Women and Minorities in High-Tech Careers. ERIC
by Brown, Bettina Lankard
Women and minorities are underrepresented in technology-related careers.
Lack of access, level of math and science achievement, and emotional and
social attitudes about computer capabilities may be some of the factors
that cause women and minorities to avoid high-tech careers. According to
the American Association of University Women, the number of women graduating
in computer sciences and information technology is decreasing despite the
increased need for workers in these areas (Friedman 2000). The Bureau of
Labor Statistics reports that only 7.2 percent of all computer scientists
are African American and 2.6 percent Hispanic (Bruno 1997). Because employment
in today's workplace requires increasingly sophisticated technological
skills, educators must find ways to recruit and retain all types of students
in math, science, and technology (MST) courses. This Digest presents a
number of ways that schools and teachers can attract women and minorities
to high-tech careers and prepare them for work.
ATTRACTING WOMEN AND MINORITIES
A common reason that young people become attracted to a career field
is that the career appeals to their intellect and emotions: they are intellectually
aware of the benefits of the work and emotionally committed to the work
because of its personal relevance to their lives. Following are four strategies
for initiating and sustaining students' intellectual and emotional interest
in pursuing a career in technology.
Connect Technology to Their Interests
Integrating Technology into a variety of subject areas--e.g., music,
history, art, and science--can be a stimulus for learning. Not only can
it expand students' knowledge of technology concepts, but it can also engage
students in the learning process by including opportunities for problem
solving and creative thinking regarding technology use ("Girls Missing
Out" 2000). Hands-on applications and reality-based assignments are activities
that can be highly motivational as they enable students to learn technology
in the context of its real-world application (Smith 2000).
Designing curriculum that is attentive and responsive to diverse cultural
orientations can also be a motivator when introducing technology. Harrington
(1998) notes that many African Americans are drawn to careers that offer
direct service to their communities--such as education, social work, medicine,
law, and religion. For technology to be appealing to people of all cultures,
educators must be able to connect technology-related careers to cultural
Gaming can be used to stimulate student interest in technology when
the games are free of gender bias and designed to appeal to both sexes.
Because games are viewed as "play," they can engage students in problem
solving in a relaxed atmosphere, thus helping students to develop skills
without fear of risk taking. Low-threat, high-challenge play and cognitive
activities have proven to be motivational influences for learning.
Change Social Attitudes
According to the National Science Foundation, the number of females
receiving bachelor's degrees in computer science dropped from 40% to 27.5%
between 1984 and 1996 (Radcliff 1999). One factor contributing to this
downturn may be that girls view people who work in technology as having
solitary jobs that involve little interaction with other people. To change
social attitudes regarding women's needs and abilities regarding technology,
El Paso Community College established the Women in Technology (WIT) program.
The WIT program offered technical education services for women and engaged
in community outreach efforts, which included female mentors from the community.
After 10 years in operation, female enrollment in technical fields at El
Paso Community College has more than doubled (DiBenedetto 1999).
Some educators feel that schools have unknowingly contributed to the
limited enrollment of minorities in classes that would prepare them for
high-tech careers. Ramirez, Laurel, and Rodriguez-Aguilar (1999) advocate
the use of intervention activities in mathematics and science in the elementary
and middle grades. Harrington (1998) suggests that career counselors become
more open to the technological potential of minorities, ensuring that they
do not allow prejudicial thinking to keep them from offering appropriate
Businesses have a vested interest in wanting to help students develop
the technological skills required for work in this century. They need workers
who can complete complex tasks by using these skills as well as problem
solving and critical thinking. As a result, many businesses are offering
incentives to young women and minority students. Intel Corporation, for
example, recently established a Computer Clubhouse in cooperation with
Boston's Museum of Science and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Media Lab. In this after-school program, female and minority youngsters
meet with adult mentors to learn more about computer technology. "Intel
plans to open 100 such clubhouses around the world by 2005" (Bruner 2000,
p. 14). Microsoft Corporation, IBM, and AT&T have demonstrated a commitment
to helping Black students become interested in high tech by promising $101
million in cash and equipment to 39 Black schools. Initiating the United
Negro College Fund drive with this commitment, the three high-tech companies
are hoping to close the gap that separates minorities from the high-tech
economy ("Microsoft" 2000).
