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Why few women pursue computer careers

As a senior computer scientist at Soft PDA, a Pleasanton, Calif. startup building software for mobile wireless platforms, Denise Gurer is one of a small percentage of women who have chosen IT as a career. "After a while, you get used to being the only woman in a roomful of men," she said. "You just ignore it, and it stops bothering you."

Nobody will be surprised to hear that men have traditionally outnumbered women in the science and technology fields. What is surprising, however, is that the problem is worse for information technology than other related disciplines.

According to Telle Whitney, the president and CEO of the Institute for Women and Technology in Palo Alto, Calif., 37% of students majoring in computer science in 1984 were women. Now, the number hovers around the 27% mark. "That hasn't happened in any other scientific field," said Gurer, who also co-chairs ACM-W, a special interest group focusing on women and computing for the Association of Computing Machinery. "Only in computer science have we had that huge decrease. It's something we're struggling to understand so that we can reverse the trend."

The trend continues into the workforce. According to Sheila Greco Associates, an HR consulting firm based in Amsterdam, New York, only 13% of CIOs in the Fortune 500 are women -- a number that hasn't budged since it started surveying companies five years ago.

Experts say that this needs to change -- getting more diversity into IT will help improve the programming and products created by IT. But there is a host of vexing problems that need to be addressed before women flood the IT work place, including the following:

The social stigma of computers

"It's a whole pathway issue and it starts really young," said Claudia Morrell, the director of planning and Grants at the Center for Women and Technology at the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus. "Research from Carnegie-Mellon found that, consistently, boys started tinkering on computers earlier." Meanwhile, she said, parents reinforce that interest for boys while discouraging it with girls. It's therefore not surprising that only 11% of those taking the AP test in computer science are female, said Morrell. Most girls just aren't encouraged, and the vast majority view computers as an antisocial discipline populated by the school nerds.

An educational environment that's geared toward men

Fact: Women and men are motivated by different learning mechanisms. Men tend to go for individual competitions, while women prefer team-based assignments that work towards a common goal, said Gurer. But most computer science professors are male and used to teaching men, and homework tends to focus on male-oriented interests. "Professors do it without even realizing it," said Gurer.

The result: Women end up feeling isolated and inadequate, contributing to a high attrition rate amongst female computer science majors. "These are things that universities are just starting to understand," said Gurer.

For example, Carnegie-Mellon University revamped its computer science program to focus less on narrow coding niches and more on well-rounded individuals, said Jennifer Li, a junior computer science major at the Pittsburgh, Penn., school. "From this change, somehow a lot more women were accepted into the program. I believe it is because women have much more diverse interests for computer science," she said. "They may like programming, and that is why a lot of women applied to computer science, but they also like helping others using computers."

IT's family unfriendly reputation

"Girls even at the junior high level worry about the fact that computer science careers mean they won't have time for family or having fun," said Gurer. IT departments, with their reputations for all night coding marathons and weekends on call, don't fit the bill as family friendly kind of places. But that can change if companies are committed, said Gurer. "If companies want to attract more women, then they have to look at ways they can make their IT departments more female friendly."

In the end, Gurer thinks that IT's bad reputation with women boils down to bad PR. "If we can get young women to see computer science as something interesting to them that can do good for society, it will help. And once we have critical mass, other changes will start, like a more family friendly environment. And the whole thing will snowball."

Whitney, however, warns that it won't happen overnight. "It took thirty years to make a difference on the math front," she said. "This is going to take some time, too."
 

This was first published in January 2003

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