© 1998 Times Mirror Company


The Gender Gap Goes High Tech

* Women are leaving or avoiding careers in computers, citing discrimination, family-unfriendly work environment and a lack of role models. Efforts are being made to remedy problems.


Los Angeles Times, Tuesday August 25, 1998

SAN FRANCISCO--From the age of 10, Ronnie Falcao envisioned a future in computing. Following in the footsteps of her sister, Falcao studied computer science at Stanford, then began a successful career as a software designer in Silicon Valley. She loved the work.

Still, after a decade she walked away.

Today she is a midwife in Mountain View, Calif., birthing babies rather than code. High-tech jobs go begging for veteran engineers such as Falcao, 41, but like many women in the field, she became fed up.

"I got tired of working with men who appeared incapable of looking me in the eye when they spoke to me, who asked questions of male colleagues even though they knew I was most qualified to answer, or who seemed to resent the fact that I might be capable of coming up with better technical solutions on occasion," she said.

Women are leaving or avoiding computer careers in droves, citing discrimination by male co-workers, few role models, family-unfriendly work environments and a general sense that the field is irrelevant to their interests.

Some implications of the gender gap are subtle, as in the lack of computer products designed with women in mind. The most immediate effect is to worsen the nation's shortage of high-tech workers.

The shortage is so severe that congressional leaders have agreed to increase the number of foreigners who can obtain visas to work in the U.S. high-tech industry--from 65,000 last year to 95,000 this year, increasing to 115,000 in 2001 and 2002. President Clinton has threatened to veto the bill unless there are more protections for U.S. workers.

"I have companies all the time telling me that they are turning down business because they can't find enough workers," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Assn. of America, a trade group that estimates a shortfall of about 346,000 computer professionals this year.

Women should be drawn to such a favorable job market, yet the proportion of women among U.S. computer professionals has fallen in the 1990s--from 35.4% to 29.1% of that work force--according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the share of women in the academic pipeline has shrunk at nearly the same rate, government and academic agencies report.

The underrepresentation of women is particularly pronounced at the top-tier computer schools, such as UC Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon, that feed the elite industry jobs.

Some educators blame the narrow focus of training, which tends to emphasize technical expertise over practical applications. "A far higher percentage of men are concerned with the technical details, while a far higher percentage of women are concerned with putting the technology to use," said Allan Fisher, associate dean at the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon.

The outlook is no brighter in high schools. The Educational Testing Service reports that last year only 17% of high school students taking Advanced Placement tests in computer science were girls--by far the lowest percentage of any subject.

Escaping Narrow Focus of Job

Donna Hendrix earned a master's degree in electrical engineering at MIT, then worked for several years debugging software at Oracle, the leading database company. But she left to escape the narrow focus. "I wanted to go back to science," she said, "to mix disciplines and answer scientific questions." Now she applies her programming skills as a doctoral student in biophysics at UC San Francisco.

Anne Wilson earned a doctorate from the University of Maryland at College Park and won a coveted faculty job at American University in 1994. "When I first got into computer science I thought that this is going to be a field that's open to women because it's new, and there isn't the history of prejudice," she said.

But Wilson quickly found the extreme demands of the job incompatible with what she considered responsible parenting. She quit after one year.

To be sure, some women see their minority status as a boon to their careers.

"In a nutshell, you stand out. People remember you," said Amy Weisbin, one of a few female design engineers at Broadcom, a maker of communications microprocessors in Irvine. "You can use that to your advantage as an opportunity to showcase the fruits of your labor."

Some high-tech companies work hard to recruit and retain female professionals, hoping to buck the trend. But they have met only limited success. For example, at Microsoft women make up 16% of technical professionals, and the proportion of women in those jobs at Intel has been stalled at about 25% since 1993.

The implications of the computer gender gap may not be obvious, but differences in approach can be profound, said Jane Margolis, who has studied gender differences in the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon.

'Cool Projects' vs. Wider Social Agenda

Like Hendrix, many women more often "want to link computer science to other issues, to a broader social agenda," Margolis said. They want to use computing to solve problems in medicine or education, for example, rather than focusing on faster, better technology for its own sake. "Unfortunately most of the teaching misses the context," she added. The "cool projects" in most computer science programs are more male oriented, such as robotics tricks or complex 3-D animations.

Other experts say that the social applications of computing have shifted to other fields--from biology and chemistry to physics and aeronautics--and that a more narrow male approach to design affects many products.

For instance, early speech-recognition software couldn't understand female voices, said Anita Borg, director of the Institute for Women and Technology at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Because the underlying technology is based on recognizing the lower tonal range of the male voice, today's products generally are still less effective for women.

In videoconferences, an increasingly popular way to link distant offices via computer networks, the technology usually displays the person whose voice it recognizes. Anecdotal evidence suggests that because the computers recognize women's higher tones less readily, "women end up being cut out of the meeting," Borg said.

A range of other products--from personal digital assistants to interactive kiosks in public buildings--reflect a male bias toward isolating the individual, Borg said. She contends that women would be more likely to design hand-held computers that keep track of an entire family, or cylindrical kiosks with a facility for group discussion.

"Until we learn to make this stuff relevant to women's lives," Borg said, "why would they want to get involved?"

