Back to school: Getting girls into IT

How IBM and Cisco are getting them while they're young

Despite the success of various education initiatives in the past several years, there's little doubt that the shortage of women in technology begins on the playground. As such, many industry leaders and experts believe the long-term solution to the gender imbalance in IT lies in women technologists going back to school -- way back, to high schools and even elementary schools to mentor young girls, who too often give up on math and science at an early age.

"Young girls have been deselecting math for a while," says Sandy Carter, vice president of SOA and WebSphere strategy at IBM. "They do very well in math and science for a while, and then seem to lose interest. We started looking at these statistics and decided that at IBM we needed to start attracting young girls."

In 1999, IBM launched a pilot day camp for seventh- and eighth-grade girls, staffed by women volunteers with technical backgrounds. The program, dubbed EXITE (EXploring Interests in Technology and Engineering), has grown annually. In 2006, IBM hosted more than 50 week-long EXITE camps worldwide, including three in Australia.

"We've focused on showing these young girls women in technology who are supercool, and what it's like to be a woman in technology," Carter says.

EXITE projects have included building Web sites, assembling PCs, and making ice cream out of liquid nitrogen. More recently, the camps have focused on the role technology plays in health care, agriculture, environmental preservation, and relief efforts. Each camper is then paired with a woman volunteer who serves as a mentor throughout the following school year.

"There's the perception that if you don't see a lot of women in the field, it must not be a very good field for women," says Margaret Ashida, director of talent for IBM's software group and former director of the company's university talent programs, who says that demand outweighs supply for the EXITE camps. "You have to talk about how technology is making a difference to people to get them excited and engaged."

Meanwhile, Cisco has launched another program aimed at getting girls involved in technology. The Girls/Women in Technology Initiative, which includes partnerships with organizations such as the National Center for Women in Technology, offers a variety of programs for girls from kindergarten through high school, including a Web site where they can explore careers in technology.

"There's a natural tendency for girls at that age to think they're not as good at science and math," says Jayshree Ullal, vice president of datacenter, switching, and security at Cisco. "I have a passionate belief that the crux of the problem isn't something we can fix in five years. It's going to take decades, but once you have that pipeline going, things will change for the better."

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