US Needs More Geekettes

Published July 4th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

The information technology (IT) world has generally been categorized as a man's world, cluttered with images of IBM engineers in dark gray suits. Not that men have kept women out of the tech field, but rather that women have not shown enough interest in becoming engineers or programmers, according to a study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW). 

The study, entitled "Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age" was put together through interviews with 70 middle school and high school girls, an online survey of almost 900 teachers and from the experiences of commission members and other women in high-tech fields.  

It concluded that girls have the ability to learn and use computers, but they are turned off by technical careers that they view as full of "geeky guys in windowless offices who toil at keyboards for hours." 

As a result, they are taking themselves off the path to high-paying jobs in the computer industry, and they're not learning skills that could give them an advantage in any career that uses computers. 

A sample of the girls' comments in the study: 

- "Girls have other priorities. Guys are more computer-type people."  

- "I don't want to take computer science. ...Just looking at it, all the programming and these funny-looking things on the paper. It [takes] so much stuff to do one thing on the computer."  

- "The reason why you see more men doing computer stuff is that girls are more ambitious than that. My parents always say, 'Do something with computers,' because it is stable and stuff, but a lot [of people] don't want to be at a desk from 9 to 5."  

Several girls in the study, also criticized the popular computer games for being much more appealing to boys than girls. On Amazon.com, for example, a big seller recently was "Diablo 2," which boasts an "advanced combat system which incorporates class-specific fighting techniques and spells."  

In the meantime, in the mid-1990s, fewer than 30 percent of the computer science/information science bachelor's degrees were awarded to women, down from a high of 36.8 percent in 1985, according to Department of Education figure. 

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

"The problem area is they are under-represented in computer classes, as network engineers, software developers -- areas that are growing," she was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. "The areas where technology is being designed and created is where we see a dearth of women."  

Haag and other experts involved in computer science agree that women need to be attracted to the field long before college to make sure they are not excluded from high-tech careers and to make sure companies will have the skilled employees they need in a decade or so. 

They also agree that changes need to be made in the classroom and at home to make sure girls have the access they need to experiment with computers from an early age.  

"What we want is to have qualified people we can hire," Linda Scherr, chairwoman of IBM's Women in Technology program was quoted as saying. "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 they can't hire the skills they need. The manpower -- or womanpower -- is going to be the major challenge," she added.  

Scherr already sees the differences in how girls and boys respond to computers when she visits her 10-year-old daughter's classroom: Boys rush to the computers, while the girls hang back and watch. Without that time to experiment, girls don't make mistakes and learn to solve problems the way boys do, she said.  

"A lot of our socialization has steered girls away from technology," Scherr said. "If they try it, they realize, 'I can do this.' I think girls need that kind of reassurance and validation."  

IBM hopes to offer that with 11 technology camps this summer for middle school girls to give them their own hands-on computer time and the chance to meet women who have made careers out of computing, Scherr said.  

Cisco Systems Inc., meanwhile, is offering training through another program, where school students participate in a 280-hour course, then qualify to take a computer network maintenance certification exam. Stan Paluch, who teaches the program to students at a Chicago High School, said he is recruiting girls for the three-year program beginning with this school year. Of the 22 he interviewed for this fall, 11 are girls, he said.  

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

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) can be found on the Web at http://www.aauw.org -- (Several Sources)

© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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