Oct 31 2006

Instructional Programs Empower Young Women To Explore And Pursue Opportunities In The IT Field

With newfound training and support, more women are encouraged to choose a career in information technology.

When Jaday Martinez arrived in Miami from Cuba at the age of 11, she had never seen a computer. Now, thanks to increased efforts to improve awareness and encourage educational and career opportunities for women in technology, the 18-year-old senior at Felix Varela High School in Miami is on the verge of receiving two network and computer certifications, and is planning a future in management information systems.

Martinez is one of a growing number of young women being selected for recruitment and retention in the IT field. Although women constitute nearly half of the labor force in the United States, they make up only 27 percent of the IT workforce, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology.

Even more disturbing, according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW) located in Washington, women receive fewer than 28 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer sciences —down from 37 percent in 1984. In addition, the Washington, D.C.-based Computing Research Association reports that interest in computer science majors among women fell 80 percent between 1998 and 2004.

Although women as a whole are more educated, are more likely to be employed and are working at higher career levels than ever before, they are still largely pigeonholed in “pink-collar” jobs such as teaching and nursing, according to the AAUW report, Women at Work. The report highlights the need for advanced education for women in computer and IT fields, stressing that without it, the technological gender gap will continue to grow.

Leaving Women Behind

“Women have made tremendous advances in higher education and in the workforce,” says Elena Silva, director of research for the AAUW Educational Foundation. “Unfortunately, women are still underrepresented in many of the high-skill, high-paying jobs in science and technology.

“Encouraging and supporting the advancement of girls and women in these fields needs to occur at all levels of education, from elementary grades through graduate training.”

Overcoming the mind-set that says technology and women are not a compatible fit is among the first deadbolts that need to be unlocked, according to Marlon Vernon, an instructor at Florida’s Miami Lakes Educational Center and head of the school’s Telecommunications and IT program. “Considering the fact that IT is still very much a male-dominated field, girls often do not understand what’s in store for them at the end of the road,” he explains.

To help combat this, Vernon attempts to educate young women at the junior-high level by visiting school sites and sharing available opportunities with them. Often, he says, the more difficult task can be enlightening parents, many of whom still view women in traditional roles.

“They just don’t see their daughters in IT,” he explains, adding that his school hosts several open houses throughout the year, enabling parents to visit classrooms and observe firsthand the technology being implemented. “We need to show them the opportunities for their daughters,” emphasizes Vernon, who also runs the school’s Cisco Academy.

Creating Role Models

Conquering the fear that many girls associate with technology is another factor that must be taken into account when trying to engage young women in the IT arena, notes Arlene Krebs, director of the Wireless Education & Technology Center at California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB), and a pioneer in the field of e-learning, telecommunications and new media.

“I have always tried to [be a] role model,” she explains. “If girls have a dream and want to pursue it, there should be very few obstacles to overcome.”

Toward that end, Krebs applied for and received two grants from Hewlett-Packard that are aimed at encouraging minority undergraduate students to enter—and stay in—the IT arena. While much of the grant money was used to purchase new mobile technology equipment, about $20,000 was earmarked for a program in which students work with the university’s IT staff, enabling the students to gain hands-on experience.

“Some of the women have become so well-versed [in technology] that they are now student work assistants,” Krebs says.

Additionally, the CSUMB campus requires all students to enroll in an introductory “Tech Tools” class, which provides a basic computing overview. The university also has established a program that furnishes the most economically challenged students with wireless notebook PCs. These two measures, Krebs says, “equalize gender and access” to technology.

Some of the outreach methods employed at Miami Lakes Educational Center to help engage young women in IT include displaying posters in school classrooms, inviting local businesswomen who are working in the IT field to speak to the class and coordinating internships in the technology sector.

By far the most powerful tool Vernon has witnessed to recruit young women into the technology field is peer pressure. “One girl gets involved, and then she tells her friends about the program, and the next thing you know, they all want to participate,” he says.

Young women remain the gender minority in the technology program at the 1,500-student school, occupying about 55 of the 400 to 450 slots in five IT-focused courses. However, Vernon is quick to point out an encouraging observation: “The girls are definitely doing better than the boys at this point.”

