who have experienced success in the technology field.


Math/Science Network
Expanding Your Horizons Program

Institute for Women and Technology

Other sites for girls and women interested in the technology field

Patricia Fry is the author of A Writer’s Guide to Magazine Articles for Book Promotion and Profit (Matilija Press, 2000).

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