Wanted: Technical Women

There is a severe shortage of women in technical jobs.

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Joanne McGrath Cohoon is an associate professor in the department of Science, Technology and Society at the University of Virginia. She researches, publishes, and speaks on women's under-representation in IT and gender segregation in higher education.

Especially at a time when unemployment is high and our economy is weak, we cannot afford to lose anyone with the technical skills to create a sustainable future, improve health, build our cyber and physical infrastructure, and enhance personal and societal security.

A diverse set of minds needs to tackle those problems. But we are largely missing out on women's intelligence, creativity, and values in solving the problems we all face.

Why is this so?

Evidence continues to mount that capable women in technical fields have less confidence than men that they will be successful. Researchers at Stanford University recently published new findings that women engineering students perform as well as men, but are more likely than men to switch to a different major. These women switch because they don't believe that their skills are good enough and they don't feel like they "fit" in engineering.

Unfortunately, many of these women are wrong. They could succeed in engineering or computing, and it is in our interest that they do.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts more job openings by 2018 for accountants/auditors, teachers, computer systems analysts, software engineers, and network systems and data communications analysts, compared with any other jobs requiring a bachelor's degree. By far, the best paying of these jobs are in computing. The median annual pay for computing jobs ranges from $15,000 to $32,000 more than the median pay for accountants and teachers.

If women have the ability to be technical, why are many less confident than men they'll be successful? Because most people assume that men are better than women at technical things.

The Stanford study corroborated what we already know from other national and international research. Stereotypes, or cultural beliefs, that link masculinity and technology, while disconnecting femininity and technology, create false expectations that men are naturally better engineers and computing professionals than women are.

One example of these stereotypes comes from social psychology experiments. Unsurprisingly, they show that undergraduate men majoring in computer science have more confidence in their computing skills than do men with other majors. What is surprising, however, is that these male non-computer majors have more confidence in their computing skills than do women computer science majors. This finding shows that students believe being male bestows more computing skill than does studying computer science.

Stereotypes are communicated in many ways. It is not necessary for anyone to say women don't have what it takes (although there are documented cases of that happening). Even the physical environment can convey the message that someone like you does not belong. For example, research shows that rooms decorated with "geeky" images and objects tend to be unappealing and unwelcoming to women. When these stereotyped environments are the places where computing majors study and socialize, they measurably reduce both women's interest in declaring a computing major and their expectation of success in computing.

All of this research documents and explains why women feel less confident and may actually leave fields like computing and engineering. Nevertheless, this situation is not inevitable. Certain countries, like Malaysia, for example, think of computing as women's work and have more women than men in computing occupations.

In the U.S., 18 percent to 20 percent of engineering students now are women, an improvement over abysmal numbers of 25 years ago. At the University of Virginia's Engineering School, 31 percent of undergraduates are female. Considerable progress has also been made in some of the largest engineering fields. Of bachelor's degrees awarded in biomedical/medical engineering in 2009, 37 percent went to women. In chemical engineering, it was 35 percent, and 31 percent in industrial engineering.

Technical women often talk about how much they love their work. Students describe the intense thrill of solving a challenging problem or getting a difficult program to work. Professionals like Krista Marks, general manager of Disney Online Kerpoof Studios, have told their success stories to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

Marks was a co-founder and CEO of Kerpoof, an interactive educational website that was acquired by Disney in 2009. "When I went to college, I didn't even know about technology or pursuing a career in technology," she said. "Fortunately when I got to orientation for college, I sat next to a student who said she was going to major in electrical engineering. 'What is that?' I said. And she said, 'I know that if you really like math and physics, it's the best major to have.' I said, 'Oh my God, those are my two favorite things!' I would like every student to be aware of the available opportunities when they're choosing a career."

Improving confidence and attracting more women to technical fields will take effort as long as false stereotypes persist. Until the stereotypes are gone, and technical women experience the same conditions as their male classmates, those of us who teach engineering and computing can take individual action in the classroom: Give women lots of opportunities to succeed at technical tasks. Verbally encourage them--tell them you know they would be great engineers or computing professionals, and why they would want that type of career. Tell the stories of Krista Marks and other women who went on to successful technical careers.

With these steps, we could double the number of technical people working to make this a better world.