One of his students, 16-year-old Krystal Isla, selected the Cisco Academy program because of her interest in computers. Following graduation, the high school junior plans to obtain her network certifications in CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate), CCNP (Cisco Certified Network Professional), CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert) and the Computing Technology Industry Association’s A+, and then pursue a degree in computer science.

“This program is a great opportunity for girls because we have the same chance and the same benefits [as boys do],” Isla enthuses. “Any girl who is interested should go for it.”

Going for IT

One young woman who decided to “go for it” is Laura Gutierrez. Currently the backup instructor for Miami Lakes’ Cisco Academy, Gutierrez graduated from the school’s program in 1997 and pursued a career in electronics technology. After supervising the production of high-frequency circuits for communications devices in the corporate world, Gutierrez returned to Miami Lakes in 2000 to teach electronics and technology courses.

“I like being there for the girls as a role model,” she says. “I’m hoping it might encourage them.”

Martinez, who was inspired by an instructor to enroll in her school’s Cisco Academy, praises the hands-on training she received in the program.

“This is a real-life experience,” she points out. “We’re in there touching the routers, just as we would in the workplace. This is something I would have had to pay for at college, but now I’m getting it for free. This course really prepared me for my career.”

The rewards the young women reap from their technology programs extend far beyond networking knowledge. Through her participation in the Cisco Academy, Martinez has not only become proficient at configuring routers and setting up computers, but she has achieved other more significant rewards, including an increased level of self-confidence.

“When I first started the networking class, there were a bunch of boys, and I was the only girl,” Martinez recalls. “That made me doubt if I could really do it. But when I realized I was just as good as they were, I knew that I could do anything!”

Isla echoes that sentiment, explaining that her self-assurance blossomed along with her networking prowess. Noting that she had been painfully shy at the beginning of the school year, Isla says she gained a major boost in self-confidence by being required to present a section of the technology curriculum in front of the class each week. “As time went on, I got more comfortable talking in front of people, and it even took my shyness away,” she says.

The benefits Isla has gained from her IT involvement extend to an abundance of other useful life skills, including time management, money management and the ability to interact with different types of people, she reports.

“This course has taught me things about life that have really had an impact on me,” she says. “I feel that it has helped me become a better person.”

Melissa B. Tamberg is a technology-focused freelance writer in San Diego.

Girls Get IT Initiative

In an effort to ensure that women keep pace with the ever-evolving wheels of technology, the Florida Department of Education and Cisco Networking Academy teamed up to launch the Girls Get IT Initiative, aimed at increasing the recruitment and retention of women in the IT industry.

“We know that when young women see the social benefits of technology, they get more engaged, more empowered and more excited to participate in technology-based programs,” explains Gene Longo, senior manager, U.S. field operations, for the Cisco Networking Academy Program.

The new program will provide dedicated support personnel and activities aimed at igniting women’s interest in IT, including summits, camps and computer clubs. Also, educators, administrators and guidance counselors will be given access to teaching methods designed to increase awareness of career opportunities for women in technology.

With four Florida community college sites targeted for the program’s initial launch, which will be followed by a rollout at the middle- and high-school levels, the Girls Get IT Initiative will be implemented over a five-year period and will closely track the recruitment, retention and career paths of its participants.

Closing the IT Gender Gap

Encouraging young women to embrace technology doesn’t necessarily require the latest equipment or extensive IT knowledge. It can begin with small steps, as evidenced in some of the recommendations in Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age, a report published by the American Association of University Women’s Educational Foundation. Suggestions include the following:

Educate girls to be designers, not just users. Help girls imagine themselves early in life as producers of new technology. Engage girls in “tinkering” activities that can stimulate a deeper interest in technology.

Change the public face of computing. The promotion of women in computing should correspond to the reality rather than the stereotype. Girls tend to imagine IT professionals in a solitary, antisocial world, but this is an alienating—and incorrect—perception.

Create a family computer. Place computers in accessible home spaces. Think about shared or family-centered activities on the computer, rather than viewing its use as an individual or isolated activity.

Transform “pink” software. Software does not need to be specifically designated for girls or boys. Instead, it should focus on the many design elements and themes that engage a broad range of learners.