Archive for Monday, July 10, 2000

Study finds girls don’t want to be geeks

Companies facing shortage of computer programmers

July 10, 2000

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— Katy Prendergast doesn't care what goes on inside her computer, and she has no grand thoughts about a high-paying technology job.

The only reason the high school junior signed up for an introductory computer programming class was to get another credit toward graduation. She got a B but still would rather leave the technical work to others.

"It's tough work getting it to work exactly correctly, and it's frustrating because one misspelled word and you can't get it to work," Katy said recently at Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School.

Experts say that an alarming number of girls feel the way Katy does: Fewer than one-third of computer science degrees are awarded to women at a time when technology companies are begging for highly skilled employees.

"Since women are half the work force and so few go into computers, we're on the brink of disaster here," said Linda Scherr, chairwoman of IBM's Women in Technology program. "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."

A recent report by the American Association of University Women concluded that girls are turned off by technical careers they view as full of geeky guys in windowless offices who toil at keyboards for hours.

As a result, women take themselves off the path to jobs in the computer industry while failing to learn skills that could give them an advantage in careers that use 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."

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.

"The problem area is they are underrepresented in computer classes, as network engineers, software developers -- areas that are growing," Haag said. "The areas where technology is being designed and created is where we see a dearth of women."

The gap appears to have gotten worse. The Education Department's most recent figures, from the mid-1990s, show that 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.

The numbers were more alarming at this past spring at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where 144 of the 1,035 graduates from its well-regarded computer science program were women. Those figures were about the same -- around 14 percent -- the previous year.

Many experts believe that women need to be attracted to the field long before college, and that changes need to be made in both classrooms and at home to make sure girls can experiment with computers from an early age.

"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."

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