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'Old Girls Network' Helps Bring Young Women Into Technology Jobs

By Carrie Johnson
Sunday, July 30, 2000; Page L01

The latest research paints a grim picture for women in technology.

Fewer women enroll in college-level computer science courses today than 20 years ago. Female entrepreneurs collect a pittance of the venture capital handed out by money men. The region's tech millionaires are mostly white males approaching middle age.

Yet the doom-filled studies all neglect a phenomenon that's thriving, though often invisible: a groundswell among women with technical skills to recruit more of their own into well-paying, intellectually challenging professions. Nowhere is this practice more evident than in the virtual communities and user groups that tech-savvy women are creating for themselves.

In the Washington area alone, the D.C. Web Women, Women in Technology and the Association for Women in Computing all hold court online and in occasional in-person meetings. The groups are diverse, to best serve their creators' needs. In the span of a day, you can find job postings, gloats over a piece of perfect code, squabbles about nasty co-workers and even parodies of recent movies.

None of this is news to Leslie Forte, who is used to being the only woman in the room--at least when managers of the information technology department at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute meet.

"It's Leslie and the guys," said Forte, an Internet systems administrator who also happens to be a 27-year-old blond twin. Forte never intended to become a techie. In college, she majored in German and French. She taught herself Unix so she could communicate with her boyfriend while she studied in Europe. Forte found her current job through the Web Women, whose server she patrols.

Like Forte, many women tend to enter the technology sector through different portals, such as an interest in graphic design or a way to communicate with friends, according to an April 2000 report by the American Association for University Women Educational Foundation. The adventure games and laborious programming challenges that attract young men to computers can repel girls, the report found.

Word of those patterns is spurring female techies to band together to help others break into the field. Networking groups are revitalizing the way female techies learn new skills and find jobs. They're also reaching out to children who may have a knack for technology. Take, for instance, the Web Women, an online mailing list for women interested in Internet-related careers. The group sponsored a "Take Our Kids to the Web" day earlier this year. When the group began the training program, it was a women-only event. The group since has opened up the day-long session to boys, said Eve Simon, the Web Women's outreach chairwoman.

"It's important that boys see the women doing it," said Simon, creative director at Interactive Applications Group, a D.C. firm that creates Web sites for foundations and nonprofits.

Simon focuses her energy on children in part because she vividly remembers her first online experience. After seeing the 1983 Matthew Broderick movie "War Games" as an 11-year-old, Simon cajoled her mother into buying a Commodore 64 and a 300-baud modem. She proceeded to run up hundreds of dollars in phone bills. Now Simon is interested in making another kind of connection. "An old girls network is a really powerful tool," she said.

That notion gains support from local hiring managers--who overwhelmingly say they prefer to bring on candidates who are referred by current employees--and from research conducted by professors at Stanford Business School into the hiring patterns and organizational structures of Silicon Valley technology companies. "Women's early representation in core scientific and technical roles has decisive consequences for how emerging companies evolve," Stanford professors James N. Baron and Michael T. Hannan wrote in their 1998 report. Among their specific findings: Start-ups that employ women in key roles avoid more bureaucratic wrangling than those with fewer women in leadership posts.

Some women are starting on the outreach even earlier. Erica Kohr will be a sophomore at the University of Virginia this fall. She's treasurer of the school's chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery and webmaster for the University Dance Club. Next year, she plans to serve as one of the few female teaching assistants in the computer science program and as a mentor to a first-year student in the Society for Women Engineers. In an e-mail interview, Kohr's excitement about technology practically jumps off the screen. She badly wants to sway other young women with her enthusiasm.

"I really just want to learn everything and anything that I can and there is just so much out there and I want to learn all of it," wrote Kohr, who has taken inspiration from her father, who is a computer scientist, and from a computer logic professor at U-Va. "You have to be passionate if you want to survive in the field, especially if you are a female."

In her eight years in the IT field, Forte said, she has endured countless slights, mostly from people who didn't believe a techie could look like her. She balances the negatives against the fact that she's moved from the help desk--traditionally the lowest point on the IT food chain--into the management ranks. Her boss tells her she's been rewarded because she can move fluidly between the world of hardware and the one that emphasizes "soft" skills, like communication.

For all the frustrations that beset young women in a field overwhelmingly dominated by men--Commerce Department figures show women make up only about 9 percent of American engineers and 27 percent of the nation's programmers and computer scientists--Forte may well be a model for women seeking a career in technology. She, at least, is hopeful that the industry increasingly will value the skills she and other women have to offer.

"What you're going to need is people to communicate the technology and teach people how to use it to change their lives," Forte said. "And for that, you're going to need people who are good with other people."

Instant Reply: Last week's column urging job seekers to investigate potential employers struck a nerve. One correspondent emphasized that doing your homework is important in any field--saying that he "learned the hard way" from a bad experience with a nonprofit association in the District. Candidates should ask about previous occupants of the job, he wrote via e-mail, in every interview.

That was reiterated by Rob, a network engineer, who wrote, "Job seekers need to start reminding themselves, if a small company cannot retain its employees, the only thing that could possibly be gained from signing on is to learn of the frustration that caused the previous employee to leave."

Share your experiences in the tech workplace with Carrie Johnson at johnsonca@washpost.com.

Networking Groups For Female Techies

* D.C. Web Women


* Association for Women in Computing


* Women in Technology


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