Study: Girls Reject Tech Careers

ByJacqui Podzius Cook

C H I C A G O, July 5, 2000 -- High school junior Katy Prendergast is pretty

blunt about why she decided to take a computer programming class.

She doesn’t care what goes on inside her computer. She has nogrand thoughts about a high-paying technology job.

All that mattered to Katy was getting another credit towardgraduation; the introduction to computer programming class happenedto fit her schedule. She did well, earning a “B,” but she’d stillrather leave the technical work to someone else.

“It’s tough work getting it to work exactly correctly and it’sfrustrating because one misspelled word and you can’t get it towork,” Katy said recently during the final week of classes atMother McAuley Liberal Arts High School on Chicago’s southwestside. Referring to Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates, she added,“I say let him have it all, let him do it all.”

Making Labor Shortage Worse

Technology experts find that an alarming number of young girlsfeel the way Katy does. The number of computer science degreesawarded to women is hovering below 30 percent at the same timetechnology companies are begging for highly skilled employees.

“What we want is to have qualified people we can hire,” saidLinda Scherr, chairwoman of IBM’s Women in Technology program.“Since women are half the work force and so few go into computers... we’re on the brink of disaster here.”

“There will be companies that go out of business because theycan’t hire the skills they need. The manpower — or womanpower — isgoing to be the major challenge,” she said.

A recent report by the American Association of University Womenbacks up those fears. “Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the NewComputer Age” was put together through interviews with 70 middleschool and high school girls, an online survey of almost 900teachers and from the experiences of commission members and otherwomen in high-tech fields.

It concluded that girls have the ability to learn and usecomputers, but they are turned off by technical careers that theyview as full of geeky guys in windowless offices who toil atkeyboards for hours. As a result, they are taking themselves offthe path to high-paying jobs in the computer industry, and they’renot learning skills that could give them an advantage in any careerthat uses computers.

A sample of the girls’ comments in the study:

“Girls have other priorities. Guys are more computer-typepeople.”

“I don’t want to take computer science. ... Just looking atit, all the programming and these funny-looking things on thepaper. It [takes] so much stuff to do one thing on the computer.”

“The reason why you see more men doing computer stuff is thatgirls are more ambitious than that. My parents always say, ‘Dosomething with computers,’ because it is stable and stuff, but alot [of people] don’t want to be at a desk from 9 to 5.”

Girls Like E-Mail, Not Games

Several girls in the study, as well as Katy and some of herclassmates, also criticized the popular computer games for beingmuch more appealing to boys than girls. On, for example,a big seller recently was “Diablo 2,” which boasts an “advancedcombat system which incorporates class-specific fighting techniquesand spells.”

“They are all violent and killing people and they’re verygraphic about the death part,” Katy said.

Girls do keep up with boys when it comes to using computers forleisure activities like surfing the Internet and sending e-mail,said Pam Haag, director of research for the AAUW educationalfoundation, which issued the report for the organization.

“The problem area is they are underrepresented in computerclasses, as network engineers, software developers — areas that aregrowing,” she said. “The areas where technology is being designedand created is where we see a dearth of women.”

In the mid-1990s, fewer than 30 percent of the computerscience/information science bachelor’s degrees were awarded towomen, down from a high of 36.8 percent in 1985, according toDepartment of Education figure.

There were even fewer at the University of Illinois atUrbana-Champaign this past spring, where 144 of the 1,035 graduatesfrom its well-regarded computer science program were women. Thosefigures were about the same — around 14 percent—the previousyear.

Haag and other experts involved in computer science agree thatwomen need to be attracted to the field long before college to makesure they are not excluded from high-tech careers and to make surecompanies will have the skilled employees they need in a decade orso. They also agree that changes need to be made in the classroomand at home to make sure girls have the access they need toexperiment with computers from an early age.

Scherr already sees the differences in how girls and boysrespond to computers when she visits her 10-year-old daughter’sclassroom: Boys rush to the computers, while the girls hang backand watch. Without that time to experiment, girls don’t makemistakes and learn to solve problems the way boys do, she said.

“A lot of our socialization has steered girls away fromtechnology,” Scherr said. “If they try it, they realize, ‘I cando this.’ I think girls need that kind of reassurance andvalidation.”

Reversing the Trend

IBM hopes to offer that with 11 technology camps this summer formiddle school girls to give them their own hands-on computer timeand the chance to meet women who have made careers out ofcomputing, Scherr said.

In Chicago, officials are going even further with the new YoungWomen’s Leadership Charter School, opening this fall on the campusof the Illinois Institute of Technology. The school will have 75girls per grade level, beginning this year with grades six andnine, focusing on math and science. Eventually the school will have525 students, said Greg Richmond, the city’s director of charterschools.

A program already is in place at high schools nationwide tooffer training by Cisco Systems Inc. Students participate in a280-hour course, then qualify to take a computer networkmaintenance certification exam.

Stan Paluch, who teaches theprogram to students at Chicago’s Kelly High School, said he isrecruiting girls for the three-year program beginning with thisschool year. Of the 22 he interviewed for this fall, 11 are girls,he said.

Paluch, whose school is about 90 percent Hispanic and located ina working-class section of the city, tells his students thetraining is key to getting an interesting job that pays a decentliving. Since 80 percent don’t have a computer at home, school istheir only experience with technology, he said.

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