Sue V. Rosser was aghast earlier this year when, at a private conference she attended with about three dozen others, the president of Harvard University openly questioned the scientific aptitude of women.
She was stunned by Lawrence H. Summers' comments. They were based on flawed, 30-year-old data and prepared in advance - not an errant comment made off the cuff, she said. Even more disheartening to her was the effect the publicity, and ensuing controversy, could have on young women thinking of making science, math or engineering their life's work.
"This was Harvard, which many consider the top institute of higher learning in the United States," said Rosser, dean of the Ivan Allen College of liberal arts at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "Those words could only serve to discourage young women who might have wanted to go into science and engineering fields."
That challenge, and the overall issue, drew Rosser and more than 250 other women from more than 20 countries to Baltimore this week for a symposium organized by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Center for Women and Information Technology.
The purpose of the gathering is to create a five-year plan to help women around the world gain greater access to, and leadership in, information technology - from the corporate world to the public policy arena. The meeting concludes today at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel downtown.
"We're looking at achieving some very concrete actions" as a result of this conference, said Claudia Morrell, executive director of the center.
The symposium working group, whose members traveled from as far as Brazil, the United Arab Emirates and China, hopes to have a major presence at the World Summit on Information Society, scheduled for Tunis in November.
The United States has seen a reversal in a long-term trend that saw women increase involvement in technical fields such as math and science. From the mid-1980s to 2001, female enrollment in math and science doctoral programs in the United States jumped 20 percent, according to research cited by Rosser.
But in a more recent study, enrollment of women in computer science between 1998 and 2004 fell 80 percent, compared with a 32 percent drop for men and women combined. While the dot-com bust explains part of the retreat, Rosser and other researchers believe the disproportionate drop underscores the frustration women feel over cultures that are often less than welcoming to women in technical fields.
Women and minorities will make up the bulk of new entrants into the U.S. work force in the decade ahead - a period in which 2 million workers will be needed to fill information-technology jobs, according to the National Science Foundation.
"This is really critical," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pa. "If the U.S. economy is to maintain its position in the world, being at the leading edge of just about everything as far as business and science goes, it is ... for the good of the economy that women have the full range of skills."
In some cultures, center director Morrell said, women are denied access to computers or other forms of technology, exacerbating problems in health care as well as economics.
Whatever their position in society, women are usually the chief caregivers in their homes. Denying wives and mothers access to computers denies them the information needed to address family health matters, she said.
The Center for Women and Information Technology
Headquarters: University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Executive director: Claudia Morrell
Mandate: Works with corporations, government agencies, universities and others to broaden involvement of women in all aspects of information technology.
Programs: Along with UMBC, the World Trade Center Institute and Women in Global Science and Technology, it sponsored "Women and ICT [Information and Communications Technology]: Creating Global Transformation," a technology symposium that this week drew more than 250 women from more than 20 countries worldwide. In April, it helped sponsor "Computer Mania Day," which drew hundreds of middle-school-aged girls to UMBC for a day focusing on computers, IT and possible careers. It also offers mentoring programs and a speakers' bureau.