Lecia Barker

Dahna Hull, vice president of Austin Gigapower, speaks at a panel about her experience as a woman in high-tech industry on Tuesday evening.

Photo Credit: Fabian Fernandez | Daily Texan Staff

Tracy Reindel, product manager at technology company PeopleAdmin, remembers being one of the few women in her computer science class in college. 

“I was never one of those geeky kids who had an interest in technology at the beginning,” Reindel said. “At first, I had no idea what I was doing.” 

Reindel said she now works to change that experience for other women.

At a panel designed to encourage women in technology fields Tuesday night at the UT Administration Building, Reindel was one of seven speakers who talked about experiences as a woman in high-tech industries. The panel — hosted by the Advocating for Women in Technology committee — was accompanied by a screening of the documentary “She ++,” a film created by female Stanford technologists Ayna Agarwal and Ellora Israni as a way to encourage more girls and women to study computer science.

Lecia Barker, associate professor in the School of Information, said one reason for the lack of women in computer science is cultural bias between genders.

“People tell boys that if they’re good at math they can be an engineer,” Barker said. “For girls it just doesn’t come up as much. People encourage girls to pursue happiness, and men to be breadwinners.”

According to the documentary, U.S. businesses will need 1.4 million computer scientists by 2020. At today’s graduation rate, only 30 percent of those will be filled by American-trained computer scientists. Barker said one problem the field faces is lack of exposure.

“One of the biggest problems is we have a country where kids and the adults that influence them don’t know what computer science is,” Barker said. “If you ask a high school kid if they’ve taken computer science, they’ll say yes when all they’ve done is Excel spreadsheets.”

Barker said people are working to fix these problems through initiatives by the National Center for Women & Information Technology, which works to increase the number of women in technology. 

“We bring together communities of people because we want to change the systems in which women learn and work,” Barker said. “We reach out to organizations with young girls, like the Girl Scouts or 4H.”

Computer science freshman Rachel Metcalf said she chose computer science because of the creativity and freedom the field provides.

“A program can be whatever you want it to be,” Metcalf said. “So long as you have the skills to make it.”

Recently, School of Information professor Lecia Barker was featured in The Daily Texan for her commitment to increasing the number of women involved in computer and information technology-related careers. Barker received a $442,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to find new methods to enlist and retain women in technology fields.

Barker argues that American women need to increase their visibility in technological areas, and the lack of female participation impedes our nation’s ability to compete internationally in an increasingly technological world. She draws her arguments and statistics from her experience as a senior research scientist for the National Center for Women and Information Technology, a nonprofit organization aiming to increase the number of women pursing careers in technology.

Barker’s argument is apt, as there is a shortage of women studying technology at UT. According to the Office of Information Management and Analysis, in 2010 the Cockrell School of Engineering had 1,669 female students and 5,993 male students, whereas the College of Liberal Arts had 5,875 females to 4,939 males. This male disproportionality in technology fields proves true throughout our nation’s higher education institutions. The Guardian reports that in 2009, only 15 percent of university engineering and technology-related majors in the United States were women.

Commendably, UT recognizes the importance of female participation in technology, supporting programs such as the Women in Engineering Program, an initiative within the Cockrell School of Engineering to increase female enrollment from 22 percent to 50 percent. The need for greater female presence in these types of stereotypically male-dominated fields links to the gender gap in the nation. The gender gap can be defined in a multitude of ways, including the difference between female and male income earnings or participation in the work force. While women have made leaps and bounds in their presence across the board — from increased political participation to claiming greater roles in civic engagement — technology is one field where women still lag significantly behind men. Thus, this field has acquired the reputation of being a traditionally male-dominated one, while, the stereotype continuing, women are more likely to be found in fields such as education.

Archaic ways of thinking about the woman’s place in higher education has led to the development of the belief in “traditional academic roles.” The stereotype of traditional academic roles goes so far as to even permeate the roles of our nation’s president and first lady. Generally, many people view the work done by our country’s first ladies as work appropriate for females, as their programs often deal with topics including nutrition, education and fitness (these generalizers seem to be forgetting the work of one of our most noteworthy first ladies: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton). To demolish this stereotype, women must increase their presence in fields such as computer science, engineering and information technology.

