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Program aims to close gender gap in computer science field

HOUGHTON – As with many other areas of technology, there is a gap between the number of men and women working computer-oriented careers, and Michigan Technological University is involved with a program intended to close that gap.

Linda Ott, Tech professor of computer science, said since 2013, the university has been involved with a two-year program called Pacesetters created by the National Center of Women and Information Technology in Boulder, Colorado. The intent of the program is for participating institutions to develop aggressive and measurable goals to increase the number of women in the computing and technology workforce.

Ott said the incoming group of students in computing classes at Tech this year was 19 percent, which is a significant increase over previous years.

“Prior to this year, the incoming women were fewer than 10 percent,” she said.

Ott said 10 years ago the number of incoming women in computer classes at Tech was about 3 percent.

“This is why the department has joined Pacesetters,” she said.

Those participation numbers weren’t always that low, Ott said. When she began teaching in the early 1980s, 30 to 40 percent of the students taking computer classes were women.

“Then it dropped off precipitously,” she said.

One of the reasons for that, Ott said, was there weren’t enough computers in high schools for all students who wanted to learn them.

“It tended to be dominated by boys,” she said.

Also, video games were targeted at boys, Ott said. Those factors made the idea of a career in computing less hospitable for women.

“That’s what we’re struggling with now,” she said. “There’s a huge gap in the computer industry between men and women.”

Ott said a non-profit organization called code.org estimated in Michigan there are currently 16,000 job openings in computing. Nationwide there is a significant need for people in computing careers.

“They’re estimating there will be a million computing jobs by 2020,” she said.

Ott said 50 percent of science, technology, engineering and math jobs require computer operators.

“Every industry, every business needs computing experience,” she said. “To run your business efficiently, you analyze the heck out of your data.”

In Michigan, besides Tech, Michigan State University and the University of Michigan are involved with the Pacesetters program for women and computing, Ott said.

Ott said there is an effort by many corporations to diversify their workforces, including with computer operators, but more work is needed to equalize those workforces.

“Things are slowly changing,” she said.