US Report: Is the 'nerd' factor keeping women out of high-tech?

BOSTON -- Unflattering stereotypes about high-tech workers are combining with substandard science and technology education to keep the technology industry predominantly male, a U.S.

BOSTON -- Unflattering stereotypes about high-tech workers are combining with substandard science and technology education to keep the technology industry predominantly male, a U.S. Department of Commerce official said at the Women in Technology International Summit here Monday.

"There's no simple solution to bringing more women in" to skilled high-tech jobs, but companies must first consider sending their women executives out to mentor young girls, Kelly H. Carnes, the department's deputy assistant secretary for technology policy, said in an interview at the conference. Without more positive female role models, girls won't be motivated to seek out careers in high-tech, she said. "We need to show kids that these are really good jobs, and that real people do them," Carnes said.

Carnes, the highest-ranking woman in the Commerce Department's Technology Administration bureau, also addressed an audience of several hundred technology professionals at the conference on the topic of the IT labour shortage.

As part of the Commerce Department's study of the technology labour shortage last year, the agency examined U.S. sixth-grade students' attitudes toward high-tech careers and the people in them, she said. The report shows that only 28 percent of computer systems analysts are women, and just 31 percent of computer programmers are women. A mere 8 percent of engineers are women.

To illustrate her point about stereotypes, Carnes showed off a series of caricatures of tech workers done by the students -- caricatures which mainly depicted ill-dressed, pocket-protector-wearing men. Of 160 such caricatures submitted by the students, just 16 portrayed women. "Many girls are effectively opting out of science education by the sixth grade," she said. Given the image many of the youngsters have of engineers, software developers and other technologists, "it's pretty hard for some girls to see themselves in this field," Carnes said.

School districts need to consider hiring science and math specialists to teach primary-grade students, she added, because specialists would have a better chance of sparking an interest in technology careers among the youngsters."While you might not necessarily need specialists to teach math and science at the lower grade levels, those are the people with a real love for the material," Carnes said.

The agency's report on the IT labour shortage proves that "you can't start too young" trying to prepare students to enter an increasingly technology-driven workforce, she added. That report shows employment levels for IT professionals nearly doubled between 1987 and 1997, and that unemployment among computer professionals in 1997 was 1.3 percent, less than one-third the unemployment rate for all workers. From 1996 to 2006, 1.3 million skilled IT jobs will be created in the U.S., the report estimates.

The report also shows that, as of last year, only 28 percent of computer systems analysts are women, and just 31 percent of computer programmers are women. A mere 8 percent of engineers are women. And overall in private industry, only 18 percent of technologists are women, according to the report. "That's a problem because the money and the real power are in the private sector," Carnes said during her keynote address.

Teachers, guidance counsellors and parents also need to become better informed about the kinds of opportunities open to women in high-tech jobs in order to encourage female students to take science and technology courses in college, she said.

A follow-up to last year's report is due out in March. This report will focus on regional issues relating to the job crunch, she said.

The conference continues through Tuesday.