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Women get plugged in to high-tech

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"My name is Robyn Forster, and I'm a nerd," announced the 20-year-old sociology major.

And she wasn't alone. The classroom at University of Maryland, Baltimore County took on the feel of a Nerds Anonymous meeting as the 17 women and one man enrolled in "Cybergrrls and Wired Women" laid bare their love affairs with the computer.

Professor Sandra Shattuck, associate director of the university's Center for Women and Information Technology, beamed.

"I thought the rallying around nerddom was great," said Shattuck, who came to UMBC a year ago to help the center draw women into the high-tech world. "But at the same time, I think it really is indicative of how difficult it is for women and girls to succeed in anything technology-, science-, engineering-related. ... To do so, they really have to celebrate their nerdiness."

Women make up 20 percent of information technology workers nationwide, even though they make up 51 percent of both the general population and the college student population. Prevailing trends don't offer much hope for a turnaround in that regard. The number of computer science degrees being awarded is decreasing for both sexes, but the decline is greater among women -- who earn less than 28 percent of them.

Shattuck said the class, which explores the experiences available to women in the technological world, is a direct outgrowth of her work at the center. It's also the first of its kind at UMBC, the state's major producer of computer science and information systems graduates.

"One of the ... parts of the center's mission is to promote research on gender and information technology," she said. "The class gives us another academic venue to do that." She said the class reinforces another part of the center's mission: encouraging women and girls to study and use technology, while understanding its growing importance.

The center is the brainchild of Joan Korenman, an English professor at UMBC whose work in women's studies and the role of technology in education led her to recognize the imbalance between genders in science and engineering, and persuaded her to take on the task of leveling it. Korenman is the creator of a 9-year-old electronic forum for women's studies with more than 4,000 users in 47 countries.

The center's A+ program helps women from underprivileged backgrounds become certified in computer hardware and operating systems. The CWIT Web site (www.umbc.edu/cwit) has the ability to reach a mass audience with strong resources for women.

Meanwhile, the center's speaker series invites women from the world of technology to share their insights, such as Anne Balsamo, a research scientist for Xerox Corp., who will speak on campus Nov. 14. Other plans in the works include a proposal that would pair middle school girls with UMBC undergraduates in a mentoring program.

"There's all this news today about the parity of men and women online, and that's such an enormous change from when I went online in 1990 and even started the center in 1998," Korenman said. "But it does not mean that there are no longer real areas of concern."

She notes the underrepresentation of women as developers of technology and the lack of variety in Internet resources for women.

Those concerns are echoed by other women in the technology field. Linda Scherr, the program director of IBM's Women in Technology task force, said the needs of women might be better served by the corporate world if design teams had a wider diversity of perspective.

"If you get a more diverse team together to create your products," she said from her home office in Framingham, Mass., "then you create better products ... that really reflect your customers." Scherr gave as an example some of the popular high-tech toys and consumer items. "If there were more women [involved in developing them], it's my guess that they might not have called them 'Game Boy' and 'Walkman.'"

Scherr, who is not affiliated with CWIT, said IBM is working to attract more women and girls to the science and engineering industries through community education, such as its summer 2000 technology camps for girls. IBM sponsored 11 camps in six states and Puerto Rico that exposed middle school girls to real-life applications of technology

"We have to break up the myth that technology is for boys," said Scherr, who began her career at IBM in 1973 as a designer and developer of software. "We need to show [females] what their day will really be like. ... It's not just Dilbert sitting in a cubicle. Technology has an impact on real life; it solves real-life problems."

The makeup of Shattuck's class gives her hope that these messages are starting to get out. The students come to the class from a variety of disciplines -- from computer science to African studies to visual and performing arts. And not all of them are experts in technology. Some, like Sue Ann Persick, a 37-year-old American studies student, are there to test the waters.

"I wanted to step my foot in and see what it's like," Persick said.

Part of the impetus behind the curiosity might be attributable to the benefits of the high-tech industry -- such as large salaries. In Maryland, the average yearly income of a high-tech worker is $57,000 -- $30,000 more than the national average for all industries. And, according to the Maryland Department of Labor, high-tech jobs will account for 27 percent of all professional careers in the state by 2006. That's 35,000 new information technology jobs waiting to be filled.

Statistics such as those caught the attention of Miriam Rahman, a sophomore in Shattuck's class. "I saw a report about gender and technology," she said, "and it really got to me. ... I thought, 'Wow, I have to jump on this bandwagon.'"

Information

Here are a few places for women and girls to find out if the tech world is for them:

CWIT: The Center for Women and Information Technology at UMBC is meant for everyone, not only the college's students and is loaded with intelligent and informative resources for women. Find it online at www.umbc.edu/cwit, or call the center at 410-455-2822.

Chickclick.com: This compilation site is still feminine, but in a "girl power" way, says Brooke Summers, a graphic design student at UMBC. "It tells girls, 'Hey, it's cool to be smart.' "

Tryscience.org: Linda Scherr, the program director of IBM's Women in Technology task force, recommends this new IBM-affiliated site to get children to explore science and engineering while having fun.

Wirednews.com/news/women: Run by the online Wired News, this site profiles the talented women hammering on the high-tech world's glass ceiling.

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