Geek Girls Gone Mild

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computer scienceEven when your natural inclination is to be a geek loud and proud, if you're like most women entering the workforce, you'd be apt to suppress it and go for more "gender appropriate" jobs than computer scientist, mathematician, or coroner.

According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, only 17 percent of high school girls take advanced-placement tests in computer science. That is the lowest level of females among all such exams. With the advent of easy-access technology, surprisingly the numbers have been dropping. In 2008, women earned only 18 percent of computer science degrees, compared to 37 percent in 1985.

Pam Smallwood, a computer science teacher at Regis University, says she wishes more girls would apply themselves, because there are jobs waiting for people in this field; they hire people on foreign work visas because there truly aren't enough American workers to fill the need.

Smallwood attended a seminar on attracting high-school girls to the computer science field, where the uphill battle was evident from the results of an experiment. "Girls were shown slides of many different women in various settings," she says. "For example, a woman: alone, dressed casually; alone, dressed up; with a man; with a dog; with children. ALL of the women in the slideshow were employed in the computing field.

"The girls were asked to identify which women might be in the computing field. The only women they identified were the ones who were alone, and plain looking. When asked why, they said that they did not think a computer scientist would have a husband, or kids, or a pet. Or even dress up. This says an awful lot about the perception of girls about the computing field."

Smallwood maintains, "I do think the media tends to perpetuate this perception. Geek girls are usually depicted as plain with little makeup, fat, or with 'brainy' glasses. And the computer-related geek girls are usually the worst."

Heidi Martinuzzi, a filmmaker and entertainment journalist who spends lots of time at her keyboard, sees things a little differently. "The women of CSI, Fringe, and Watchmen are good role models for girls today because they show us that women can not only have extremely math-heavy science jobs, but that they are sought-after for their expertise and provide a great service to society as a whole by solving crimes, catching killers, and" she adds, tongue-in-cheek, "preventing the destruction of the universe."

Jenna Busch, writer of all things geek, says, "I think the way geek girls are being portrayed in the media is actually helping to keep the younger generation interested in computers. I remember being told that my fascination with Dungeons & Dragons and video games was 'bizarre' and hearing people say, 'You're not a boy! Why do you play those thing?' Back then, you never saw women on TV as anything but mildly clever in the technology field. But now we've got more role models than ever. And not just on television. Almost every video game has a woman who either fights or is a computer expert. And when I talk about my love of gaming, it's younger women, even little girls who say, 'Me too!'

"It isn't just what we're being presented with on film, television and our various gaming consoles. It's the ease with which we women use our iPhones and laptops," Busch continues. "It's no longer strange to spend hours on a computer. We're on Facebook and Twitter. We know how to fix crashes and errors. So we're not seeing the kind of social distaste for girls who love technology that's been one of the causes of the imbalance between pre-teen girls and boys professing a love for science. And the instant support system that sites like Twitter and Facebook are providing for geek girls keeps from dropping off the radar as well."

For those interested in geeky jobs, Smallwood offers hope. "There are nearly 3.4 million computer science jobs in our country, and that number is expected to grow by 22 percent through 2018, according to the latest edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook. And the pay isn't bad, either. The median annual salary for computer science jobs is $75,800. Compare that to $33,600, the median annual salary for all workers. So the jobs are there for the taking, for the qualified woman. Another interesting fact is that computing offers a lot more opportunities to have a family than many other fields do. This is because many of the jobs can be performed part time, or from home, when you have a family."

For further reading and investigation on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and SET (science, engineering, and technology) jobs for women, I highly recommend that you check out Why Computer Engineer Barbie Is Good for Women in Tech and Doc Stock's Hot STEM Careers overview.

Who's Hiring:Computer Science Jobs

Next:The Gender Pay Gap--New Opportunities for Women >>

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