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US Pacific Northwest Project Motivates Girls to Pursue Hi-Tech Careers - 2004-03-28

Despite the hundreds of programs and thousands of dollars devoted to increasing the number of women in science, technology, engineering, and math, studies show the number of women going for degrees in computer science is dropping. Organizations working to prevent this trend in other scientific fields say they're fighting an uphill battle against the mass media and hormones. In the Pacific Northwest, a coalition of science and education groups banded together for a year-and-a-half to share battle tactics and resources.

After 18 months of 'doing science' in the classroom, the Northwest Girls' Collaborative Project held its final conference near Seattle on the Microsoft campus.

The girls, teachers, and mentors who were part of the project gathered to network and show their stuff: science, technology, engineering, and math. But behind the career plans and successful experiments, lies the biggest challenge to getting women into high-tech careers.

"Right now I'm looking into going into forensic sciences," explains a participant. "I don't know, it just seems interesting, but I know it's going to take a lot of science, but I'm not really in for that. For example right now, like chemistry, all that chemistry sometimes it stresses me out 'cause it's so hard to understand."

"Confidence is 90% of the battle," said Trish Millines-Dziko, who retired from a successful job at Microsoft to train black and Hispanic students in the field of technology. "You put a man programmer next to a woman programmer, and nine times out of ten, the guy is gonna think he can tackle any kind of problem. If you look at the woman, she's gonna, like, be honest about whether she can do it or not. And that's a difference in confidence."

Confidence that gets undermined, she says, at puberty. "It's a disaster to look at a girl and say 'I know she's interested in boys and interested in how she looks, and this will go away.' That becomes the focal point of that girl's life," she points out. "And all the fun she had in science begins to go away, because that's not cool. You pick up any Glamour magazine, do you see anything about science in there? Not a thing. And that's what makes a difference."

Ms. Millines-Dziko says the key to winning the battle against hormones and the mass media is to collaborate with others who care about girls and science. That's why Karen Peterson founded the Northwest Girls' Collaborative Project two years ago. Initially, the education professor and her co-founders thought they would create a new program to interest girls in science.

"We started doing a needs assessment, and we discovered so many amazing programs that we didn't know about," she says. "And all of them were asking for help networking. And so that's when we decided, instead of creating a new program, to create a way to help connect the existing programs."

Ms. Peterson says networking the existing programs is key to keeping girls on the scientific career path throughout their education. If you think of that path as a pipeline, the biggest leaks are at puberty, when boys seem a lot more interesting than biochemistry.

Candace Williams, a senior at an all-girls' high school in Tacoma, Washington agrees that getting girls interested in science at an early age is helpful, but says it isn't enough. "Get girls involved in technology, and give them support all the way through," she says. "Don't just stop telling them that they should be getting into these careers when they hit junior high."

Candace "walks her talk." After she presented her research at the conference, she recruited girls to join the Technology Student Association. At one of the recent TSA competitions, Candace took first place in structural engineering. She beat out four other girls and 45 boys. How did that make her feel?

"Very good. I yelled when I won. I think I was the loudest person," she says. "When I win, I'm very cocky, because I won. But it doesn't last for that long and I'm not mean about it. I mean, it's not bragging if you can actually do it."

Candace talked a little shop with another African-American girl at the conference, 12-year-old Myranda Morris. After a day of helping out in the conference's computer class, Myranda says she realized girls can be confident in science - and popular.

"Yes, you can. Of course you can. I'm pretty well known, almost everybody knows my name, so it's really nice," she says. "I think science is always my main priority in school. It's like the coolest thing ever. It's nothing to compare with popularity, 'cause I'll be popular when I'll make a new vaccine to help people with their disease."

Myranda plans to be a doctor.

The Northwest Girls' Collaborative Project is over for now. Its founders are looking for another round of funding to take the program nation-wide.