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Commission working to close high-tech gender gap

A Congressional commission created last year to study the lack of women in high-tech and sciences industries is convinced that a growing gender gap exists--and now the challenge is to close it.

A Congressional commission created last year to study the lack of women in high-tech and sciences industries is convinced that a growing gender gap exists--and now the challenge is to close it.

The Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development (CAWMSET) has held three public meetings to pick the brains of academics, business leaders, and government officials about how to break the so-called silicon ceiling so that more women--as well as minorities and people with disabilities--can land and keep lucrative high-tech jobs.

Last October, President Clinton approved the creation of the 11-member commission, which was proposed in legislation by Rep. Constance Morella (R-Maryland).

By next spring, the commission plans to release a set of recommendations to Congress. The report is expected to call for a wide range of actions, including improving of the industry's geeky image, pushing programs and employment policies that are attractive to women, and exposing all students regardless of class or gender to the opportunities that come with math, science, and technology studies.

"There have been a lot of studies over the years about increasing women and minorities' participation in the workforce, and a lot a of times these studies get put on the shelf," said Karen Pearce, legislative resource analyst for CAWMSET.

"We know what the barriers are; we are trying to establish the best practices to overcome them and to retain these people," she added. "The commission hopes to come up with some bold recommendations that can be implemented in a rather quick fashion."

Numbers don't match
The $1 million study will determine whether employers recruit, promote, pay, and retain women at the same rate as their male counterparts, and propose solutions where there are shortcomings. However, studies already have documented disparity between women and men in the high-tech industry.

For example, the number of women who received bachelor's degrees in computer science has steadily decreased from 37.1 percent in 1984 to 28.4 percent 1994, according to the Education Department. But the National Science Foundation's most recent statistics show that in 1995, women comprised only 22 percent of the science and engineering workforce, and that their annual average salary was $42,000--about 20 percent less than the $52,000 their male counterparts were paid.

A 1998 study by the American Association of University Women also concluded that although the gender gap is closing when it comes to math and sciences, a new gap is emerging when it comes to technology. The study found that girls make up only a small percentage of students in computer science classes, that they rate themselves lower than boys on computer ability, that they use computers outside of school less often, and that software programs reinforce gender bias and gender roles.

Although a handful of women have risen to the helm of prominent high-tech companies, commission members say that doesn't mean inequality has been eliminated.

"We have very few women who are heads of these companies; you see them and remember them because there are so few," said Mary Ellen Duncan, president of Howard Community College in Maryland, who sits on CAWMSET. "The numbers aren't there; the people aren't in the pipeline for the jobs. We have a long way to go."

Targeting schools
Education has a big roll to play in increasing this pipeline, Duncan added.

"Most of the students in community colleges are women and minorities, and we have a responsibility to foster these opportunities for them. Educators need to see math and science as essential parts of the curriculum. We also are asking business and industry to help us with internships and role models," she said. "There isn't any one thing that is going to drive the cultural change."

As head of the Institute for Women and Technology based at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, commissioner Anita Borg says one major focus should be updating the image of high-tech workers.

"I was lucky because when I started I had no picture of what type of person went into computing," said Borg, who got her first programming job in 1969. "There weren't role models, but there also wasn't the notion that people that go into these fields are nerdy and isolated or incredibly money grubbing."

But some of the perceptions about high-tech companies not being family friendly are real, she said.

Although major firms such as IBM are known for their internal programs for fostering women into engineering and highly technical positions, as well as for offering women and men flexible schedules when they have babies, many companies haven't addressed these issues, Borg noted.

"Young girls always say to me, 'I know I want a family,' and 'Is this a field where I can do that?'" she said. "There is a perception that you have to work 100 hours a week to get into these fields."