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Divas who rock the computing world

Kay Easton, February 6, 2012

What is going on with women in information technology? Computer and mathematical occupations are growing in the U.S., but the number of women in those roles has dropped, according to the Department of Labor. If women want a share of the IT careers that are expected to open up, they need to look into computer science and computer engineering degree programs.

National, state and college organizations seek to promote the advancement of women and increase diversity in IT professions, including the National Center for Women in Information Technology, or NCWIT, and Dot Diva. Dot Diva also strives to create an exciting and positive image of computing for high school girls. This article examines the role of women in computer science and the contributions of two female techies profiled on the Dot Diva website.

Women in IT careers

The percentage of women in the computer and mathematical occupations fell from 2000 to 2010, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the NCWIT reports some good news as well. For example, Google has doubled the number of female engineer interns, and IBM is working to raise the number of women in its career advancement programs.

Computer science studies are growing again in the U.S. after a tough time following the dot.com debacle. The number of computer science degrees decreased steadily from 2004 to 2007, but since then the National Science Foundation and Computing Research Association have seen a gradual uptick in undergraduate degrees with a 10 percent rise in 2010. Even with the growing interest in the field, the DOL and NCWIT predict a shortage of tech talent. At current graduation rates from colleges, universities and IT schools, U.S. computer science degree-earners would not be able to fill all the new IT jobs projected by 2018.

For anyone interested in tech training and computer schools, here are profiles of two role models from Dot Diva. Both these women are passionate about using technology to solve problems in creative ways.

Dot diva in computer science: Janelle Tiulentino

Tiulentino took no computer classes in high school and had no plans to do so in college. In her freshman year at Stanford, she explored classes in psychology, economics and linguistics before finding a home in Stanford's Symbolic Systems Program, an interdisciplinary program that focuses on computers and minds, including cognitive science, artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction.

She completed her bachelor of science in computer science in June 2011 and is back at Stanford pursuing a master's degree in the field. During her undergraduate tenure, Tiulentino was managing director of the Gumball Capital, an online, nonprofit student organization that raised money for organizations such as kiva.org, a micro-finance site that provides small business loans to low-income people in developing countries.

Tiulentino is considering various IT careers and is interested in a number of fields -- artificial intelligence, information analysis, data mining, and deciphering human language and translating it into computer language. She eventually plans to focus her job search on smaller companies or start-ups that are involved in some aspect of social change: "Computer science can be applied to so many different aspects of life, and it enables you to reach so many more people with your ideas."

Dot diva in computer science: Laura Pfeifer

Pfeifer had never heard of computer science until she attended a small Midwestern college; she now has a bachelor of science in the field and is pursuing a Ph.D. in computer science at a private research university.

Through what Pfeifer refers to as a "happy accident," her first job took her to different health care facilities for medical software installation and tech support, so she could develop an insider's view of how the technical infrastructure worked. In response to those experiences, she co-created Nurse Louise, a virtual nurse that helps patients interactively understand diagnoses, medications and follow-up visits in significantly more detail than actual nurses have the time to provide.

Pfeifer believes in the continuing growth of computer science, which can enhance many other fields of interest and provide exciting job opportunities. "By incorporating computer skills along with other interests," she says, "women have an opportunity to bring another perspective to decisions that are made in almost any field."

Challenges for women in computing

When asked if they received any flak about majoring in computer science, an arena that is still predominantly male, these women had different experiences. For example, Tiulentino finds that even women are surprised that she's majoring in computer science.

"When I work with a group of all males, I have to work harder to prove I have the same capabilities," said Tiulentino.

Pfeifer feels that attending a smaller college was an advantage: "One-third of the faculty was female -- actually one woman and two men," she said, "and I'm good at what I do, so I received lots of encouragement and shrugged off any negativity."

Rewards for women in IT

Pfeifer recommends computer science as an exciting field that pays highly for technical education and skills. As an added bonus, women like these dot divas can bring a unique perspective to 21st century computer science. For women and men, education is a key to tech career opportunities: For example, employers hiring for software engineering positions typically prefer candidates who have at least a bachelor's degree and experience with a variety of computer systems.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects computer and mathematical occupations to expand more than twice as fast as the average for all U.S. occupations from 2008 to 2018. Out of all science and engineering jobs, the BLS predicts that computer science will show the highest growth through 2018. An additional half a million computer science degrees will be needed to meet the projected openings in IT, so if women want their piece of that pie, they need to get crackin'.

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