By Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY
The pizza has been cleared away and the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade girls in Mawiayah Fields' classroom at South Shore School are ready to learn how to write computer code.
But first, a dozen or so volunteers, who have taken time off work to help on this September afternoon, introduce themselves with stories of how they found their professional calling.
"I come from a dysfunctional family, so I like to fix things," Vazjier Rosario, 27, a Microsoft engineer and mother of three, told them.
Sekela Rabb, 33, says that as a kid she "loved to press buttons … to see what was going to happen." That curiosity has led her to pursue an associate's degree in network engineering at a community college.
And pink-haired Martine Stillman, 31, a mechanical engineer at Synapse, a local firm that develops cool stuff for Nike, Samsung and other companies, says a college professor inspired her.
He said, "You're never going to be an engineer." To which she said, "You wanna bet?"
Amid concern that the nation isn't preparing enough students for the high-tech workforce of the future, accomplished tech-savvy women are emerging as a force aimed at unleashing the untapped potential of girls. The first step: disproving a stereotype that computing is a guy thing.
"If you look at the media, and who we worship in this tech space, it's Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg," says Ruthe Farmer, director of strategic initiatives for the National Center for Women & Information Technology, based in Boulder, Colo. "We want girls to see women, to see a possible glimpse of their future," Farmer says.
Women graduate from college in larger numbers than men, but they fall behind when it comes to degrees in some of the fastest-growing — and most lucrative — fields. Not only did just 18% of bachelor's degrees in computer science go to women in 2010-11, their numbers are down from 38% in 1985, Education Department data show.
The center, a coalition of 300 corporations, colleges, government agencies and non-profits, was created in 2006 to promote efforts to reverse that decline. It has been helped along by member organizations such as the Girl Scouts, the Computer Science Teachers Association and this program, called Inspiring Girls Now in Technology Evolution, or IGNITE, offered through Seattle Public Schools since 1999.
A growing number of women who have advanced into high-profile, high-tech positions are encouraging women to follow in their footsteps. Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg has been particularly vocal, as has Yahoo President Marissa Mayer. Even foes of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education programs, say private support of such programs is commendable.
"You're going to be hard-pressed to find anybody who doesn't think it's a wonderful idea to have role models and outreach programs to help mentor women in science, or any gender or any profession," says Carrie Lukas, managing director of the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Even so, she questions whether males are being similarly encouraged to pursue fields traditionally filled by women such as nursing. "I find it strange that we continue to have an obsession" about women in science, technology, engineering and math, "which are essentially the only disciplines left where women aren't outperforming men."
The push to engage more girls is not just about filling jobs or earning better salaries. In a speech this summer at a conference hosted by Australia's Radio National, Intel Corp. trend-watcher and anthropologist Genevieve Bell said her research shows that women in their 40s, 50s and 60s are the lead adopters and heaviest users of new technology.
Companies that fail to consider the female perspective may be at a competitive disadvantage, says Microsoft's Rane Johnson, who helps lead efforts to grow the pipeline of women in science, engineering and research. At Microsoft, where about 24% of the company's employees are women, "our challenge today is we don't have enough diverse teams," Johnson says.
Power in networking
Women who have achieved success in computer science and engineering are eager to reach out to younger girls, IGNITE founder Cathi Rodgveller says. Each year, more than 200 women in the Seattle area participate in some aspect of the program, which includes workshops, job shadows and internships.
Since 1999, when Rodgveller had 14 professional volunteers, female participation in high school technology classes has risen from 10% to 50%, she says. The program also has spread to other states and abroad.
"Women sharing their stories, that's really the heart of why we're so successful," Rodgveller says.
A new online mentoring program with ties to the national center follows a similar theme. Nearly 600 women have pledged to spend at least an hour this fall offering advice to female college students considering careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Since the program began Oct. 1, students have raised topics on a range of issues, including graduate programs and how to respond to inappropriate remarks.
The idea for the online discussion was to make it easy for professional women, who "are some of the busiest people on Earth," to get involved, says Maria Klawe, president of California's Harvey Mudd College, a co-sponsor of the project and member of the center's executive advisory council. "Many of them are very aware of how much help they have gotten from other people," she says.
Joy of discovery
That message comes through in this noisy Seattle classroom, as volunteers oversee pairs of girls as they program computers to make a tiny turtle paint a line while walking across their computer screens. First, the girls make the turtle draw a square, then a pink square, then a multicolored polygon. By the end, the girls squeal upon figuring out how to make the turtles walk in a spiral or make a starburst.
"At first, I thought it was going to be boring but, once I got the hang of it, it was fun," says seventh-grader Tyra Roberson, 12. For her, the big lesson of the day was that "no matter where you come from, you can do what you always want to do."
It's too soon to know whether a career in computer science is in her future. Right now, Tyra's sights are set on being a lawyer.
Rodgveller, who has heard that kind of response before, isn't fazed. "We're just starting with them," she says. "Talk to them again in a couple of years."