Duke University Alumni Magazine


Bridge-building: Men and women alike, students in Duke professor Owen Astrachan's CPS 100 class represent the computer scientists of tomorrow
corbis image / photos by chris hildreth

Some of the biggest consumers of technology aren't flooding the executive ranks of high-tech business. Women aren't designing many of the new high-tech products and, most important, they aren't among those deciding critical technology policy issues.

Senior representatives of several leading international technology organizations, including America Online, AT&T;, and MCI WorldCom, are assembled around a conference table in an office in Washington, D.C. The office is that of Kimberly Jenkins '76, M.Ed. '77, Ph.D. '80, president of the Internet Policy Institute, and she is leading the group in developing a three-day "Internet Summit" to educate politicians, people in business, and the public about the most important policy issues that will surround the Internet.

The IPI is a group of top thinkers in politics, industry, and academe that is studying the global development of the Internet. The nonprofit think tank employs experts and scholars to research subjects ranging from the Internet's role in privacy to its impact on taxation and health care. The IPI's board of directors is a Who's Who of the information-technology world, and includes Internet creator Vinton G. Cerf and former National Science Foundation director Erich Bloch, among many others. "Net Heavyweights Form Think Tank," pronounced USA Today when the institute opened its doors in the fall of 1999. The technologists gathered in Jenkins' office are members of an advisory group that is helping the IPI prepare for the summit--individuals recruited for the project from an unusually broad cross-section of the high-tech industry.

Many of the people at this meeting are women. While that would not be surprising in most fields these days, it is significant for such a tech-heavy gathering. When it comes to computer science, society has been caught in the midst of a troubling, persistent gender gap. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of technical jobs held by women hangs at a relatively static 28 percent, even as the number of women in the workforce approaches 50 percent. And these numbers are reflected in Duke's computer science department.

"The real problem is the trend over the last twenty years," says Melinda French Gates '86, M.B.A. '87. "If you went back several decades and looked at the statistics as to how few women graduated in the medical and legal fields, you would have seen the same situation. Today, however, they have caught up so much that the number of women is almost equal to the number of men. But it's not at all the same in the computer sciences. You would hope that the gap would be narrowing--but it's not."

Although women are among the biggest consumers of technology, they aren't flooding the executive ranks of high-tech business. They aren't designing many of the new high-tech products saturating the market. Perhaps most important, they usually aren't among those deciding critical technology policy issues--issues that affect their families' lives every day, and that will spread deeper into society as time goes on. In fact, a recent report from the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, "Tech Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age," suggests that gender equality in the information age depends upon girls being taught about and exposed to computers--education that is not happening now.

The fundamental problem is that few women gain the technical background to enable them to advance into those areas. "Don't be confused. Women hold many of the jobs in marketing, corporate communications, and public relations. But the field is crying for women who have real technical expertise," says Gates, a Duke trustee, who joined Microsoft in 1987. She held various management positions there, and helped develop many of its multimedia products, such as Expedia, an Internet travel product; Encarta, an encyclopedia; and Cinemania, a movie guide. She also worked on Microsoft Word for MS-DOS and Windows, Microsoft Works, and Microsoft Publisher. In 1994, she married Bill Gates, the company's co-founder, chair, and chief software architect.

"Girls may be going into graphic design, but they aren't going into computer programming or advanced computer science courses that will enable them to get high-tech jobs," says Jenkins. "That may lead to a reversal in women's progress. If we don't get the needed education in this field, I fear that women will be in a very disadvantaged position."

Unfortunately, the educational pipeline isn't filling as it should. Despite the fact that enrollments in computer science courses are rising dramatically, the percentages of women seeking such degrees remain at low levels. Surveys show that while the absolute numbers of undergraduate and graduate degrees awarded were significantly higher in 1998 than in 1997, the percentage awarded to women remained constant. Nationwide, women still obtain less than a third of the bachelor's and master's degrees in the field, and less than 20 percent of the doctorates. At Duke, women represent only 26 percent of the computer science majors, and only 4 percent of the quantitative-science faculty.

Observers who have studied the problem agree that it starts early, in grade school and junior high. While almost three-fourths of all jobs require computer and Internet skills, only 16 percent of children online are girls, according to Does Jane Compute?: Preserving Our Daughters' Place in the Cyber Revolution, by Roberta Furger (Warner Books, 1998). "Women don't go into computer science to the degree that they should because girls get turned off to math, usually sometime around seventh or eighth grade," observes Kelly Shaw, a 1997 Duke graduate currently pursuing her doctorate in computer science at Stanford.

This issue has sparked concern throughout the high-tech world. Corporations eager to hire women to fill the demand for skilled technical labor are sponsoring technical women's groups. The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation creating a commission to study why women are underrepresented in the computer and science industries. And the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other organizations support mentoring and similar projects, including a recent grant to Duke, hoping to ensure that women are actively and equally involved in all aspects of technology, that women's needs will be considered in the development of new technologies, and that technology policies everywhere fully take women into account.

Duke alumnae are pioneers in the brave new world of computer science and electronic technology. As leaders in the field, they are also part of the movement to encourage other women to enter such professions. Their personal stories reflect the national issue, and point to solutions to the problem.

