Opening doors for women in computing

Harvard president's comments reignite debate over women in computer science, with reformers trying to reverse guy-centric patterns.

Ed Frauenheim Former Staff Writer, News
Ed Frauenheim covers employment trends, specializing in outsourcing, training and pay issues.
Ed Frauenheim
8 min read

The computer science world was anything but welcoming to Maribel Gonzalez.

After a harrowing first year, she quit the computer science program at the University of California at Los Angeles. Until that point--six years ago--Gonzalez had excelled at math and had looked forward to a computer-centric career. But at UCLA, she felt overwhelmed by the programming experience of her mostly male peers. With no programming classes under her belt, the "sink or swim"-style courses, she said, did not suit her.

"I never worked so hard to get Cs," recalls Gonzalez, now a public-school teacher in New York. "It was a blow to my ego, and it scared me."


What's new:
Comments from Harvard's president have reignited a debate about the declining presence of women in the information technology field.

Bottom line:
Although research points to differences between male and female brains, scholars point to other factors in explaining why women have been logging off from computer careers. Meanwhile, reformers working to reverse the trend can point to at least some success.

More stories on this topic

Gonzalez' tale is at the center of a trend that is disheartening to many.

Data from the National Science Foundation shows that the female share of bachelor's degrees in computer science dropped from 37 percent in 1985 to 28 percent in 2001. And while women comprised 33 percent of information technology professionals in 1990, that figure was down to 26 percent in 2002, according to NSF. The drop is puzzling in part because women are making progress in related areas such as the natural sciences.

On the other hand, some efforts to bring women back to computing appear to be paying off. That's seen as vital for reasons including fueling the nation's tech economy and preventing male bias in the way future technology is developed. "Any sort of monoculture is bad," said Radia Perlman, a researcher at Sun Microsystems Laboratories. "You need people that can think from a different angle."

Harvard president ignites controversy
Spurred by the furor over recent remarks by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, the topic of the declining participation of women in IT is now prominent among concerns about the future of high technology in the United States.

At a conference late last month, Summers suggested that innate differences between the genders could help explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers.

Although he eventually offered a public apology, Summers touched a nerve and sparked a protest letter.

A growing body of research suggests that there are real differences between the brains of men and women.

But a number of scholars reject the idea that women are biologically less apt to succeed in the computer science field. They point instead to factors such as the stereotype of computer jockeying as a geeky, male profession. The long hours often required with computing jobs also may deter women who wish to raise children.

Cornelia Brunner
Associate director,
Center for Children
& Technology

Cornelia Brunner, associate director of the Center for Children & Technology, argues that a societal swing toward conservative values over the past few decades has helped frame technology in masculine terms--as a powerful "magic wand," she said, rather than a tool that could help or hurt society.

"In a very, very deep way, it turns women off," Brunner said. "It puts the machine at the center, rather than its capabilities."

Closing the gender gap
While the statistics for women IT workers are bleak, they have spawned dozens of efforts to attract women to the field and encourage those already there.

One of the newest and most ambitious groups to emerge is the National Center for Women and Information Technology, a nonprofit based at the University of Colorado at Boulder that received a four-year, $3.25 million grant last year from the National Science Foundation.

The group's goal is to increase the ranks of women in the U.S. computing and IT work force from about 25 percent today to 50 percent over the next 20 years. It's already signed up an impressive roster of participants from more than 20 universities, a dozen high-tech companies and nonprofits such as the Girl Scouts.

Another focus is reforming college computer science programs to make them less about weeding out weak students and more about encouraging all comers to succeed.

Carnegie Mellon University has been something of trailblazer in this respect. In 1995, a paltry 7 percent of undergraduates enrolled in CMU's computer science school were women. Now, after instituting changes--comparable to affirmative action sans quotas--designed to attract women six years ago, women enrollment is closer to a third.

Lenore Blum
Computer science
professor, Carnegie
Mellon University

While still requiring high test scores, especially in mathematics, the school no longer puts as much weight on prior programming experience. Freshman accelerated-programming classes generally level the playing field by the student's sophomore year, said Lenore Blum, a CMU computer science professor.

"In the '90s, we selected for the geek personality," Blum said.

Gonzalez's alma mater, UCLA, is among the schools working to change the experience for computer science students. In the past several years, the California university has received grants

from Hewlett-Packard to revamp an introductory course in electrical engineering to make it less intimidating and more effective.

