The technology business has made incredible advances in recent years, but drawing more women into the field is not among them.
Despite making up half of the existing workforce, women account for only 20 percent of technology professionals. And there is little hope for improvement on the horizon: Of the students who took Advanced Placement exams in computer science last year, just 14 percent were girls, down from 17 percent in 1997, according to records from the College Board.
Several local organizations, doubting academia's ability to interest more girls in computers, have efforts underway to introduce young women to technology and pique interest in its careers.
At a networking event sponsored by the Washington chapter of Women in Technology last week, the goal was to start a dialogue between girls with some interest in technology and women who had built their professional lives around it. One of the most common refrains teenage girls heard at the event was this: It is a man's world out there.
"I don't know what's going on in technology right now, but they are not going down that path. I don't know if girls are just not encouraged early enough in mathematics and stuff," said Michele Bolos, president and owner of Vienna-based Next Tier Concepts and co-chairwoman of the event. "They just want to ask questions and they don't want to hear answers from parents or teachers, they want to hear them from mentors out in the world."
Local technology executives speaking before 34 Fairfax County girls offered potential recruits more realism than hype. It can be lonely to sit at a table surrounded by dark suits and ties, but ultimately rewarding.
None of the four featured speakers last week -- Angela Drummond, chief executive of SiloSmashers; TiTi McNeill, chief executive of TranTech; Marguerete Luter, a vice president at Unisys; and Chris A. Mattingly, a former director of security for the Air Force Communications Agency at the Pentagon -- said her success in technology came easily.
Drummond started her own company with two female colleagues in 1992 after a boss dismissed an idea they had presented to him.
"We took it in and he said, 'No, girls, you don't know what you're talking about,' " said Drummond, whose business and technology consulting firm now has 60 employees and expects to post $12 million in revenue this year. "You have to be very sure of yourself, very confident."
McNeill, who emigrated from Vietnam in 1975, said she began her career as an operator in Northern Virginia and often had to ride her bike home at 2 a.m. because buses did not run as late as she worked. But after moving to better jobs, McNeill found she had a knack for computers and put herself through undergraduate and graduate school at night before gaining the confidence to launch her own information technology company in 1989. Her firm, TranTech, now has 200 employees.
McNeil said her sex and ethnicity were no impediment. Hard work, she told the girls, can overcome every potential limitation.
The WIT session last week was a springboard for what Bolos hopes will become an ongoing mentoring program.
TechSavvy, a 2000 report by the American Association of University Women, found that girls can be deterred from technology simply because they are turned off by the one of the primary vehicles of its introduction to youth: video games. Computer programming classes, with their geeky aura, dissuade many young woman, as does the image of tech careers as "solitary, antisocial and sedentary," the report states.
That image is one of the things that most concerns Eileen M. Ellsworth, a former trial lawyer who launched a nonprofit organization called Empower Girls in 2001. The Oakton-based organization now runs computer clubs throughout Fairfax County for girls starting at age 8.
The point, Ellsworth said, is "to have them leaving the club thinking that computers are fun and that they are confident in their use of them."
"There is some alchemy there, some magic," she said. "Girls enjoy and really need some kind of social component, so one of the components of Empower Girls was to put this in a social setting."
And rather than teach the basics of coding or the history of computing, Ellsworth's clubs dive into the creative uses of PowerPoint, translate members' own names into computer languages and take apart old machines with screwdrivers. Ellsworth has landed a few grants and hopes to find more corporate sponsors. For now, she is scraping by on a very minimal salary, but she wants to expand Empower Girls throughout the region this year and to other parts of the country in 2004.
During the first two years Phyllis Gottdiener ran a computer support course at Falls Church High School, where she works as a technology specialist, not one girl registered to participate. So Gottdiener and three other school employees started an after-school club called Technettes to give girls a comfortable setting to explore technology.
"We needed something where they didn't have to be afraid to ask questions," said Gottdiener. "We have some who are quite proficient and some who are not proficient. And they are very kind to each other."
The Falls Church club now has 15 members who set their own agenda and mentor each other. As a result, Gottdiener said, younger members are following their predecessors into advanced computer courses and considering college programs in technology.
The Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt is currently planning a five-day program called the Summer Institute for Science, Engineering and Research (SISTER). The free camp for girls entering eighth grade aims to give them direct exposure to careers in science and engineering and other technical fields.
The five-year-old program, sponsored by Goddard's equal-opportunity and education departments, matches students up with a female mentor for the week. The students participate in rocket-launch projects, visit women-owned businesses and attend seminars with accomplished women.
"It is a man's world out there . . . but it kind of makes it fun," Mattingly, a retired Air Force lieutenant who now works for Scitor, a Herndon engineering and technology firm, told girls at the WIT event last week. "You can kind of stand out."