Attracting Women to Technology Careers The Buzz


Government, industry and educators are working hard to encourage more young women to pursue careers in science, engineering and technology. Unfortunately, women continue to be a minority in these high-paid, challenging professions.

The good news is that progress is being made on many fronts. But there's still a long way to go.

"We haven't solved this problem," says Penny Rheingans. "If you look at the engineering disciplines, the percentage of women has traditionally been tiny, but it has been steadily rising very slowly over the last couple of decades."

Rheingans is director of the Center for Women and Information Technology (CWIT) at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"If you look at the computing profession, and you compare where we are now to where we were in the '80s, [there is] half the percentage of women," Rheingans says. "We haven't changed the direction of that yet. We don't have a handle, society-wide, on what we can do to change this."

CWIT and other organizations are doing their best to address the gap. A wide range of programs is being offered in an effort to reach out to young women and girls.

CWIT deals with computer science, computer engineering, information systems, chemical engineering and mechanical engineering. These are some of the high-tech fields in which far fewer than 50 percent of workers are women.

"Nationally, there aren't very many women in those fields," says Rheingans. "National numbers in those fields go from about 10 percent to about 35 percent, where chemical and biochemical engineering is the high point, and mechanical and computer engineering tend to be the low points."

"There are a lot of reasons why girls and young women become discouraged. Some of it is blatant and some of it is subtle," says Robin Berk Seitz. She's chair of the Girls in Technology committee, a committee of Women in Technology.

"I think exposure is, of course, very important, letting the young women know what's out there, so that they don't think that becoming involved in a technology field is only sitting behind a desk programming at a computer all day," says Berk Seitz. "So one of the things that Women in Technology does, through speakers series and other types of events, is expose the students to the variety of professions and fields that are available."

The Women's Technology Program (WTP) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) accepts 60 American high school girls each year. It takes students who have just completed Grade 11. The program wants to reach the girls before they apply to college in fall of their senior year so they will apply to schools with engineering departments.

"[We] try to get them to realize that the skills they have already can be applied to engineering, and that they could really enjoy doing engineering," says Cynthia Skier. She's WTP's program director. "We realized that there were an increasing number of girls who, at the high school level, are doing extremely well in math and science... and yet they may not be aware of what engineering is or that engineering careers use those skills."

The program seems to be working. "Of the ones we've been tracking who have declared college majors, over 60 percent of them are in some field of engineering or computer science," says Skier. "And about another 22 percent are in math or science."

Skier notes that these girls started out being very talented in math and science.

"They were probably already thinking about engineering a little bit when they applied to our program because that's why they wanted to come," says Skier. "But the fact that they're ending up in engineering careers and computer science careers is very exciting for us."

For girls to choose technology careers, they must be able to visualize themselves in those careers. That's an important part of WTP.

"The fact that WTP is taught by female MIT graduate and undergraduate students, I think, has a lot to do with the success of the program," says Skier. "Because those MIT students are the best role models and mentors for those girls at this particular decision point.

"They're usually surprised to see that computer science and electrical engineering are solving issues in medicine, whether it's technology for surgery or doing drug testing on [computer] chips rather than on animals or human beings," says Skier.

"We try to show the WTP students some of the ways that engineering positively impacts people's lives because many of these girls want a career that will help solve world problems in energy, environment and medicine," Skier adds. "It's not just technology for technology's sake."

Showing how technology helps people is a key factor in attracting girls to technology careers.

"I think one of the things that makes programs for girls... most effective is making sure that whatever is taught is connected with their values," says Elana Brief. She is president of an organization for women in science and technology.

The organization's Ms Infinity program matches up girls with female mentors in the sciences, in whatever field the girl is interested in. It brings women in science and technology careers into high schools to discuss their careers. And it brings female scientists into classrooms to do hands-on activities with the students.

When girls decide to pursue technology careers, everyone benefits. Society needs workers in these highly skilled fields. And these are high-paying, challenging careers.

"People in the sciences make more money than people in the arts," says Brief. "And if we have implicit barriers in our society that prevent girls from going into higher paying fields like the sciences, we're not acting in ways that are consistent with ideals of social justice where there's equity between men and women."

But that's not the best reason more women should pursue technology careers, according to Brief.

"The most compelling argument for me is a 'better science' argument," she says. "Having women in science makes science better."

Rheingans agrees. "If you look at what characteristics you need for solutions to complex problems, it really helps to have diversity of experiences, life paths [and] viewpoints in order to make sure that the technology that's developed is robust."

Rheingans offers the example of airbags. When airbags for cars were developed, design teams were all male. Their design models assumed the average passenger was 200 pounds and almost six feet tall. So they designed the airbags for this "typical" passenger.

"What this means then," says Rheingans, "is that when you deploy them in a society with a much wider range of characteristic people, you get those airbags killing a lot of children and small women, because their needs and their characteristics were never considered in the design process.

"So you get better technology if you have design teams that are diverse, and this isn't just about gender," Rheingans adds. "This is about race, this is about class, this is about life experiences."

The conclusion is clear. When more women are drawn to technology careers, we all win.

Links

Women's Technology Program at MIT
Offers high school girls the chance to explore engineering and computer science through hands-on classes, labs and team projects

Women in Technology
Offers leadership development, networking, mentoring and technology education

Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine
Advocates for increasing women's participation in science, engineering and medicine

Women in Technology International
Hosts a variety of networking events

EngineerGirl
Offers profiles, career options and more

15 Female Scientists Who Changed the World
Lists the female scientists and their accomplishments