That sense of irrelevance often begins early--with games, the first experience with computers for most children.

"Computer use is pretty equal between boys and girls until the age of 10, when boys rapidly overtake girls," said Jann Baskett, senior vice president of marketing at Girl Games, a software company in Austin, Texas.

A landmark 1995 study of 1,100 children ages 7 to 12 tried to find out what causes girls to tune out. The study, which involved thousands of hours of interviews with boys and girls, was conducted by Brenda Laurel, a founder of Mountain View software maker Purple Moon, and Palo Alto-based Interval Research.

"The big myth was that girls didn't want to play games because they were too violent. Actually, they found the games boring," said Nancy Deyo, Purple Moon's chief executive officer. "They told us they were looking for characters that they could imagine having a relationship with, and for an intricate, true-to-life story line."

Girl Games, Purple Moon and a few other girl-centric software companies emphasize detailed characters and self-expression. But boy-oriented titles predominate. Despite strong growth since 1995, PC games designed for girls make up less than 5% of that $1.3-billion market, according to PC Data, a Reston, Va. market analyst.

Many boys' glassy-eyed absorption in electronic gaming holds the germ of an abiding stereotype: The computer programmer as an obsessive (and usually male) nerd lacking in social skills.

The image of programming as a solitary, myopic fascination with obscure technical details is not without foundation in many industry jobs. And that image "is especially pernicious for discouraging and repelling women students" who want a broader experience, according to a study of students at Carnegie Mellon.

Even when they view the field as exciting and desirable, some women find they have too shallow a background in all-important technical areas, inhibiting prospects for success.

Esther Susswein, 48, graduated in computer science at the top of her class from Hunter College of the City University of New York. In 1992, she began graduate training at UC Berkeley--a top computer science program. But Susswein was stunned when her liberal arts college background proved too technically thin for the computing big leagues.

"I breezed through college hardly having to study. I came here, and it was like I was nothing," she said.

"I was led to believe I could succeed," she said. "But it was sink or swim." After three years of grad school, she quit to return to her old profession, health care financial management.

Treated as Inferiors

Others say that they are made to feel inferior to men, regardless of their training.

"I have thought many times of dropping out," said Amy Devine, a computer engineering junior at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. "I feel that I have had to work twice as hard to be considered half as good."

Women who overcome such barriers face another challenge: a dearth of female role models. Women made up only 10% of computer science professors, and less than 6% of full professors, at top American universities in 1997--about the same percentage as in 1994, according to the Computing Research Assn. in Washington.

With the number of women faculty so low, the pressure to conform can be high.

"I guess because [women] need to prove that they are every bit as good as the men, they begin to act like the men. If you have the kindness that's expected of a woman in our society," said Susswein, "that's almost seen as something that detracts from being top-flight scientists."

And at the nexus of the industry, women leaders are in still shorter supply. A 1998 study by the San Jose-based nonprofit organization Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network found that women filled only 4% of the top five executives positions in the area's 200 largest companies.

One reason may be that the best jobs tend to go to people who have accommodating family situations or are willing to make big sacrifices.

"Especially in Silicon Valley, with the start-up environment, [companies are] oriented toward hiring young people, pushing and pushing and pushing until they burn out, then hiring new young people," said Denise Gurer, chairwoman of the Committee on Women in Computing of the Assn. for Computing Machinery, a New York City-based professional organization. "In general, women will insist on having complete, whole lives, including family."

'Labeled as a Babe Who Can Code'

And merely keeping up the frenetic pace offers no guarantee of acceptance, said Katrina Garnett, a former manager at database giants Sybase and Oracle who left to found and serve as chief executive of Crossworlds Software, a Burlingame, Calif., company that helps large corporations combine software programs for greater efficiency. "At Oracle, even if you were a good programmer, you were usually labeled as a babe who can code," she said.

But some efforts have begun to make the high-tech working environment more hospitable to women. An increasing number of companies now try to accommodate parents' schedules. E-mail lists and Web sites devoted to helping women in the field communicate with each other are spreading. And Women in Technology International, a professional association based in Sherman Oaks, holds an annual conference that coaches thousands of women in skills they need to succeed in high tech.

At a more basic level, educational programs, such as Portland, Ore.-based Advocates for Women in Science, Engineering and Mathematics, bring special workshops to high school girls to promote their interest in technology. A few private companies, including Crossworlds and San Rafael, Calif.-based design software maker Autodesk--both run by women--have underwritten similar programs.

Whether such efforts can reverse the discouraging demographics of women in computer science remains to be seen. But advocates of change feel a growing sense of urgency. The more dominating the presence of men, the more difficult it will be for women to build the critical mass needed to make a more discernible mark on computing, said Barbara Simons, president of the Assn. for Computing Machinery.

"It's critical that technology represents concerns and interests of all of our society, otherwise things become warped," Simons said. "If computer science fails to appeal to women and girls, a more male-oriented culture of computers becomes self-perpetuating."


College Trend

Bachelor's degrees awarded in computer science:
1995 1997
WOMEN 18% 16%
MEN 82% 84%

Work Force Trend

Computer systems analysts and programmers:
1990 1997
Women 35% 29%
Men 65% 71%

Last updated 98/09/09
© 1998 Times Mirror Company