Not only is increased presence imperative to bridging the gender gap in all respects and ending the stereotype of “traditional subjects” of female study, but Barker also notes that the technology field is brimming with career opportunities for women. She said the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics foresees a faster growth in the number of professional computing and information science jobs than all other forms of science combined through 2018. Barker poses a pertinent argument about natural sciences, as the Office of Information Management and Analysis reports that the College of Natural Sciences is the second most popular among female students with 4,583 incoming women in 2010 — 107 more female than male students. Thus, if the regulatory feminist argument for equality among the genders isn’t convincing enough, perhaps watching a couple of Republican debates about the lack of jobs in the United States will scare women into thinking further about the budding career avenue of technology.

I’m not calling for women studying business or liberal arts to pack up and switch majors. Unquestionably, there is still a significant demand for female participation in politics, academia, business and other fields. The United States ranks 72nd in the world in women’s participation in politics. Of the 61 professors of the UT government department, only nine are female. USA Today reports that only 2.6 percent of Fortune 500 Companies were led by female CEOs in 2009. Increased female participation across the professional world is still vital to the plight for gender equality.

However, the work of Barker and others on the struggle to increasing female participation in technology fields is likewise extremely vital. Business Week argues that increasing women’s presence in technology will unlock a major source of growth to fuel our country for years to come, rendering the United States more eligible to compete on a global scale with countries that focus on technological growth. Increasing female participation calls for improved recruitment and retainment tactics, as Barker is researching, and interest in female students from these technological companies and organizations. Moreover, the current societal assumptions of traditional educational roles must be broken if we wish to further our nation’s progress.

Waliany is a Plan II and government senior. 

Although computer and information technology careers have not always been considered popular for women, School of Information associate professor Lecia Barker is working to change that preconception.

Barker received a $442,000 grant in order to identify new teaching methods for recruiting and retaining women in technological fields.

To discover new methods, she plans to interview computer and technology related faculty and then create a large, national survey to find better ways to recruit and retain female students in these fields. She will also observe teaching methods currently being used in classes.

Barker plans to visit 30 departments around the country at many different types of public and private colleges and universities, including research schools such as UT, minority-serving institutions and women-only colleges.

“The most important outcome would be to find out how to make it more likely that college professors can teach in ways that keep students, especially women students, in computing majors like computer science, computer engineering and information technology,” Barker said.

Barker said encouraging women to pursue careers in technology is becoming increasingly difficult in America.

“Women are much less likely to pursue careers in technology than men. This has serious negative effects not just for women but also for our nation’s ability to compete globally in a world increasingly dependent on technology,” Barker said.

America’s current economic standing may be a good motivator for female students to consider working in a technology field, Barker said.

"Although we are constantly hearing that there are not enough jobs, there are plenty of jobs in technology,” Barker said. “The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the number of professional computing and information sciences jobs will grow faster than all other engineering, life sciences, natural sciences and physical sciences jobs combined through 2018.”

Barker also serves as a senior research scientist for the National Center for Women and Information Technology, a nonprofit organization that values the importance of encouraging women to pursue careers in technological fields.

“One of the things she’s studying is why certain techniques work and why people adopt them,” said center spokeswoman Jenny Slade. “Hopefully, her findings will better produce resources to influence young women.”

Barker’s study will also focus on the effectiveness of some major technological companies’ programs.

“Not all companies evaluate whether their workshops and outreach programs are working. Barker will be studying the impact and gaining the ability to identify what works,” Slade said.

School of Information Dean Andrew Dillon said Barker’s work is especially important in today’s society.

“Information permeates all of our lives, both personal and professional, yet the tools we create tend to be designed by and often for a very narrow view of the human user, one which embodies stereotypical views of operation and application,” Dillon said. “The best counterbalance to this would be greater participation of women in the design and application of such technology.”

Printed on September 22, 2011 as: Professor studies women in technology