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Valley of the boys?

Women struggle to find niche in male-oriented tech culture

Boys club
Some women say they didn't know what they were getting into when they entered the world of IT  

In this story:

Boys will be boys in Silicon Valley

Engineering's PR problem

Empowering youths for a high-tech future

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



SILICON VALLEY, California (CNN) -- The number of females in computer science is dropping, and some women blame it on a pervasive boys club culture in the tech industry.

"Women are certainly making great strides in management and they're starting dot-com companies," said Dr. Anita Borg, head of the Institute for Women and Technology. "But women are neither entering nor advancing in the technical realm."

The number of women pursuing careers in computer science has been dropping for 15 years, Borg said. In the field's formative years and through the 1970s and early 1980s, women entered computing in large numbers. Nearly 40 percent of computer science and computer engineering degrees in 1984 went to women.

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Today, that number has decreased to 28 percent, according to the American Association of University Women.

But Borg said in some places, that number is well below 20 percent.

Boys will be boys in Silicon Valley

Even in a technological Mecca like Silicon Valley, women may find themselves turned off by a work environment geared toward men. Monika Khushf, an engineering director at Intuit, a California company that provides business software and services, discovered that Silicon Valley may very well be the valley of the boys.

"I think when we got here, a lot of women, we didn't know what we were getting ourselves into," she said.

Monika found herself in a culture that was very different from anything else she'd experienced. So she decided to document her one-sided work life on film in "Valley of the Boys."

"We'd go to lunch, and they just would talk about tape drives and hardware and wires and machines. It was my first realization that I was with a bunch of people I had nothing in common with," she said.

The infamous Silicon Valley lifestyle may also play a roll in driving women away.

In her film, Khushf documents male programmers sleeping on couches and settling in to the office for the evening -- sometimes all night -- to eat pizza and play video games.

Claudia Carpenter described similar circumstances. Her reaction at the end of the work day: "I am out of here."

Like Khushf, Carpenter has worked in computer engineering for more than 15 years. She said in her decade and a half in Silicon Valley, she's watched female colleagues leave one-by-one.

"Being in the computer industry is like being in Never-Never Land," Carpenter said. "One of the main reasons women leave is that this industry never quite grows up."

Engineering's PR problem

  GALLERY

 
Never-Never Land or Silicon Valley? Captured in "Valley of the Boys," these images reveal a work environment to which some women believe they're unsuited  

Khushf noted that many male engineers believe office games and toys are a natural result of the creativity behind programming.

So why can't women have fun?

"I think a lot of men have fun in different ways. I mean, you don't see lawyers running around with Nerf guns," Khushf said.

You may see engineers doing just that. With the best stock options and salaries, engineering is at the top of the technological hierarchy.

But Borg believes that engineering has a public relations problem, especially as portrayed in the media.

"I think a lot of young women take a look at that and say, 'that's not what I want to be like,'" she said.

When the Information Technology Association of America and CIO Magazine asked students to draw their impressions of IT workers, the results were less-than-flattering images of male geeks.

Empowering youths for a high-tech future

"Being a high-tech geek these days, it's like being a celebrity," said Rachel Muir, founder of Girlstart. "And that's what girls need to know. Their path to empowerment is a high-tech future. And if they can't implement and utilize the tools to have that future, they're going to be left behind."

geek drawings
Asked to draw their impressions of IT workers, students provided images like these  

Muir decided the only way things would change is from the bottom up. She founded Girlstart, a program in Austin, Texas, that aims to make young women more computer savvy.

The program targets girls ages 11 through 15 -- the critical period when girls lose interest in math and science.

Muir is convinced that girls are getting the wrong message about technology, even at home. Most parents want to encourage their daughters to pursue math and science, and nine times out of 10, the computer is in a son's room, Muir said.

Carpenter believes the involvement of female engineers in creating products even benefits the consumer.

"VCRs, definitely. I think if a woman had been involved, there's not a way it would have been so convoluted," she said.

But the impact of not having many women involved in engineering may go well beyond your VCR.

"The technology of the future is going to define what our culture, what our social life, what our economic life, what our political life looks like," Borg said. "And we can't really afford to have a very narrow slice of the populace defining the entire nature of our future."



RELATED STORIES:
Solving the IT labor shortage
July 17, 2000
New trend: Tech is hot college major
July 11, 2000
All girl, all tech
July 11, 2000
Who are the champions of women in technology?
January 20, 1999

RELATED SITES:
Intuit
Institute for Women and Technology
Girlstart


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