Maribel Gonzalez studied computer
science at UCLA and now teaches at
Intermediate School 216, Bronx, N.Y.

Students can now send questions to the professor during class via wireless instant messaging rather than having to raise their hand--a strategy designed to aid shy students. The instructor can either discuss the question with the whole class or answer it privately later.

Recalling that she was one of four Latina women from Los Angeles public schools who dropped out of UCLA's computer science program, Gonzalez applauds the idea of programs that accommodate relative computer newbies. As a middle-school teacher, she encourages a new generation of potential women techies by focusing on the fundamentals of the field. "I definitely push math and science in my class," she said.

As reformers work to make the computer science field less guy-centric, hundreds of thousands of women continue to make their living and pursue their passions in IT. Here's a glimpse into the lives of three women in tech.

Intrepid entrepreneur: Stephanie DiMarco
Gender biases in the financial-services industry helped push Stephanie DiMarco to become a leader in the tech world.

With a fresh business degree from the University of California at Berkeley, DiMarco applied for a position as an investment analyst. "The seminal moment in my career was in a job interview, when a guy asked me how fast I can type," she recalled.

Stephanie DiMarco
CEO, Advent

An indignant DiMarco decided that she could be her own boss, and in 1983, she co-founded Advent Software.

At the outset, DiMarco's vision was to use then-powerful IBM "XT" personal computers to give software tools to financial-services professionals. The company, which continues to focus on the financial-services industry, now employs about 800. Its chief technology officer, Lily Chang, is also a woman.

As a member of the small club of woman tech CEOs, DiMarco has had her share of slights. In the early days of Advent, she remembers, people often assumed she wasn't the one in charge when she appeared with a male colleague.

But DiMarco says the technology field is still fertile for female entrepreneurs: "The opportunity for innovation is always there."

Hip-hop engineer: April Slayden
April Slayden knows that not all computer researchers spend their entire day sitting in cubicles and staring at screens.

Last August, the Hewlett-Packard software engineer had a hand in setting up a music system at an MTV Video Music Awards after a party hosted by rapper Sean "P.Diddy" Combs. Celebrities at the Miami event--including Paris Hilton, Carson Daly and the Olsen twins--listened just a few yards away from Slayden to digital beats created with an HP technology called DJammer. "It was exciting," Slayden recalled of her invitation. "Who would have thought--an HP software engineer?"

April Slayden
HP Labs

But not surprisingly, a thirst for glamour isn't what brought Slayden to the tech field. The 25-year-old has grooved on computers since she was about 6, when her dad showed her programs on a DOS-based machine from RadioShack. "I was just fascinated by the fact that he could make it show my name, and it could tell if I had the right answer to math problems."

A faculty mentor at Mississippi's Millsaps College encouraged her to continue with computer science after graduation, helping her to choose the tech field over medical school. Slayden earned a master's degree at the University of Rochester and ended up at HP's research arm more than two years ago.

In addition to DJammer, Slayden has worked on a project that uses robots outfitted with video screens and cameras to enable remote "telepresence."

Some scholars say women tend to view technology as a means to make a difference in society, and Slayden fits that mold. "I feel much more satisfied when I feel something I'm doing is contributing to the DJ community or world community," she said.

Computer-averse researcher: Radia Perlman
Radia Perlman is a top expert when it comes to networking protocols, but that doesn't mean she's fond of computers.

Now a "Distinguished Engineer" at Sun Microsystems, Perlman got into computing despite an aversion to the machines. "I actually didn't like computers very much--and I still don't," she said. "They're always broken for obscure reasons."

Radia Perlman
engineer, Sun Labs

What Perlman prefers is thinking about rules for sending data from point A to point B. She did her doctoral dissertation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the topic of how to make networks sturdier, and she invented a "spanning tree" algorithm that became commonplace.

Thinking about smart communication strategies is something that comes naturally to Perlman. She even sees room for improvement in the way people clink glasses during dinner toasts. "That actually drives me crazy," Perlman said, "because it's an inefficient protocol."

Although she's a recognized leader in the field, Perlman says it wasn't always easy being a woman in tech. She's had to overcome feelings of insecurity, as well as a computer industry climate that can be intimidating.

Given that women are often humble and self-questioning, tech companies should work to tone down cut-throat cultures, Perlman suggested. "It may be that the female is every bit as good as the male--maybe better," she said. "But she's more inclined to doubt herself--and sometimes, to solve a problem, you have to believe you can do it."