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Technology by and for women

Magazines often pitch digital toys to boys, but a Silicon Valley organization wants more women in high tech.

Glossy gadget magazines often pitch digital toys to boys, but a budding organization in Silicon Valley wants high-tech companies to design better products for the other half of the population.

Founded by renowned computer scientist Anita Borg, the Institute for Women and Technology was launched in January to help widen the pipeline of women flowing into high-tech jobs and to create a breeding ground for technology "inspired and created" by women.

Borg's work ranges from building a Unix-based operating system in the 1980s to creating Systers, an online community for women in computing that now has 2,500 members around the world. Last year, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, or Xerox PARC, invited Borg to set up shop at its headquarters, but the institute is independent and awaiting nonprofit status.

Various trade groups and members of Congress already are investigating gender inequality in the booming computer industry, which purports to have a worker shortage. But Borg's mission has a broader scope.

"We're at unique point in history where the things that we are building are going to significantly impact our social, political, economical, and personal lives," said Borg, who got her first programming job in 1969.

"We'll try to be a catalyst for development projects that include women at all levels--in the design and development process," she added. "It doesn't help to just get women's opinions and then turn them over to an all-white-male engineering team."

Without a doubt, women have come to rely on laptops, personal digital assistants, cell phones, and other computerized devices at both work and home. However, Borg says that market research alone won't ensure that products consider the differences between the sexes or women's needs and interests.

Through workshops and research projects that will kick off this fall, the institute will issue product recommendations to high-tech companies, as well as design its own specifications.

Borg points to anecdotes she's heard about voice recognition technologies as evidence that women need to be integrated into product blue prints.

"The early voice recognition machines didn't work well for high voices, so a woman could be cut off when talking to an answering machine," she said.

"This same technology goes into videoconferencing equipment," she added. "If it doesn't recognize women's voices, the system can keep a woman from participating in the conference. It's difficult enough for women to be heard in an in-person meeting without having the technology itself make that situation worse."

The first projects the institute will likely tackle are personal digital assistants, such as 3Com's PalmPilot.

"None of these devices address that women keep track of many people's lives, not just their own," Borg said.

She contends that the number of women in the high-tech field can directly influence product research. According to the Education Department, the number of women who received bachelors' degrees in computer science has decreased from 37.1 percent in 1984 to 28.4 percent in 1994.

"[If we] draw more young women into being interested in this kind of work, they will see that the stuff they are working on has a connection to their lives," Borg said.

Women in the industry agree there is a need for the institute.

"Systers is a place where women can voice their concerns and issues they run into because of gender," said Denise Gurer, chairwoman of the Association for Computing Machinery's Committee on Women in Computing. "The institute will help technology be a positive factor in women's lives."