ONE OF the best parties of the summer season in Silicon Valley must be the annual knees-up of the Women in Technology Association, where beautiful Pamela Anderson lookalikes get together to celebrate their love for technology and their wise career choice. This year, some 5,000 women programmers and computer scientists gathered in San Jose, California, to celebrate being in the right place at the right time.
They had good reason to break open the bubbly and toast their good fortune, since the past year has seen huge increases in salaries in the computing industry. Women have not only benefited from these larger pay packets, but have also been getting involved in leading-edge projects, managing larger teams and, in short, breaking all the ceilings that were left from the old macho days of computing. A number of Silicon Goddesses, as they are called there – have joined the ranks of IT directors, and there has also been an increase in the number of women professors employed in computer science departments. So have we managed to complete the transition from Fifties housewives into Nineties engineers? Hardly, as Tracy Camp, an assistant professor of computer science from the University of Alabama, found in her recent study of trends concerning the uptake of computer science students.
Today’s female successes in information technology were part of the peak intake of women computer science students in the early Eighties, when almost 40 per cent of entrants were women. Ten years later, Camp found that female intake had dwindled to around 25 per cent. She attributes the drop to women having less experience playing computer games as children, gender discrimination, the long hours programmers are required to work, the lack of role models and the antisocial image of the typical computer hacker.
This picture is even more worrying in the UK, where the last few years have seen the intake of female computer science students drop to less than 5 per cent, from 33 per cent a decade ago. So where have we gone wrong? The reasons Tracy Camp lists in her study are no doubt contributing to the problem. However, from reading the biographies of great female computer scientists or programmers such as Ada Lovelace and Grace Hooper (who published the first paper on compilers), and from chatting to the current Silicon Goddesses both here and in the US, it is clear that they have one thing in common. Someone inspired them at a very young age to learn to love mathematics.
Perhaps the biggest failure of our education system is that it allows girls to drop the subject at the tender age of 14. Talking to some of the key female players in Silicon Valley, I heard the same story: of women being encouraged by their parents to continue studying mathematics. Kathy Richards, of Digital Equipment Corporation, told of how her father encouraged her to stick with the subject when she was 15 despite her desire to be a ballet dancer. She took his advice and studied maths at Yale University (following in Grace Hooper’s footsteps) and she has never looked back.
Mathematics are the cornerstone of computing careers, and young girls should be encouraged, be it by mild persuasion or bribery, to carry on with the subject at least until university age. Then they may want to take the traditional option and study for an arts or business degree, but at least they will have the choice of taking up computing. Someone who hasn’t seen a maths book since the age of 14 does not have that choice any more. Those who have encouraging parents or inspiring maths teachers are in a better position to seek a computing career that pays well, is creative and provides the opportunity to work with nice, mild men (male computer scientists are not sexists, as Tracy Camp suggests in her study; in fact, they tend to be creative characters who in general make wonderful friends and colleagues).
So how do you help your little girl to become a Grace Hooper of the 21st century? Thankfully, in the Internet era this is a lot easier than before. Start her on http://www.horsewhisperer.co.uk where she can see the beautiful trailer for the chic-flick of the year. Then get her to create a website for her own horse, cat, or pop idol. Seeing her own pictures being published to the world and receiving some
Carry on until she is 18, and then call Janet Stack from Women Into Computing to help her get in touch with the rest of the Web crazy female gang (http://www.awc-hg.org). But that is assuming you have spent the first 18 years of her life holding her hand through homework on non-Euclidean geometry and advanced algebra. That is what helped Grace Hooper and many other women to become key computer industry players.
It is you, the parents, who can help get more women into computing. So if your little girl wants to be a computer scientist, start early; either sort her out with an Internet connection or drag her to your local cybercafe at least once a week to join other girls playing in cyberspace. Then a good computing degree from somewhere like Imperial or University College London should be followed by a PhD from, say, Standford University, and voila, she’ll be on route to her first scientific breakthrough (and possibly first pounds 1m). You hold the key to her career; make sure she has all the options.