Orlando Sentinel Date: Tuesday, January 1, 2008 Edition: FINAL Source: Kumari Kelly, Sentinel Staff Writer FEW WOMEN PICK COMPUTER CAREERS Christie Lo's parents taught her that she could be anything she wanted to be when she grew up. A rabid computer gamer who played with action figures as a girl, the 25-year-old University of Central Florida student realized early on that she wanted to follow a path similar to her engineer father's. She's hardly typical. Fewer women are choosing professional computer-related career pursuits. The number of women in computer-science graduate programs has dropped to the lowest level in nearly a decade. From 2000 to 2005, the number of women choosing computer science for their undergraduate degree dropped nearly 70 percent nationwide. Because Florida is one of the few states where information technology jobs are growing, the consequences may be felt more in this state than most, experts say. "For most girls, it may indeed be intimidating to walk into a class of 40 people and see one other girl in the room," Lo said. "I've had classes where I was the only woman in the room." Experts call it the "leaky pipeline," and a decade-long awareness of the issue has failed to help plug it, statistics show. The steady trickle of girls and women from computer-science-related careers has continued unabated since the 1990s, when women jumped into such fields in greater numbers than ever. Since then, gender gaps in some technology-driven careers, such as electrical engineering, continue to widen, a trend tracked by government and consultants. Despite women comprising 51 percent of workers in professional occupations in the U.S., they make up only 26 percent of IT professionals. In 1996 women made up 41 percent of managers in IT, and by 2006, only 26 percent. The trend is cause for alarm, some say. Government and other experts urge increasing efforts to lure more girls into mathematics and science-related fields and to provide more mentoring for women already working. A woman's perspective in such careers is vital, many say, from software development to product design. Diverse work force is better "There is all kinds of research to show that when you have a diverse work force, you get innovative ideas really directed at the needs of consumers," said Patricia Shafer, president of Compel Consulting and author of a 2007 report titled "Women in Technology 2007" that detailed the issue. Girls in the Advanced Placement computer science class at Edgewater High School say their work on computer games, for instance, often reflects "prettier" designs than that of their male counterparts. UCF assistant professor Gita Sukthankar teaches in the university's engineering/computer science program and has participated in a "Graduate Roadshow" program, in which female graduate students lead talks to undergraduate women, encouraging them to further their tech studies. She said the movement to get more women in computer science at UCF is fairly new. "Most of the activity has been doing stuff within the department, social events, lunches and developing a Web site," she said. Noting that the problem of diminishing numbers of women in tech careers threatens America's ability to successfully compete in the global market, Congress passed the America COMPETES Act earlier this year. The legislation directs the National Science Foundation, which provided 568 grant awards of about $135 million to 76 Florida institutions in 2005, to recruit and provide mentors to women in such careers. Will such programs work? It's hard to tell. Other efforts by various agencies, including online mentoring programs, have done little to solve the problem. The program Sukthankar participated in, though, boosted female enrollment in information technology degrees, noticeably at Carnegie Mellon University. Some of the issues dissuading women include work environments not favorable to women, misperceptions that girls do not perform as well as boys in math and technology, a lack of mentoring and family demands on their time, research shows. Shafer's report found that about 75 percent of women in technology liked their jobs, but 48 percent said there was inequality that favored men. Only 27 percent had mentoring programs at their company. "There is an opportunity here for the IT industry if they want to attract and retain women," Shafer said. "In Florida, IT jobs are growing like crazy, and you need to attract them." Paul Ciaramitaro, a managing partner in Orlando's Corporate Search Consulting, specializes in placing IT professionals and health-industry workers. He said the ratio of women to men among IT job-seekers is about 30 percent to 70 percent or 20 percent to 80 percent. And a woman who leaves the industry faces more difficulty re-entering than in some professions. "With IT, it's tougher to get back into it because things shift and change quickly," he said. Solutions start in the classroom, experts say. Although girls recently swept the prestigious high school Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology for the first time, research shows that by the time a girl reaches high school, her confidence in her math ability drops from earlier adolescence. Edgewater High School in Orlando, a magnet school for engineering and technology, works hard to attract and keep girls in the program, said director Bob Halback. Thirty percent of the students in the magnet program are girls, including Kathy Keeter, 16, a junior. Female camaraderie missed She and two other girls cluster their seats together in the class as they work on computer programs, saying they sometimes miss more female camaraderie in the room. Kathy estimates that most of her advanced classes are 80 percent boys. "Most of my friends are guys, just because that's who I'm mostly around," Kathy said. The high school girls, though, are among the top students in the class and aren't intimidated by the boys, a trait the college women say is vital to future success. "Sometimes it seems that if you come to class dressed like a sorority girl, you have to prove yourself, but it depends on how comfortable you are being yourself as a minority among a class full of guys," said Tracia Lagdaan, 21, a UCF civil-engineering major from Jacksonville. She is president of the Society of Women Engineers at UCF. "Women should embrace the diversity they bring to engineering. You have to know that you don't have to lead like a man to be effective in a technical field. I worked in a construction management internship one summer. It was very uncomfortable to be around so many male workers staring at you, but I could still get the job done as much as anyone else." Illustration: PHOTO: Kathy Keeter, 16, and Molly Broome, 17 (right), along with PHOTO: Danielle Simmons, 18 (at rear, in white shirt), are the only 3 female students among 18 in an advanced computer-science class at Edgewater High School. PHOTOS BY DENNIS WALL/ORLANDO SENTINEL PHOTO: Christie Lo, hardly a typical computer-engineering student at UCF, with some of her Star Trek collection. . BOX: 1 million: Number of computer jobs expected to be added to U.S. work force by 2014 51 percent: Professional occupations held by women in 2006 26 percent: Professional IT positions held by women in 2006 1 percent: Computer scientists in 2004 who were female and Hispanic 70 percent: Decline in number of incoming freshmen women choosing computer science between 2000 and 2005 SOURCE: National Center for Women in Information Technology -30-
Guidance from an elder brother
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