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Girls Discouraged, Boys Encouraged in Tech: Why Hasn’t This Changed?

smitchells Icon Posted by Shireen Mitchell

August 11th, 2009

It’s 2009 and a news headline reads: “Girls Encouraged to Enter Technology Field.

At a time when technology seems to have taken over every aspect of the daily lives of many of today’s youth, why should this still be headline news? Many will be shocked to know that most 15 year old girls still don’t see technology as a career choice. Instead, too many girls still believe that “programming is for boys.”

I grew up feeling the same way about technology, but that was in the 1980’s. I was actively discouraged from tech and video games although I had a natural love for it. With the prevalence of social media many expected the pattern to be different today. Twenty years later it seems very little has changed. As a matter of fact, based on studies from the National Center for Women & Information Technology, we have actually moved backwards with women in tech fields:

The number of women earning undergraduate degrees in computer science has plunged nearly 50 percent since 1985, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology. In 1985, women represented 37 percent of computer science undergraduate degree recipients. By 2008, women represented a mere 18 percent of computer and information sciences undergraduate degree recipients, representing a significant drop in degrees awarded.

Some women who have already entered the field are facing challenges in the tech industry. One example is the recent Dell gender-bias lawsuit. As Bloomberg news reported, Dell will cough up $9.1 million dollars to settle a suit charging discriminatory practices of work assignments and training opportunities for women:

Their suit claimed that Dell “systematically denied equal employment opportunities to its female employees” in compensation and promotions, according [to] the complaint. The company discriminated against women in training, in assignments of positions outside the U.S. and in programs designed to accelerate advancement, the complaint said.

In social media, one aspect of the tech field, women are routinely not seen as leaders and are snubbed on the speaking circuit. A recent debate began on twitter as a result of a tweet I sent about yet another top ten list of social media experts (surprise: not one woman was included). The resulting conversation can be followed by searching the hash tag #womensnubbed. (For those of you who aren’t on Twitter, a “hash tag” is any word or phrase with the # symbol in front of it; use these to search for and follow discussions on particular topics.) Numerous blog posts have been written about the lack of women represented in social media power-lists; sadly, only a few men are willing to admit that this is a problem, as Geoff Livingston points out in his post “Women Snubbed in Top Ten Speakers List.

Dell Inc. is learning a very difficult lesson about “unintended biases” against women in technology. If today’s 15 year old girls are still not “into” tech then those biases have become ingrained as a cultural norm — but this isn’t “natural,” and we need active educational and policy solutions to encourage girls to consider technology a viable, attractive and accessible field of interest. If our new economy is based on technology, then we have a much bigger problem with more far-reaching consequences than we have fully realized as we try to recover from this recession. Can we truly have innovation if we are actively discouraging half of the population from contributing? Microsoft’s girl tech program as a corporate response to the problem is a start, but three days during the summer will not change much for most teen girls while they face daily discouragement around technology.

Moving forward, if we don’t see women represented as leaders in tech or social media, say something to the organizers or companies involved. Remember, it matters to the next generation of 15 year olds, our potential leaders.

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