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Why are there so few women in academia working on information technology?
It's a guy thing
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Credit:Alexei Vella

So what could be cooler than being a young techie in Madison?

These prototypical urbanistas -- bike-riders, app-writers, coffee-shop habitués and craft beer aficionados -- are the exemplars of the young innovators populating the downtown and maybe building Dane County's 2lst-century economy.

All the more reason for a gray-bearded reporter to sit in on the groundbreaking "Starting a Software Company" class in UW-Madison's Computer Science program last December.

This was good stuff -- a first effort by the department to serve the software-writing students who wanted to start their own business and not follow the well-beaten path of other computer science graduates to high-paying jobs at Microsoft, Apple, Google and other coastal sirens.

Sage advice on this day came from guest lecturer Stirling Martin, a senior vice president at the gold standard of Madison startups: woman-founded Epic Systems. But as I looked around at the casually dressed assemblage of students, I was dumbfounded.

I counted 34 students...33 were young men. What gives? Software writing is so reliant on collaboration, team projects and networks, it just seems less macho than other technical fields.

So why, then, is it such a guy thing?

"There are a thousand reasons," says Andrea Arpaci-Dusseau, a UW-Madison computer science professor who happens to be married to the co-teacher of the startup class. "It happens very, very, young," she says of the disconnect between women and computer technology. "They make a decision that this is something they're not interested in.

"Because there are so few women, it just perpetuates itself," she says. "If we could get more women in the field, then it would be welcoming and enjoyable for women. But when the numbers are so small, it's really difficult."

Those numbers are sobering. The software class, offered both in the spring and fall, drew a total enrollment of about 90 students and just one woman, says Andrea's spouse, Remzi Arpaci-Dusseau. (They met as computer science graduate students at UC-Berkeley.) "It's terrible," he says of the gender disparity. "We talk about it in the department all the time. We seem not to be serving 50% of the population."

Overall just 11% of UW's computer science graduates in 2012 were women, according to the registrar's office. This is typical of women in computing at major American research universities. National data show that women composed just 14% of their computer science undergraduates in 2011.

The problem is found, to varying degrees, in other so-called STEM academic fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Elsewhere in academia, however, young women are striding confidently to the front of the line like never before. In 2009, 57% of all undergraduate degrees in the U.S. were earned by women, according to the National Center for Women and Technology. Fifty years earlier, almost two-thirds were earned by men.

The same trend is rippling through UW-Madison. Even the School of Medicine, where men constituted two-thirds of the newly minted docs in 1986, has graduated more female than male physicians in eight of the last 11 years.

There are lots of angles, as Andrea Arpaci-Dusseau suggests, to the tech numbers -- some surprising, some not.

Ashe Dryden, a local independent software developer, says sexism is a problem. So is something subtler: "othering." That's what happens when women attend tech conferences and find themselves pointed out as the one or two exceptions in a room filled with boisterous men. And it doesn't help when all the cool conference T-shirts are sized for those guys.

Says Dryden: "The vast majority of people I know in tech are male, but they're very welcoming and don't have a problem with women doing the same sort of work they do. Unfortunately there are a lot of other loud men who feel otherwise. "

Blame our culture, says Julie Schultz, who is a veteran business analyst for Madison's Teamsoft consulting. "Women don't have a Bill Gates, a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg -- role models to make IT sexy for us," she says.

Schultz works with lots of programmers on visas from India and China and finds their gender split -- maybe 60/40 men-to-women -- to be much more even than it is among domestic programmers. "I don't think we have the same drive to see our children succeed across the gender lines that we see in other cultures," she says.

Schultz said something that I thought was anecdotal and not necessarily reflective of the broader reality -- that the number of female programmers was higher 20 years ago when she started her career. Turns out Schultz is right.

Nationally, the number of women graduating in computer science has actually declined by 50% from its high point in 1986, according to the Department of Education. At UW-Madison, almost one in four computer science graduates (54 of 230) were women in 1986. By 2012, the ratio has fallen to one in nine -- 19 of 179.

Patti Brennan is an example of the bright cross-disciplinary thinkers drawn to the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery on campus. Befitting someone with disparate degrees in nursing and industrial engineering (she sees the connection between the two), Brennan has a unique take on things. "I'm not worried about those numbers," she says of the computer science enrollment.

Brennan argues that the gender imbalance in computing is overstated. She points out that programming has spread far beyond what she sees at the narrow confines of American computer science departments. "Women see pathways in other disciplines that allow them to use computers in their work," she says.

The more interesting question, she suggests, is why there aren't more female business founders like Epic's Judy Faulkner. Note that nationally only 12% of tech startups have the XX chromosome at birth. Madison's own Capital Entrepreneurs, the influential confab of local tech founders, is no different. Only about 10% of the 235 members are women, says PerBlue's Forrest Woolworth, who cofounded the group.

In search of answers, a decade ago Brennan studied faculty patent and licensing data at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. "We found that the portion of women making patent declarations wasn't all that bad compared to men," she says. But she also found that women usually weren't the lead scientists, and that the profs who licensed the patents (and collected the royalties) were overwhelmingly male.

"We started the study by asking, what do mid-career female professors do? You're 55, you've got grants and your professorship, and you're bored. The answer, it seemed, is that men started companies and women joined university committees."

"Why? Who knows?" Brennan says. "My women students don't drink Mountain Dew as much as my male students. What does that mean? I don't know that either. I do know that the number of women doing computing is not dropping. What's dropping is the number of women in computer science majors."

The good news is that there are a ton of efforts to bring change. Nationally, advocates include the National Center for Women and Information Technology, the Anita Borg Institute and Women in Technology. Locally, they include the venerable Expanding Your Horizons conference at UW-Madison, Ashe Dryden's Madison Women in Tech, the UW computer science student group, and the girls-only Scratch programming class at the Madison Children's Museum.

"The key is to get girls aware of the career possibilities early on, in middle school, to give them hands-on experience," says Laurie Benson, who cofounded Inacom Information Systems (and who takes pleasure in saying that years later she sold it to another woman). "The lack of women role models is a problem, so it's critical that we connect girls to mentors."

Andrea Arpaci-Dusseau is trying to do just that. Her computer science students can take "service learning" classes that place them in K-12 schools, where they lead computer science clubs and workshops. "My grand hope was that if we start early enough in fourth grade, these clubs would be evenly split between boys and girls," she says. "But it's not working out that way. In a group of 20, we'll have two girls."

That speaks to the enduring conundrum of women and technology. The problem and the solution seem so obvious. But they're not.

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