By Phoebe Nobles
Thursday, November 29, 2001
Experts at a conference on "Women and Girls in the High Tech Economy" called for a drive to train more women and girls, saying that though business now is sluggish, the economy will rebound and business will be inseparable from technology.
PALISADES, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)--Despite the economic downturn and collapse of many Internet businesses, skilled information technology workers are still in demand. Confident that the field will mushroom over the next 10 years, participants in a technology conference for women and girls declared it imperative to train an overlooked-female-half of the population.
"This is prime time for us," Linda Bowker, director of the New Jersey Division on Women, told participants in a symposium on "Women and Girls in the High Tech Economy" on Nov. 9 and 10. She compared technology's current demand for skilled workers to conditions in World War II that allowed many women into the manufacturing trades for the first time. "Workforce development is economic development," she said. "We have to train women and minorities."
"Even though information technology is not growing this year, it's unquestionable that IT is going to be one of the fastest-growing industries in the next decade," said Caroline Kovac, IBM's general manager of life sciences. In June, when unemployment stood at a four-year high, a study by the Computing Technology Industry Association found that open positions in information technology were also at record levels.
The interests of women and business are mutual, participants said. American businesses are facing a shortage of technically skilled workers in science and technology. The fastest-growing occupations, according to the Department of Labor, are computer engineers, computer support specialists and systems analysts.
The conference was sponsored by IBM, the U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau, Fleet Bank, the New York State Division for Women and the New Jersey Commission on the Status of Women. Participants included businesswomen, educators, members of the public and nonprofit sectors from Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
The goal of the conference was to focus on increasing the number of women working in the new economy. Women, who constitute almost half of the American labor force, fill only 12 percent of the nation's lucrative jobs in science, engineering and technology, according to Linda Basch, executive director of the National Council for Research on Women.
American women on average earn up to 73 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Women in science and technology still earn less than their male counterparts--an average of 92 cents to every man's dollar, according to a study by Techies.com, an employment Web site, and U.S. Census Bureau figures.
But across the board, salaries in information technology average 46 percent higher than those of nontechnical workers, according to Caroline Kovac of IBM.
The women who constitute about 20 percent of the information technology workforce make 60 percent more than women in "regular jobs," said Shinae Chun, the Bush administration's director of the U.S. Department of Labor's Women's Bureau.
To the Women's Bureau, a "non-traditional occupation," or NTO, for women is any profession in which women make up less than 25 percent of employees. Trades that have historically made the list range from atmospheric scientists to funeral directors, clergy, machinists, stevedores and motion picture projectionists.
Nontraditional occupations tend to offer higher wages than many of the occupations where women are in the majority, according to the Women's Bureau. Now, some of the highest-paying jobs in the country serve newly created technological needs. And though high-tech jobs are not "traditional" for men or women, they have quickly joined more established science and engineering careers as "nontraditional" for women.
"We've got to get our numbers up (in the technological workforce) if we want to get our earnings up," said Mary Murphree, administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor for Region II, which covers New York and New Jersey, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Participants said they attended the conference to capitalize on the opportunity--and the necessity--to change patterns of what is traditional and nontraditional in what is now a fluid and growing industry.
"You are the diehards behind this issue," Murphree said.
Several participants praised IBM for a history of responsiveness to women's needs in the technological workplace. "It is our goal to be the premier employer in the world for women," proclaimed Ted Childs, IBM's vice president of diversity.
Caroline Kovac of IBM clarified one reason for the company's concern: "We're in a war for talent."
While American companies often look abroad to fill technology positions, participants argued that there is no need to strip the rest of the world of skilled workers without making a concerted attempt to train American women in technological fields. "Global leadership must come from American women to allow women of the world to participate in the global economy," Childs said.
"Increasingly, it's becoming evident that (girls) can do everything the boys can do, and do it better," Childs told the group assembled for dinner. "We need to have the energy and intellectual capacity of women unleashed--that's how we will protect our jobs."
Added Kovac: "If equal numbers of women as men went into science and technology, the gap between labor needed and labor available would be erased."
Women are also consumers of technology. Keynote speaker Shinae Chun of the Labor Department's Women's Bureau pointed out that women buy half of all personal computers, which should give an impetus to involving women in the business.
Kovac said women must create technology for themselves. She called most of today's technological consumer products "black plastic things" mainly suited to men's needs and desires.
"They hang on your belt. Maybe you can hang six or seven of them on your belt," she said, displaying a photograph of an oblong mobile phone attached to what was presumably a man's belt on khaki pants. "If we think technology is only going to be created by the male half of the population," she challenged, "what is it going to look like and who is it going to serve?"
Creating technology requires extensive training, and participants emphasized that the skill gap in the workplace stems from a discrepancy in science, engineering, and technology education. Several speakers noted the number of women receiving computer science degrees fell from 37 percent of bachelor of arts degrees in 1984 to 27 percent in 1998. The number of undergraduates of both sexes expressing an interest in science and math declined from 1985 to 1995. While the numbers of men dropped from 32 percent to 20 percent, the numbers of women fell from 7 percent to 4 percent, Kovac said.
Moreover, 34 percent of American high school girls reported in one study being advised by a counselor or teacher not to take an advanced math or science course, said Kovac.
But Linda Scherr, program director of IBM's Women and Technology Initiatives, said young women are taking math and science in high school now--"they're just not interested in the careers we're trying to sell them."
Participants grappled with how to change the public image of jobs in technology to attract girls. More than one voice suggested a TV show or Hollywood film glamorizing women scientists and engineers.
They also suggested that strong role models in science and technology would help usher girls into the fields. But those role models must be updated: "Most high school girls do not relate to Marie Curie anymore," Kovac said.
Participants recommended extracurricular and summer programs for girls only in science and technology. They discussed programs in different states from the elementary to the graduate level, both in school and out.
Basch, director of the National Council for Research on Women, suggested that educational efforts that successfully encourage girls in the sciences link computer applications to the real world. Bash also recommended hands-on research for girls and nurturing entry-level courses in college, as distinct from "killer" courses that aim to weed students out.
Katherine Tobin, principal investigator for nonprofit research organization Catalyst, presented her finding that female executives in top high-tech companies credit their success to mentors. The necessity of mentoring was a recurring theme. One project participants commended is MentorNet, a Web site that connects college women majoring in the sciences with women at work in related fields.
Phoebe Nobles is a free-lance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.
National Council for Research on Women:
Department of Labor Women's Bureau:
IBM diversity initiatives:
The Douglass Project:
New York State Division for Women:
Pennsylvania Women Work!:
Connecticut Girls and Technology Network: