If Girls Don't Get IT, IT Won't Get Girls

A recent survey of high school students showed the top choices for both college major and career path are computer science and engineering - for boys, that is. But technology barely shows up on girls' radar screens. Girls are five times less likely to consider technology-related studies in college or tech-related careers. They're still bent on traditional female occupations such as teaching and health services.

These were among the troubling findings of a study commissioned by the Arthur Andersen GROW (Growth and Retention of Women) Project, which interviewed 500 girls and 150 boys ages 15 to 18 about their views on careers and success.

The students were overwhelmingly - and apparently equally - computer literate, with 85% of girls and 87% of boys taking computer courses this school year, and nearly everyone using the Internet.

But while girls said they understood the importance of computers to their future employment, they were anticipating careers in health services, teaching, art or music, not IT.

A look at the "whys" behind these findings shows that both corporate America and the technology community have been doing a lousy public relations job. As a result, girls think that what they're looking for in life and work can't be found in corporate IT.

For example, they said career success was about being personally happy and rewarded (28%), having the respect of family and friends (17%) and having a happy family life (13%). Only 5% mentioned having money.

"Success is not calculated by how many numbers are on your paycheck, but if you are satisfied with your job," said a girl in Chicago.

Their perceptions of life in corporate IT, however, seem to have been shaped by the comic strip Dilbert. "Corporate America is about money," said a New York girl. According to the survey results, girls equate moneygrubbing with corporate America and happiness with small business and public service.

"Given the fact that we're in the tightest labor market in 30 years, that's disturbing," says Karen Kurek, managing partner of Andersen's GROW initiative.

Ironically, these girls sound like they're just the labor pool corporate IT needs most. The girls consider themselves leaders, so listen to their ideas on leadership: They were significantly less likely than boys to equate leadership with aggression, competition and winning. Instead, they defined good leaders as those who work well with others, have good morals, understand people's needs and help others to be their best. Sounds to me like perfect characteristics for IT teams and project managers.

"These girls need to get more education about what careers in IT and business are all about," says Kurek. "IT and corporate America need to let them know they can be happy and rewarded and be doing something socially significant in IT."

Andersen has been sponsoring a 10-week after-school program in New York that gives selected high school girls the opportunity to learn about technology and business.

The girls, in classes of 10, learn HTML and go on to create a Web magazine called iPress (www.playing2win.org/gallery/syti2000/ipress/index/). Then they create the content.

Each girl writes two articles. One is an essay on a social issue that she's researched on the Web. The other is an interview of a high-profile, successful businesswoman.

"They see women who are successful and get an opportunity to see what it's like in the business world," Kurek says. Andersen is planning to expand the program beyond the Big Apple, she adds.

The good news is that high school girls' minds are still open. In fact, they're begging to be educated. More than eight out of 10 of the girls said they would be interested in learning more about careers in business, and that includes corporate IT.

When asked where they needed to see more female role models, the girls' top choice was in business, and girls from blue-collar and single-mother households - those least likely to enter IT-related professions - felt the need for business role models most acutely.

The IT community is importing foreign workers under the H-1B visa program while half the future labor pool in the U.S. is living under the illusion that you can't lead a fulfilling and meaningful life or make a difference for the better in the world while working in corporate IT. Moreover, they're asking to be shown that they're wrong.

This survey sends a strong, clear message to corporate IT: The ball's in your court.

Kathleen Melymuka is a Computerworld features writer. Contact her at kathleen_melymuka@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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