Computers- Where the women aren't


Wednesday, August 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


Like it or not, the computer industry is still primarily a man's world. But that hasn't discouraged 12-year-old Marisa Morales, who dreams of being a veterinarian, an actress – or a computer programmer.


"I went to a computer camp, and we took apart a computer and learned about how it works," says the Austin middle school student. "It was really neat. I knew you could do a lot with computers, but I didn't know you could do so much."


Marisa fits the perfect image of the next generation of high-tech talent – women who are raised in a computer-savvy world and know how to apply that legendary women's intuition to the information age. The challenge facing parents and educators, however, is to make technology something that captures the interest of girls.


"I find it really interesting because when I work with the computer, sometimes it's like the computer has a mind of its own," Marisa says. "But I have some friends who don't think it's cool or fun. I had a friend who didn't think she'd like it, then she got on my computer one afternoon and she liked it a lot. There's a lot you can do with it."


Showing girls what can be done with computers is a crucial focus, particularly as the technology industry faces a critical shortage of workers.


Although the American workforce comprises nearly 50 percent women, only about 20 percent of information technology employees are women. Experts point to that as one example of how women have been all but unwelcomed in the field. In fact, computer science has seen a decrease in female employment, making it the only sector where women's participation is waning.


"We can't prosper with only half our team on the playing field," says Rachel Muir, founder of the GirlStart program in Austin. GirlStart introduces 9- to 16-year-olds such as Marisa to the wonders of the high-tech world and shows them new ways to apply those skills. To do that, GirlStart recruits women from the high-tech industry to serve as mentors and role models. They stage field trips to colleges and workplaces to show that ability in action.


"If a girl doesn't see a woman in a certain field, she won't see [that career] as an option for her," Ms. Muir says. "Think about the roles they see – they don't see electrical engineers or software engineers who are women. We're doing everything we can to change that."


A recent study, "Tech Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age" by the American Association of University Women, says many girls avoid computer careers because they perceive them as dull, boring or lonely. They often view the jobs as uninspiring and, despite having computer skills, they don't consider working in that field.


The problem is that technology has targeted the testosterone set, says Dr. Sherry Turkle, MIT professor of sociology.


"Instead of trying to make girls fit into the existing computer culture, the computer culture must become more inviting for girls," says Dr. Turkle, adding that girls are not computer-phobic but critical of computer culture. Changing that image of computers is a vital step in bridging the ever-widening gap between the need for technological expertise and the workforce shortage.


"We show girls the cool side of technology," says GirlStart's Ms. Muir. "We get across to girls that technology and computers are exciting, fun and very lucrative. A computer programmer can start out making $60,000 a year. When we tell young women that, their jaws drop. This isn't just about the love of learning, it's also about financial success."


That creates women who are more independent, self-reliant and autonomous not just in their careers, but in all aspects of life, Ms. Muir says"When you empower a girl, you're empowering her entire life," she says. "Think of all the contributions she might make. When girls feel the freedom to accomplish something, it's amazing what they can do. Most importantly, this gives them confidence and a license to exist."


Girls who are so empowered are less likely to experience domestic violence and other spousal abuse, Ms. Muir says. They also will pass on those feelings of self-assurance to their daughters.


"Until you empower them, you are stunting great minds," she says. "It makes a phenomenal difference. We don't know what contributions these women might someday make to our society."


Many people see the advancement of women's role in technology as inevitable. Jean Brassard, a technical writer and information developer for IEX in Richardson, says about 80 percent of her co-workers are men, but she doubts the gender imbalance will last much longer.


"So very much of the content that exists on the Web is going to be consumed by both men and women, but much of that content is going to have to appeal directly to women," she says. "In my opinion, the best way to do that is to have women directly involved."


Women also have qualities that naturally lend themselves to technology fields, she says.


"I think that women are better problem-solvers in general," she says. "I would never make that generalization in regard to specific people, but morphologically speaking, women's brains are better wired to multi-task, as well as process complex emotions that might be associated with problems at work."


Courtney Shore, vice president of brand ventures for the Internet solutions firm Rare Medium, agrees that the age of technology presents ideal opportunities for women.


"The very nature of the Internet supports the linked and networked thought processes that women bring to the mix," she says. "Women need to offer up their vast experiences in multi-tiered decision-making, team-building and task-dependent planning."


Those abilities, coupled with proper training, can help make a tremendous difference in the perception of how technology functions, as well as in its daily execution.


Charlotte Harris, Web administrator for Children's Hospital in Dallas, says that the marriage of women and technology already is softening its cold steel image.


"Women bring the relational aspect to technology," she says. "Multi-tasking is a huge part of it, but it goes so far beyond that. Women take that emotional wondering and apply it to technology so there are more human aspects to it.


"Where a man might look at what something can do, women are more likely to look at what people will think of it. I think [women] bring a compassionate side to it that can't help but expand its possibilities."


Paula Felps is a free-lance writer in Dallas.



On the Web


For more information on the tech savvy research, go to www.aauw.org/2000/techsavvy.html