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Camps Aim to Put Girls on Tech Track

Summer programs by IBM, HP and other industry bellwethers seek to narrow a growing gender gap.

September 01, 2003|Rachel Konrad | Associated Press

SAN JOSE — Lizzy Serrano wants to design black skateboard sneakers so cool that fellow eighth-graders would gladly fork over $40 to buy them.

Her shoes, which she has dubbed Half-Pipes, would feature side pockets for laces because few self-respecting middle school pupils bother to tie bows. They would include an overstuffed foam tongue -- an antidote to the complaints of hipsters who wedge tube socks into Vans and Converses to give them a fashionable puffiness.

Great idea, especially for a 12-year-old, who might make it big one day as a marketing consultant to the likes of Nike Inc.

But behind every good product is a great deal of science. That was the point of the tech camp Lizzie completed in Silicon Valley, similar to ones that hundreds of girls nationwide attended this summer. Lizzie's was sponsored by IBM Corp.

The camps teach girls about technical professions and encourage them to pursue degrees in science, mathematics and engineering. Proponents hope that the youngsters eventually return to the sponsoring companies and in the process help narrow a growing gender gap in the male-dominated tech industry

The percentage of women in the tech workforce dropped to 34.9% in 2002 from a high of 41% in 1996, according to the Information Technology Assn. of America. Women constituted about 47% of the U.S. workforce in 2000 but earned just 22% of computer science and engineering undergraduate degrees, according to IBM research.

To counter the trend, the Girl Scouts launched a television, radio and print campaign this year, sponsored by Intel Corp., the chip maker and Silicon Valley bellwether. "Girls Go Tech" ads depicted girls discussing math, science and technology with humorously clueless parents. The ads noted that most girls begin to lose interest in math and science by about age 12.

Sharon Hussey, a Girl Scouts senior vice president, says efforts to encourage women to enter technical fields mirror the drive 30 years ago to boost their ranks in medical and law schools, where ratios of men to women today approach parity.

"We were so focused on the broad concepts of where girls are not getting involved -- medicine and law -- that right under our noses there was tremendous slippage happening in the computer and technology field," Hussey said.

The female engineers who served as counselors at IBM's camp in Silicon Valley also are working to counter the trend.

In the Cinderella Project, counselors required Lizzy and about 50 other campers ages 11 to 13 to build shoes that fit a list of technical specifications, including foot biometrics, gait cycles and soles reinforced with prismatic cells.

"Fashion design isn't as important as construction and mechanics," said software engineer Angela Rayborn, 30, who whipped out a ruler and helped Lizzy build prisms. "You have to always measure everything. That's the only way to design things accurately."

IBM, which expanded its 5-year-old "Excite!" program to 30 cities worldwide this summer, has been an industry leader in encouraging girls' interest in technology. Hewlett-Packard Co. and Microsoft Corp. sponsor similar programs.

Texas Instruments Inc. launched a camp this summer in Dallas, where it is headquartered, to teach advanced-placement physics to 50 girls. Intel's "Geek Chic" program places third-grade girls with mentors for several days in its labs and offices near Portland, Ore.

Yet because many programs strive for long-term mentoring relationships, proponents fret that corporate America might lack the patience necessary to groom kids for jobs they won't enter for a decade.

Kara Helander of New York-based Catalyst, which tracks female executives, worries that the camps promote professions such as engineering but don't encourage women to strive for technology's senior ranks.

Many leaders of Silicon Valley's biggest companies lack technical backgrounds, including HP's Carly Fiorina, who has degrees in business, medieval history and philosophy.

Camps should encourage higher education in all disciplines, said Helander, a vice president at Catalyst, a nonprofit group that tracks 75 tech executives in 29 companies.

"These programs are generating attention on science and math," she said, "but you can't draw a direct line from them to women in senior positions in the tech industry."

More worrisome than the gender gap, some observers say, is the failure of the liberal arts-based U.S. education system to produce enough scientists and engineers to meet demand.

That could end U.S. tech dominance, warns John Yochelson, president of Building Engineering & Science Talent, a public-private partnership in San Diego that helps companies recruit women and minorities.

"The camps represent bright spots in a larger picture that is not so positive," Yochelson said, adding that "we won't get to where we want to go as a nation unless there are fundamental changes in the workplace, at colleges and universities and down to elementary school."

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