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My SA | by Valentino Lucio

When it comes to the technology industry, women are an endangered species.

The number of women entering computer science and information technology fields is dramatically lower than their male counterparts, and the figure is shrinking. Take a ride up the corporate ladder, and the numbers get even smaller.

It's a chicken-and-egg situation: There are fewer women in IT because few women have the education for those jobs. There are fewer women interested in getting that education because they see so few women in IT.

Employers say they'd like to see more women in the industry. But if women aren't applying, how can employers hire them?

The issue may have to do with cultural norms and the stereotype of who works in IT.

“It's not necessarily overt discrimination, but it's what we call unconscious bias,” said Jenny Slade, communications director for the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

“We have gender stereotypes that we're often not even aware of. It might come down to something simple like the difference between buying your son an erector set and buying your daughter a doll. If you encourage young girls to tinker and take things apart and put them back together, it actually has an impact on building their confidence and determining how they feel about certain careers.”

To boost interest locally, companies and organizations are creating outreach programs to expose middle school-age kids to science, technology, engineering and math disciplines. It's the early exposure that industry leaders feel will erase gender stereotypes and help establish a more diverse IT workforce.

Overcoming the stereotype of the tech geek may take time, but there are hopeful signs it could happen.

“A tech geek is no one who looks like me,” said Andrea Mancillas-Cabañas, 30.

But that didn't stop the speech teacher at Jay High School and professor at Northwest Vista College from learning the computing language needed to build her first mobile application, Brides & XV. It took her eight months to build her app, which aims to help brides and teen girls better plan their weddings and quinceañeras.

“I didn't go to school for this, but I wanted to try something new. We do need more women in the field to create technology for women, not men creating technology for women.”

IT careers and women

In the professional ranks, women hold 25 percent of computer- and information technology-related jobs in the United States, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Climb the corporate ladder and the number of women at the top shrinks to about 20 percent.

The figures get worse for minority women. Leading the charge is Asian women, who make up about 4 percent of the computing workforce. African American women come in at 3 percent, and Hispanic women bring up the rear at 1 percent.

While there isn't a shortage of women working for technology companies in human resources, sales and marketing, seeing a woman in a technical role is rare.

“Technology has taken on this stereotype of being a domain of pale males, so to speak. Something that white men are good at, and they're the best, and everyone else is inferior,” Slade said.

Finding enough qualified women to boost IT ranks is hard, said Juanita Sessions, assistant vice president of information technology at Dallas-based AT&T Inc.

In an effort to boost female employment, AT&T sometimes hires women who show a propensity for technology, Sessions said, and then trains and molds then into IT pros.

“Many will have a design background, a communications background or engineering background that we can use to transform them into IT professionals.”

Nick Longo, director at San Antonio's Geekdom, a tech co-working space, said that for decades there has been an effort to pull more women into the industry, but the numbers haven't improved. He added that even though there's an abundance of technical jobs to be filled, not many women are among the applicants.

“People are always saying we need more women in tech,” he said. “I want more women in tech, too. It doesn't matter. Women aren't lining up around the block for jobs.”

The schooling issue

The lack of women in IT stems back to a scarcity of women learning the skills for computer-related fields.

In 1985, about 37 percent of those earning computer science degrees in the U.S. were women. In 2010, that number fell to 18 percent, according to data from the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

Slade attributes the higher numbers in the past to the industry's newness. Since then, she says gender stereotypes have become more prominent, causing the numbers to dip.

“Back then, computing was new for everyone,” Slade said. “The field wanted anyone who had a passion for it and had good ideas. It didn't matter what your gender was.”

When Sessions, 55, enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin in the mid-'70s, the industry was in its infancy and bulky computers were fed punch cards. There were just a handful of women in each computing class, and often women worked in female-only groups because the men would band together. But as the semesters passed, the tendency toward separation faded.

“After a while, we all became a team,” she said.

Locally and statewide, the numbers are better than the national average. From 2008-2011, the number of students who graduated with computer science-or information-technology-related degrees from Texas public universities held steady around 25 percent, according to figures from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

At the University of the Incarnate Word, more than one-third of all students who enroll in technology programs are women, according to figures the school provided.

But the university's numbers also reveal that more women are enrolling in technology programs that have an emphasis on graphic arts and business.

Five years ago, women made up about 36 percent of all students who were enrolled in the computer graphic arts program there. Last year, the number was nearly 50 percent.

UIW technology instructor Tim Porter said it's a 50-50 split in his upper-level classes, which focus on the business aspects of IT.

Since he started teaching there in 2009, Porter has noticed that women visit his office hours more than guys and are typically more proactive in their efforts to understand the curriculum.

“It really depends on the person, but there are female students who think they might break something and there are others who are more confident and take charge,” he said.

UIW faculty and staff actively reach out to female students in an effort to guide them into more technical pathways, Porter said. He said the school hosts IT sessions where women are exposed to the subject and shown that a technical employee isn't someone who is glued to a computer.

“When people think of IT, they still think of old IT, sitting behind a computer or being in a cubicle, and you're just working on a computer,” Porter said. “That old mindset is slowly fading. But the way we educate the young females is showing them examples of women in IT leadership.”

Show me the tech

Attracting and retaining women in IT is something several companies and organizations are working toward.

San Antonio-based Rackspace Hosting Inc. has created a diversity program that includes mentor groups and networking events, said Tina McDaniel, a former inclusion and innovation adviser there. She left the company last month after more than five years.

“At Rackspace, a lot of the women who I would talk to would be the only female on a team,” she said. “So we looked at ways of building a mentor program or we also did networking events where we pulled all the women at Rackspace together so they could mingle and network with other women to start that pure mentor relationship.”

Angie Morehead is one employee involved in the mentorship programs there.

It was the novelty of downloading and sharing music along with job security within a booming career field that steered Morehead, 31, to get her associate degree in network administration from San Antonio College. The two-year degree landed her an entry-level IT position at Rackspace.

“You don't have to be a super geek to work in tech,” she said.

Over the past eight years, Morehead has developed her skills by attaining various technical certifications that have allowed her to move into a senior manager role at Rackspace. While women in technical roles are outnumbered there, she says it's the company's culture and the support from the mentor groups that encourages personal and professional growth among women there.

“I don't see myself as a woman in tech. I see myself as a Racker.”

Next month, Geekdom will launch its SparkEd program, which will reach out to about 1,500 students from middle schools in various districts around San Antonio, said Louis Pacilli, director of education at Geekdom.

The program consists of 30 tech camps where students can learn about robotics, entrepreneurship, website design or computer programming. Although the camps are open to all students, Pacilli said there will be a push to involve more girls and expose them to role models such as women who hold IT leadership roles.

“Let's break out of the box that tech is just for boys,” said Pacilli, who was an educator in New York City before coming to Geekdom this year. “Let's expose (girls) to these technical areas early and see what happens.”

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