Local efforts seek to boost women in computer, IT fields – Business – The Buffalo News


If you look around a computer science classroom, the offices of a Silicon Valley startup or your standard corporate IT department, you’ll see far more men than women.

Even as women outnumber men in the work force, and as they’ve adopted mobile technology and social media with gusto, the computer and information technology fields remain male-dominated.

“There is a serious gender divide,” said Amanda Quaranto, a deployment engineer for the Amherst office of Engine Yard, a cloud-computing service based in San Francisco.

Nationally and here in Buffalo Niagara, a growing number of women are working to get more of their peers interested in writing software, designing apps for smartphones and tablets, working in cybersecurity and other high-tech jobs.

These efforts – which mirror campaigns meant to boost the presence of blacks and Latinos in the field – include reaching out to school-age children, mentoring college students and setting up monthly networking sessions and computer code-writing classes aimed at women.

Advocates say ending the gender imbalance in the IT realm is a matter of basic fairness. And they say it’s good business, too, for companies that want to market their gadgets and apps to all consumers.

“If we want technology to serve all of society, we need everybody at the table making decisions,” said Liesl Folks, the dean of the University at Buffalo’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who previously worked for IBM and Hitachi Corporation developing magnetic data storage technologies.

The gender gap in computers – like the gap in math and science – is wide, and it begins early, according to data collected by the University of Colorado’s National Center for Women and Information Technology. Consider:

•While women filled 57 percent of white-collar jobs in 2012, they filled just 26 percent of professional computing jobs.

•Fifty-seven percent of college students who earned bachelor’s degrees in 2011 were women, but just 18 percent of those earning a degree in computer or information science that year were women. The share of women earning those degrees has fallen since 1985, when they earned 37 percent.

•And 56 percent of high school Advanced Placement test-takers in 2012 were girls, but only 19 percent of those taking the AP Computer Science exam were girls.

“People, when they heard what my degree was, were surprised,” said Shawna Matthews, 31, a senior software engineer for Synacor Inc., who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science at UB after studying the same subject at Niagara County Community College.

But while she was in school, Matthews added, “I was never made to feel out of place.”

Self selected

At UB, there were 510 undergraduates majoring in computer science and engineering as of the spring semester. Just 10 percent are women, though 20 percent of graduate students in the department are women, according to the university.

At Synacor, the Internet content provider located on the Buffalo waterfront, less than 20 percent of the employees in its engineering group are women, according to Meredith Roth, a spokeswoman, who added that the company seeks talented workers no matter their gender.

“I don’t see too many women involved in the Buffalo tech community,” said Elena Moiseeva, 25, a native of Russia who is studying digital media at NCCC.

Why are so few women studying computer science or filling IT jobs?

Among the many theories is the idea of self-selection: Girls and young women choose not to pursue computer science as a career path because they just don’t like it.

Boys, for example, are more likely to spend hours playing video games, which primarily are geared toward them, and later in life they’re more apt to want to design the newest versions of those games.

“I think it’s just interest, and pushing little kids toward different things,” said Katie Barnum, 27, a web developer for UB’s College of Arts and Sciences. “I think it should be gender neutral.”

It’s not enough for companies to have programs that encourage diversity in their work forces, experts said. A number of groups are working to welcome girls into the STEM fields – which include science, technology, engineering and mathematics – as early as possible.

“By the time the companies get involved, it’s already too late,” said Linda A. Volonino, a professor of information systems at Canisius College.

Quaranto, for one, still remembers the answer she received as an eighth-grader in Erie, Pa., when she told her female math teacher that she wanted to take advanced math classes in high school.

“She, to my face, said, ‘Why would you ever want to do that?’” recalled Quaranto, 26. “And I did it anyway. To succeed in this field, you have to be tenacious. I fought back.”

Margaret Smith, 32, an engineer for Synacor, went to an all-girls high school where computers weren’t emphasized in the curriculum. (“PowerPoint was as advanced as we got,” she said with a laugh.)

But her father was a software engineer, and a trip to his office on Take Your Daughter to Work Day as an 18-year-old helped hook her on computers. Today, she is mentoring a female summer intern as part of the Synacor Buddy program.

“I’m someone she can talk to for anything she needs,” said Smith, who writes code for the Internet start pages that Synacor designs for its customers.

At the college level, Folks said she’s interested in retaining those students who declare engineering and computer science as a major, and she said programs such as maternity leave for Ph.D. students can help ensure young women have a chance to succeed.

Folks noted that the gender gap in medicine today has largely been closed at the nation’s medical schools, even though medicine has a notoriously demanding and un-family-friendly schedule, and she said she hopes the same progress can be made in computer science.

“We do an appalling job of getting the message out there that this is a wonderful job for women,” said Folks, an Australian native and physicist by training.

Women use mobile technology, such as text messaging, at high rates, and sites such as Pinterest and Etsy have a strong female presence. The goal now is to get more women interested in the back-end work that produces those applications, and to emphasize that software and technology development is rewarding and engaging.

“There’s a beauty in all the logic behind computers,” said Moiseeva. “What most attracts me about the technology field is it’s always evolving.”

A different perspective

Moiseeva said women bring a different perspective to product design, and this should be welcomed. She noted, for example, that men not surprisingly designed cars that were hard to drive while wearing high shoes.

This spring, Moiseeva started the Buffalo chapter of Girl Develop It, a New York City-based program founded in 2010 that offers code-writing classes and monthly gatherings to women who want to gain proficiency in software and app development.

The local Girl Develop It chapter has 93 members, known as “nerdettes.” (“I prefer ‘geek,’” said UB’s Barnum, who is a member.) The group offers classes on HTML, JavaScript and other programming languages, in a setting where women won’t be afraid to ask questions.

Christa Penner took the class on HTML and CSS, which are used to build websites, after largely teaching herself how to use the HTML programming language.

“I just wanted a better understanding of it,” said Penner, 30, who operates C Designs and Illustrations from her West Seneca home, offering graphic and web design services to her clients. “I was getting so much busier that I didn’t have time to figure everything out from scratch.”

About 10 women were enrolled in the four-week class. “It was very affordable, and it was not intimidating at all because other people were in the same boat as you,” Penner said.

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