The number of women in science, technology, engineering and math careers has held steady over the past decade. But in the same period, the percentage of women in computing and mathematics careers has fallen, from 30 percent in 2000 to 25 percent in 2011.
In the tech world, a world centered on innovation, corporate recruiters say that imbalance is a liability.
"People think differently, men and women think differently, and in computers and technology you need new ideas,” said Jason Boone, a recruiter for World Wide Technology, a company that develops and sells computer systems for businesses. “If we can bring more women into our field and into our organization, we’re going to get new ideas.”
At a recent career fair at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Boone was actively seeking women interested in the jobs he had to offer.
He hires for computer systems sales and computer engineering positions, and said the fewest women apply for the engineering jobs.
"On an average day I'll see 20 to 25 applicants for all the positions I have open,” Boone said. “Out of every 20 applicants I might have one or two women apply.”
Dixie Garr, a retired executive from Cisco Systems, said in her more than thirty years in the industry, the gender imbalance has not changed much.
"I once went to a partner conference and there were 5,000 partners, 500 employees of Cisco and 50 executives and I was the only African American woman in the entire place,” Garr said, “The sad thing is that I was probably the only one who noticed that."
‘People don’t understand what computing is’
Research indicates girls are less likely than boys to know exactly what a career in computers means, according to Joanne Cohoon, with the National Center for Women and Information Technology.
“One of the main reasons is misinformation, people don't understand what computing is, what kinds of careers it offers, what computer scientists do from day to day,” Cohoon said.
Cohoon said gender stereotypes that men are better in technical fields mean girls still are less likely to naturally gravitate toward a career in computers.
“Women don't have strong motivation based on what they think they know, and then they don't get support or encouragement from other people like guidance counselors and parents, whereas the young men often do,” Cohoon said.
Encouraging a younger generation of techies
A non-profit in Philadelphia is trying to provide that support and encouragement for teenage girls.
On a recent Saturday, in a borrowed basement computer lab at Drexel University, about a dozen mostly middle-school aged girls spent the afternoon learning Unity 3D, a video game development software.
Anila Ghosh sat at a computer, quietly making her own fantastic virtual world, which she would later learn to animate with exploding rainbows and other effects.
“Right now I'm testing out what my little character would be able to do if I just played this video game,” Ghosh said. “I can play around with how high it can jump and how fast it can walk, stuff like that.”
The workshop was organized by TechGirlz, an 18-month old non-profit that holds free monthly meetings for girls teaching computer animation, blogging, mobile development and other topics.
Tracey Welson-Rossman founded the group after noticing a dearth of woman at the software development firm where she works.
"What we are trying to do is to give them hands-on experience in a very consistent way so that they're able to sample a bunch of programs so that they can make the decision whether tech is for them or not,” Welson-Rossman said. “At this point, they are writing it off without even trying because they don't understand what's out there for them."
Thirteen-year-old Hailey Schilling said before the workshops she never even thought about a computer career.
“At first I was into it because of the idea of doing something artistic, like creating characters and things like that for video games,” Schilling said, “but I got into more of the programming type of thing too. I didn't know I would like programming."
Schilling travels almost two hours from Maryland to attend the Tech Girlz events. They inspired her to apply to a science, technology, engineering and math focused high school program.
Many argue the under-representation of women in tech jobs is a disadvantage not only for the women who miss out on good-paying jobs, but for the country. Using government jobs data, the National Center for Women and IT projects between 2008 and 2018, 1.4 million computing jobs will have opened in the U.S. If current graduation rates continue, less than two-thirds of those jobs could be filled by U.S. graduates with computer degrees.
Tracey Weldon-Rossman said she hopes her group can recruit more women to fill that gap.
"Time will tell if these girls will wind up in (computer science) programs,” Welson-Rossman said, “but we know that we are on the right path right now, and we're hoping that other groups will follow what we're doing.
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