Rachel Voorhis

(WOMENSENEWS)–As other high school seniors now hang on tenterhooks waiting for college acceptance or rejection letters, Virgie Westmoreland has a different obsession: maintaining the network of Pentium 4 computers she installed at the Al Davies Boys and Girls Club of America in Tacoma, Wash.

Encouraged by a high school science teacher, she enrolled at age 14 in the NetPrep GYRLS program, a national program designed to trainhigh-school-aged girls in computer networking. NetPrep GYRLS is funded by the 3Com Corporation, a leader in small business networking solutions, based in Santa Barbara, Calif. In Tacoma, 3Com worked in partnership with the Boys and Girls Clubs and the local chapter of the YMCA to reach as many girls as possible.

Psyched by her NetPrep training, Westmoreland went right to work in the Boys and Girls Club BOTTLAB (BOTT stands for building opportunities through technology).

“I built a brand-new computer with an Intel Pentium 4 Processor,” she wrote in her journal. “And . . . guess what? It worked!” Since joining the Boys and Girls Club of South Puget Sound, Westmoreland has learned computer construction and repair, operation system maintenance, programming and specialized multimedia programs in animation, design and digital photography. She’s also become an integral part of their cyber team, teaching programs to students from age six through high school.

“Virgie is also a valued junior staff member, teaching other kids and even getting paid when there’s funding,” says John Franich, chief technology officer at the Boys and Girls Club of South Puget Sound.

Westmoreland is a major exception to the gender trends in information technology. The College Board reports that in 2002, over 80 percent of students taking the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam for college credit were boys. Just 20 percent of today’s information technology work force is female, yet the U.S. Department of Labor predicts the U.S. will need 36 percent more computer systems analysts, computer scientists and database administrators by 2010.

Researchers have found various explanations for why young women are not attracted to the computer field. Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age, a 2000 report sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of University Women, found that girls don’t flock to video games (an important introductory computer use) at nearly the same rate as boys. The report also found that girls are less likely to take computer programming classes, finding them tedious and dull. Another conclusion: Girls tend to incorrectly assume that computer professionals live in a solitary, antisocial world.

“When it comes to today’s computer culture, the bottom line is that while more girls are on the train, they aren’t the ones driving,” says Pamela Haag, director of research for the association’s educational foundation. “To get girls ‘under the hood’ of technology, they need to see that it gets them where they want to go,” she adds.

Help is on the way, in the form of popular local and national programs that encourage girls to pursue computer science and connect girls with female role models in the workplace. Byte by byte, girls are following boys into computer careers, thanks to programs such as these, which recognize that connections are often as important as core skills

Local Clubs, E-mail Mentoring Gain Ground

Local computer clubs, such as neighborhood Boys and Girls Clubs and “Empower Girls,” an after-school computer club based in Fairfax County, Va., are gaining ground. Empower Girls was founded by Eileen M. Ellsworth, a former domestic relations trial lawyer, who says her goal is to “have them leaving the club thinking that computers are fun and that they’re confident in using them.”

Over 200 Empower Girls members, ages 8 to 15, learn computer skills using creative, “girl-friendly” methods, such as having students write their names using the ASCII binary code, which converts information into standardized digital formats, allowing computers to communicate with each other and process and store data. After figuring out how their names look in code, they then make beaded necklaces of their coded names. Other fun activities: Internet scavenger hunts and designing a club logo using Microsoft’s PowerPoint program. Once members have come up with several possible logos, girls vote on the best design, which then gets printed on membership T-shirts.

For girls without access to a local club, or time to participate in one, MentorNet can be just the ticket. Founded in 1997 by Carol Muller, who holds a doctorate in education administration and policy analysis, this California-based nonprofit connects female technology, engineering and science students with volunteer mentors worldwide. To date, over 20,000 mentors and mentees from over 95 countries have been matched. MentorNet’s goal is to enhance students’ persistence in fields where they’re underrepresented, stepping up their entry into scientific and technical careers.

Someone seeking a mentor fills out a simple online application stating her preferences, and MentorNet’s automated matching programs scans volunteer mentors for the best match. Mentors are available in most areas of science and technology, including engineering. Mentoring via e-mail, or electronic mentoring, allows participants to chat anytime, no matter where they live or what time zone they’re in. Another bonus: Students often feel less hesitant asking questions using e-mail than they might face-to-face or by phone.

Rachel Voorhis, 27, of Oahu, Hawaii, is a believer. After obtaining an associate degree in science in management and working as an administrative assistant, Voorhis craved a bigger challenge. She decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science, but was unsure about a specialty. “Since there are so many different computer science degree and certification programs out there, I was extremely confused as to what courses to take.”

After enrolling in a distance-learning program at Grantham University, located in Slidell, La., MentorNet matched her with Marion Behnen, an IBM software engineer working in Germany. Behnen has guided Voorhis through the fine points of her goal of landing a software engineering job emphasizing design work.

Behnen got her degree in computer science 25 years ago, when women in the field were rare. She stresses that the “geek” profile no longer fits: “Don’t let yourself be put off by the image of the lonely freak in front of a computer,” Behnen says she advises young women. “There are many career paths in computer technology with lots of creative and challenging tasks. Try to participate in programs that provide opportunities to get first-hand information about the professions.”

New Generation Showing More Interest

Adults involved in “girl-friendly” programs are proud of their students’ progress. Ron Andrade, director of the BOTTLAB headquarters at a Boys and Girls Club in Tacoma, says that a new generation of girls is showing more interest in computer science, thanks in part to the club’s innovative programs. “Girls as young as 6 are building Web sites and learning how to use a computer,” he says. “They’re showing much more interest than the usual desire to chat and play girl-games, such as Barbie Dress-Up on the Internet.”

The club’s efforts to improve girls’ exposure to computer science are boosted by a $100 million partnership with Microsoft Corporation of Redmond, Wash., enabling the club to launch “Club Tech,” a cornucopia of programs including everything from word processing and spreadsheets, to digital movie-making, photography and graphic design.

Andrade points out another bonus: acquiring hardware through participation. “In our ‘Build and Take’ program, we identify those . . . without the ability to purchase a new computer. After we teach them basic A+ (computer repair and operating system maintenance,) they build a computer, install and configure the operating system and ensure that everything works. At the end, they get to take it home,” he says.

There are three girls in the program, “showing great aptitude and remarkable interest in the technical side of the project,” Andrade adds. “They realize that these things are not as complicated as they appear and it gives them strong self-esteem, confidence and pride.”

Joan E. Lisante is a lawyer and freelance writer who covers business, technology, legal and parenting. Her work appears in The Washington Post, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Better Homes and Gardens, Entrepreneur and other publications.

For more information:


YWCA / 3Com NetPrep GYRLS:

American Association of University Women–
“Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age (2000)”: