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UT professor aims to increase number of women in IT, computer science

Lecia Barker, professor in UT’s School of Information, recently received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to increase women’s involvement in information technology.
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Lecia Barker remembers the day in 1977 when she got caught in a loop — accidently programming a computer to do the same command over and over again. The result nowadays would be code repeating on a monitor, but in the 70s the mistake meant a printer streaming out the command on paper for her and her entire business programming class to see.

“It was embarrassing and shameful. I remember the shame and nobody to help me,” said Barker.

Today, Barker is helping to ensure that the support is there for women in information technology. She is a senior research scientist at the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), a nonprofit that works to increase the presence of women in technology and computing — a field which is about 75 percent male, according to NCWIT.

People tell boys that if they’re good at math they can be an engineer. For girls it just doesn’t come up as much. We send kids off in gendered ways.

— Lecia Barker, research professor at UT’s School of Information

Barker is also a research associate professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Information, and the National Science Foundation recently awarded her a $1 million grant to fund programs and research that promote and support women in information technology and computer science. The grant is part of a larger $9 million sum awarded to NCWIT.

An important aspect of the grant is that it will help fund the creation of more resources for the NCWIT, said Barker. The materials — ranging from short talking points and top-10 lists to in-depth reports and ready-made lesson plans — are free, and they aid in disseminating information to outreach organizations, teachers and employers.

Computer scientists are in high demand. At a spring 2010 job fair hosted by UT’s College of Natural Sciences, 87 percent of the companies in attendance sought to recruit computer science majors. And according to NCWIT, the number of job openings in computer specialist fields is expected to grow by over a million by 2020. But unfortunately, said Baker, many people simply don’t know much about the field.

“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,” said Baker. “In high school it’s always an elective and it’s usually not even considered against foreign language or orchestra.”

Women in particular are often underexposed to computer science because of gendered stereotypes and social expectation, said Baker, emphasizing subtle behavior that can nudge men and women toward different career paths.

“People tell boys that if they’re good at math they can be an engineer,” said Baker. “For girls it just doesn’t come up as much. We send kids off in gendered ways.”

Bri Connelly, the president of the UT student organization Women in Computer Science (WiCS), also says that the stereotype of the computer scientist as a solitary coder is an image that she thinks keeps women away from the field.

“There's a bad conception that computer science is not social, you work alone, and spend a lot of nights in the lab. This is so far from the truth,” said Connelly. “CS is a very collaborative area and the people are very creative and fun to work with. There is so much beyond sitting at a desk and writing code.”

Many of the resources provided by the NCWIT address the things Baker and Connelly point out, and clarify the role of computer science and what jobs in the field are actually like. Organizations like First Bytes and Girls Inc. are using NCWIT materials to help shape their own programs that expose girls to technology and computing, said Baker.

Members of WiCS also work to inspire an early interest in computer science by participating in the University of Texas Computer Science Roadshow, “a program where students visit K-12 schools to show them what computer science is like,” said Connelly. The group also works to support each other with their Nell Dale Mentorship program, in which every freshman woman is assigned a mentor to guide her through her first years in the program.

“Most of the time you don't notice that you're one of very few women in your field. But sometimes you do,” said Connelly. “It's important to have a community that's there for all the women in computing to remind them that they belong.”

NCWIT’s support of women in computer science and technology extends into college and the workforce, said Baker. A major program is Pacesetters, a campaign which calls for senior university executives and corporations to commit to increase recruitment of women within their respective organizations. Companies supporting the Pacesetters initiative include IBM, Google and Microsoft.

“The motto of the NCWIT is 50:50 by 2020,” said Barker, referring to equality in men and women graduating in computer science, entering the computer science workforce and creating innovations.

“I think it's completely possible,” said Connelly about the “50:50 by 2020” goal. “Harvey Mudd [College in Claremont, Calif.] has already achieved this goal and I want UT to be next.”

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