ORLANDO, Fla. — – High school senior Vanessa Pena fell in love with computer science the day her fifth-grade teacher brought a computer to class, dismantled it and told students to reassemble the device.
The 17-year-old is looking forward to pursuing a career in programming or information technology but admits she sometimes feels intimidated by the male-dominated industry.
“You have to prove yourself a little bit more in computer science when you’re a woman because people think it’s not a career for women,” she said.
Officials at the National Center for Women & Information Technology report that women accounted for 18 percent of computer and information-science bachelor’s degrees across U.S. colleges in 2010 – a 51 percent drop from 1985, when a wave of women earned high-tech degrees.
“The women’s movement at the end of the ’80s was very strong, and there was a spike in women going to college and also during the dotcom frenzy in the early ’90s, but that momentum has slowed,” said Ruthe Farmer, director of strategic initiatives at the National Center for Women & Information Technology. “It’s hard to say why. If we knew that, we could fix it.”
Farmer said while high-tech career tracks suffer from image issues such as the “nerd” stereotype, the root of the problem can be traced to the instructional level in high schools.
“Computer science is a high-school graduate requirement in only nine states, and many of those teaching the elective courses are not certified computer-science teachers. Anyone can teach it,” Farmer said.
Girls comprise more than 41 percent of students in computer-science classes at Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte, Fla., where Pena attends. That’s an impressive number, accomplished through encouragement that includes a girls robotics club and competitions.
But teachers there and at other schools are concerned by the declining number of female students enrolled in computer-science majors in college.
“I think young women in college fear that computer-science majors are men programming all night,” said Seth Reichelson, a Lake Brantley High computer-science teacher. “That’s why we are trying to break that stereotype here, as well as in middle school. Computer science is a field where women can stand out.”
Reichelson said he recruits girls into his class who have varied interests, not just technology.
“I have cheerleaders, athletes and those in the top 10 in my classes,” he said. “I don’t just recruit from calculus, but from interior design and other areas of interest. When you have those types of girls, it really broadens your projects.”
Farmer, who also heads the group’s Aspirations in Computing program that honors young women at the high-school level for computing-related achievements, said efforts like Reichelson’s at Lake Brantley are helping improve computer-science enrollment among girls in college.
The University of Central Florida helps female students in the first two years of their science, technology, engineering and math careers by pairing them with female mentors and social activities.
Jovanna Marquez, an 18-year-old UCF computer-science freshman and former Reichelson student, said her instructors always nurtured her interest in technology, but she thinks most young women are not sufficiently encouraged to follow high-tech careers.
“Young women are often told they should enroll in liberal arts or nursing, and that makes it very difficult for them to buy into the ideology of computer science,” Marquez said. “Most professors in computer science are men, and that adds another challenge.”
But Pena said those obstacles are only going to encourage her to work harder.
“Seeing that there are such few women in the field gives me more reason to pursue it,” she said. “I know I can do what the boys do and probably better.”