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High-tech gender gap probed

A House subcommittee passes legislation to do a federal study to determine where women are underrepresented in high tech.

With all the buzz about the high-tech industry's worker shortage, some members of Congress wonder if the real deficiency is in the number of women entering and advancing in the field.

The House subcommittee on technology yesterday passed legislation that would create a one-year federal study to determine where women are underrepresented in the computer and science industries.

The proposed 11-member Commission on Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development will report on whether employers recruit, promote, and retain women at the same rate as their male counterparts, and then issue recommendations to government, academia, and the corporate sector. To include state leaders, the National Governors' Association is slated to appoint four of the members.

"This bill will help women break through the 'glass ceiling' as well as the 'silicon ceiling,'" Rep. Constance Morella (R-Maryland), who chairs the subcommittee and introduced the bill, said during her opening statements yesterday.

"Countering the barriers for women in [these fields] will bring our nation closer to creating a highly effective high-tech workforce which, in turn, will both help women and promote economic prosperity," she added.

The full Science Committee will take up the bill when the House returns from recess in late April.

The push for the commission comes at a time when the nation's technology companies claim to be starved for skilled employees. For example, there is a campaign under way to get Congress to lift the cap on the number of annual employment-based visas that are doled out so that companies can recruit more foreign engineers and information technology specialists.

Those who testified before the House subcommittee on March 10 say women in the United States could fill the demand, but that invisible barriers may be stifling their entry in the growing and high-paying industries.

Women who have succeeded in high-tech trades back up that claim.

"My first job, I worked with a client who had a poster on his wall that said: 'A real man takes no shit from any women,'" said Lauren Hall, who is the chief technologist for the Software Publishers Association and has been working in the industry for ten years. "We need to make sure that there aren't these institutional barriers for women," she added. "It is changing as you have younger people move up into management who are used to working with women, but there still are the old hats."

Others say the roadblocks are less obvious than the sentiment Hall witnessed early in her career.

"A lot of women start out in customer support and they never get out because they're stereotyped as nice and helpful. Those women never go into management or development," said Anna Billstrom, a contract Web programmer and technical writer who lives in San Francisco.

"A lot of it is subtle social things that you can't pinpoint," she added. "I think it is valuable to have the government's stamp of approval on that type of research."

Despite the success and notoriety of some notable women in the technology space, Hall said, the commission would likely find that they represent the exception rather than the rule. The proposed report would help recognize where the barriers exist.

The commission also would take a hard look at whether women are paid the same and climb the ranks at the same pace as men with equivalent experience.

"We know that women leave science, engineering, and technology careers twice as frequently as men. Do we know the cause of this? No," Belkis Leong-Hong of Women in Technology told the committee. "Could salaries be a factor? This is a distinct possibility, since women in science, engineering, and technology earn 12 to 15 percent less than their male counterparts."

But studies already have established these inequalities exist, so the commission should spend its time uncovering the reasons and hammering out solutions, said some who testified.

Suggestions included increasing mentoring programs and educating high school counselors about the opportunity for all students in the high-tech and science fields.

"The Labor Department and other federal agencies still refer to scientific occupations selected by women as 'nontraditional' careers, implying that the women must somehow be gender-confused if they are in the sciences," testified Catherine Jay Didion, executive director of the Association for Women in Science.

"Mentors and role models--both women and men--are needed to serve as teachers and guides to help women scientists advance their careers," she added. "The vast majority of successful women scientists have had male mentors who were critical to their success. These relationships should be formalized, long-term, and rewarded whenever possible."

The earlier girls can be introduced to technology, the better, said Sandy Bernard, president of the American Association of University Women, which made waves with its 1992 report, "How Schools Shortchange Girls."

"Girls need more access to computers in school and more encouragement," she said. "And schools should let them work in an environment they like--for example, girls often like to work in teams."