Provide Career Information
"The Occupational Outlook Quarterly, which forecasts employment trends
through the year 2005, predicts the demand for computer scientists and
systems analysts will grow by 111 percent between 1992 and 2005" (Caruso
1997, p. 6). Jobs in these fields offer great potential for job security
and higher salaries. Unfortunately, many female and minority students are
unaware of these projections, especially in the job market for computer
engineers, systems analysts, and webmasters. However, giving students this
information is meaningless if it is not accompanied by real-world experiences
of observing or talking with people who work in these professions. George
K. Williams of TRW Systems & Information Technology Group has been
working with the Black Data Processing Associates to help bridge the racial
divide. Williams said their most effective strategy involved "going into
the schools and sharing our knowledge about computer technology while serving
as mentors and role models" (Alter and Severin 2000, p.49).
PREPARING FOR HIGH-TECH CAREERS
"The American Electronics Association finds that the total number of
degrees awarded in engineering technology declined 16 percent between 1990
and 1996. Of the decreasing number of high-tech degrees awarded, foreign
nationals received 45 percent of the PhD's and 32 percent of the master's...the
U.S. educational system is not adequately preparing our youth for today's
information age economy" (Wolff 1999, pp. 7-8). Following are some steps
educators can take to improve their methods for preparing women and minorities
for high-tech employment.
Change Teaching and Learning Practices
Collaborative and cooperative learning environments are effective teaching
strategies for technology learning because they promote learning through
social interaction with others. They reflect the constructivist learning
theory, which contends that true learning occurs as individuals share their
knowledge and interact with each other in the social environment of its
application. The purpose for learning must extend beyond the classroom
and link to everyday life for the acquired knowledge to have real meaning
to the learner. Collaborative learning practices encourage interdependence
and a sense of shared responsibility, as opposed to individual learning,
which rewards leadership through dominance (Ramirez et al. 1999).
Introduce Technology in Middle Grades
Educators are recognizing the importance of involving girls and minorities
in technologies at an early age, when they are motivated by their own interests
and not influenced by stereotypical views of career choices. The Girl Scouts
of America show their support of this view by offering proficiency badges
in technology and the Internet for Brownie, Junior, and Senior levels (Radcliff
1999). As at higher levels of schooling, the programs at the middle grades
should be engaging and interactive. They should be designed to promote
creativity, yet provide structure so that students can relate information
technology to their lives (Alter and Severin 2000).
The Brownsville Independent School District has experienced success
in increased minority participation through its school year and summer
programs. Of the district's 40,000 K-12 students, 97 percent are Hispanic.
Teacher training, curriculum reform, policy analysis, and student activities
were introduced "as part of a comprehensive plan to prepare and recruit
minority students into the science, mathematics, engineering, and technology
pipeline" (Ramirez et al. 1999, p. 14). A 5-year study of the program found
that student proficiency in science and mathematics increased (ibid.).
Provide Mentors and Role Models
Providing role models and mentors for female and minority students is
another way to increase their interest in technology careers. In a study
of 12 women successfully employed in nontraditional, technology-related
professions, many reported being "influenced by either an encouraging male
figure within their personal sphere, and/or by a teacher in the educational
sphere" (Smith 2000, p. 4). Many participants commented that exposure to
a strong female technological role model played a significant part in their
choosing MST career paths.
The Department of Mathematics and Computer Science and Office of Multicultural
Affairs at Fontbonne College in Missouri matched eight high-risk first-
and second-year students with alumni mentors as part of a one-credit career
management course. Evaluation of the effort showed improved academic student
performance (Newton and Wells-Glover 1999).
Demonstrate Commitment to Equity
Schools can facilitate gender equity and leadership development by employing
the following policies (Quilling 1999, p. 72):
* Selecting software free of gender and ethnic bias.
* Ensuring that computer laboratories are accessible to each gender,
ethnic group, and income level, as well as students with disabilities.
* Encouraging the incorporation of technology strategies within all
sectors of the curriculum.
* Providing staff training in technology.
* Periodically reviewing and revising equity policies as necessary.
These strategies provide structured norms that emphasize equity in technology
usage and foster relationships that help students achieve their career
Research has shown that many of the barriers to science, mathematics,
engineering, and technology careers may be overcome by effective school
practices. Teaching and learning practices, early intervention programs,
and mentoring are just some of the ways schools can foster student participation
in high-tech programs and careers. Eliminating, or at least reducing, the
social and educational factors that have created barriers to high-tech
careers can help educators to move new generations of female and minority
students into the high-tech careers in which they have been underrepresented.
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