Let's widen the door to IT for girls

I bet that, in the course of an average day, you don't think much about Barbie. I certainly don't. There are days, though, when the famed toy doll is top of mind. On occasions when I'm looking over the qualifications of job applicants for IT openings at my organization, or I'm looking through someone's official who's who list of IT innovators, suddenly Barbie seems relevant -- especially the first talking Barbie, which debuted in 1992.

It was a defining installment in Barbie doll history. The adorable figure, enjoyed and idolized by millions of girls, was finally going to speak. It was a profound moment for girls everywhere. Her first words to them? "Math class is so tough."

What a letdown!

Today, when I look at the number of women in technology compared with men, that's tough math. It's discouraging that only 22% of scientists, mathematicians and engineers in the U.S. are women. It's discouraging to know that while three-quarters of tomorrow's jobs in the U.S. will require the mere use of computers, less than 33% of enrollees in computer courses and related activities are girls, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Is it all Barbie's fault? Absolutely not. In fact, she was only saying what she (well, her creators) thought girls were thinking. And she may have been right.


About the author:

Marcia Balestrino

Marcia Balestrino is senior vice president for information and technology and CIO for the Girl Scouts of the USA in New York . She was selected by Computerworld as one of its Premier 100 IT Leaders for 2001.

About Girls Scouts of the USA

Girl Scouts of the USA is the world's pre-eminent organization for girls, with a membership of more than 2.8 million girls ages 5 to 17, and more than 900,000 adult members. Today, as when it was founded in 1912, GSUSA helps cultivate values, social conscience and self-esteem in girls, while also teaching them critical life skills that will enable them to succeed as adults.

But hopefully, that's changing. Unlike what some developmental experts once believed, being mathematically or technically adept has nothing to do with gender. Biology doesn't make men more proficient with numbers than women; society does. It's not difficult to figure out. Give a child a chance to build a bridge, model a car or fly a plane and you teach him -- not her -- many of the principles inherent in science and mathematics. Give another child dolls, dresses and tea sets, and you fail to nurture her natural curiosities for math and science, instilling another set of values entirely.

What does all this mean to our future IT innovators? Well, if we're interested in enjoying the benefits of a gender-equal industry where women contribute creative ideas and influence IT development as much as men do, we have to give girls a solid base to work from. And that's what Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) is doing for girls across the country.

We started by beginning a national dialogue to help understand why girls are opting out of careers in science and technology. We've done extensive research, talking with leading women in the field, plus teachers, parents and girls. The conversations provided alarming insights that helped GSUSA create a major new initiative designed to help our country bridge the IT gender gap.

`You Go Tech, Girl!'

The Girl Scouts' "Girls Go Tech" initiative links girls to a nationwide network of people and companies that will help them build skills, provide them with mentors and establish a wealth of resources to prepare girls for success in our IT-driven world. It will provide them with valuable hands-on experience, beginning as early as age five.

Additionally, GSUSA's global Web site now features a Girls Go Tech section that provides a great assortment of resources that encourage girls to explore and master various aspects of the IT world, from fun projects like making cards to learning how to program software. (Really!)

These are vital resources. For any child, seeing examples, having mentors and gaining firsthand experience are what help build dreams and instill the confidence to attain those dreams. It's fantastic to see these resources being made available for tomorrow's IT leaders.

The GSUSA will continue to monitor the techno-gender divide. We're committed to helping bring about change. Our Girl Scout Research Institute is a center for research and public policy information on the healthy development of girls as they mature toward adulthood. It has been looking at this subject with great interest, and in its latest national study, "The Net Effect: Girls and New Media," the organization provided important insights about how girls use technology.

This is a situation that deserves our full attention. It doesn't matter whether you're a woman or whether you have a daughter, granddaughter or niece. Since you're a leader in technology, it should concern you, if only from a practical standpoint. Our field is facing a shortage of talent, so we need to ensure that half of the workforce (women) don't ignore technology as a career choice.

It's a wonderful time to be a girl. They're brighter, more courageous and more determined than girls have ever been. They're brimming with fresh perspectives, and we need to make sure that every one of them has the appropriate opportunities to nurture her ideas and see them take shape. We need to make sure they see technology as an exciting career opportunity.

The IT gender gap wasn't established in a day and won't be immediately closed. It's going to take time, commitment and concentrated effort on all our parts. Girl Scouts of the USA has a 90-year history of serving the interests of girls, and we have no intention of dropping the ball. We need to work together to redefine tomorrow's IT landscape and ensure that the field has all the talented resources we need.


Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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