ORLANDO, Fla. — High school senior Vanessa Pena fell in love with computer science the day her fifth-grade teacher brought a computer to class, dismantled it and told students to reassemble the device.
The 17-year-old is looking forward to pursuing a career in programming or information technology but admits she sometimes feels intimidated by the male-dominated industry.
“You have to prove yourself a little bit more in computer science when you’re a woman because people think it’s not a career for women,” she said.
Officials at the National Center for Women & Information Technology report that women accounted for 18 percent of computer and information-science bachelor’s degrees across U.S. colleges in 2010 — a 51 percent drop from 1985, when a wave of women earned high-tech degrees.
“The women’s movement at the end of the ‘80s was very strong, and there was a spike in women going to college and also during the dotcom frenzy in the early ‘90s, but that momentum has slowed,” said Ruthe Farmer, director of strategic initiatives at the National Center for Women & Information Technology. “It’s hard to say why. If we knew that, we could fix it.”
Farmer said while high-tech career tracks suffer from image issues such as the “nerd” stereotype, the root of the problem can be traced to the instructional level in high schools.
“Computer science is a high-school graduate requirement in only nine states, and many of those teaching the elective courses are not certified computer-science teachers. Anyone can teach it,” Farmer said.
Girls comprise more than 41 percent of students in computer-science classes at Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte, Fla., where Pena attends. That’s an impressive number, accomplished through encouragement that includes a girls robotics club and competitions. But teachers there and at other schools are concerned with the declining number of female students enrolled in computer-science majors in college.