Watching Kimberly Jenkins in action, one wonders how there could be any gender gap in the information-technology field. She is at the center of some of the most important new trends in the country, sitting not at the pinnacle of power, as in the traditional corporate pyramid structure, but rather at the nexus of influence. Now the preeminent networker, she didn't expect to have such an exceptional role to play in the information revolution.

She grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, and Peekskill, New York. She attended Duke because of its marine lab and strong science programs, graduating with a biology degree. Both parents were educators--her mother a kindergarten teacher and her father a school superintendent--and Jenkins had a strong commitment to education. Working toward her master's in educational administration at Duke, she also taught high-school biology and chemistry in Durham. She planned, after she received her doctorate, to become a dean of students.

But life's coincidences would take her in different directions. While a graduate student, Jenkins secured a part-time job as a research assistant for a computer science professor. She learned enough about technology to be fascinated by it--and to accept after graduate school a corporate job as an analyst at Control Data Corporation in Seattle. She worked in an educational technology division that focused on products used widely in schools and corporate training departments.

Personal interests also played a role in her job choice. "My husband and I did a lot of Outward Bound type of activities. We went to Seattle specifically so we could climb mountains," she says. But after three years, it was apparent that all roads to advancement at Control Data led to the corporation's headquarters in Minneapolis. "There were no mountains in Minneapolis." But there were definitely mountains in Seattle. "I joined this little company called Microsoft--I hadn't even really heard of it before. Although it was respected in the industry, it certainly wasn't the household name it is today. It wasn't even a public company.

"The company was about to come out with something called Microsoft Word and they needed someone to design a computer-based program to teach people how to use it. I leaned heavily on my background in education."

The company was developing Microsoft Word for Macintosh computers. After the Mac was introduced, Jenkins saw the opportunity to sell the new software to colleges and universities throughout the country. Microsoft executives, however, doubted the viability of the market.

Jenkins decided to go for broke. "I went to see Steve Ballmer [then a company executive, now Microsoft president] with two manila file folders in my hand. In one, I had my proposal for starting up an education division from scratch. When he saw it, he said, 'No, we don't care about education; you can't make money selling to universities.' So I handed him what was in my other manila folder: my resignation letter." Impressed, Ballmer and other top Microsoft executives decided to give her a shot. "I was able to generate 10 percent of Microsoft's U.S. revenue in the first year," says Jenkins. "Colleges and universities were buying truckloads of the product. Since then, Microsoft has led the way among all information-technology companies with one of the premier education divisions."

Jenkins managed the rapidly growing division for several years. But her strong preference for entrepreneurial rather than managerial work led her to move to Palo Alto, California, to supervise market development at another software powerhouse. NeXT, run by Apple founder Steve Jobs, focused on educational products and markets.

After a few years at NeXT, she again sought new challenges and greater freedom. She established her own consulting firm, advising various technology companies on setting up education divisions. For one project, Jenkins worked with a group of companies creating centers across the country to educate the public about the Internet and state-of-the-art digital media. Through that effort, she met Bob Kerrey, U.S. senator from Nebraska. Kerrey suggested that she create a similar center for U.S. representatives and senators, who were starting to legislate issues about computers and the Internet but had little knowledge about information technology. Supported by grants from such corporations as IBM, Apple, and Microsoft, Jenkins founded Highway 1, a nonprofit organization that works to improve communications between the U.S. government and the public through technology. For four years, she educated individuals in Congress and throughout the federal government on using the Internet and other technologies to obtain information and communicate with others more effectively.

Photo: Dennis Brack

Jenkins' new Internet Policy Institute tries to move legislators and the general public farther down the electronic road. "We need research so policymakers will have good data, and analysis of that data on which to base their decisions. We are on the edge of a whole new frontier, and we need to be looking at all the legal, economic, and social impacts of the Internet."

One key area involves women and their role in the information revolution. The IPI wants top-notch researchers to probe the possibilities for digital equity. "It really is a problem," Jenkins says. "For example, the White House recently called me and asked me to attend a press event. 'We really need a woman,' they said. If you ask a room of people who the top women in the computer science field are, the same names come up all the time. It's great that those few women are there, but that in itself says something."

Strong math skills seem to be shared by many of the women who gravitate to computer science. Stacey L. Luoma M.S. '99, a Connecticut native, earned her undergraduate degree in math from Boston College in 1995. Yet just like Jenkins years before her, Luoma describes her entrance into computer science as more accidental than strategic.

"Computer science wasn't a field that I considered at all," she says. "I had to take an elective my senior year and was considering taking history. But my dad, who is a mechanical engineer, said, 'Why not take computer science?' " Once Luoma tried it, she liked it. "In the spring of my senior year of college, I started applying for jobs. The only openings for those of us with a pure math background were in actuarial sciences or other financial areas. But I liked the applied quality of computer science." While working as a secretary at BankBoston, she took night courses and earned the equivalent of a minor in computer science. She entered graduate school at Duke the following year.

Luoma says she chose Duke because the program offered the opportunity to work closely with medical, engineering, and other departments. That interdisciplinary approach has paid off in her current job as a software engineer at Evans & Sutherland, a 3-D graphics company in Salt Lake City, Utah. Among other projects, the company produces flight simulators for training military and commercial pilots, as well as such entertainment applications as planetarium programs.

Luoma works with numerous electrical and mechanical engineers and other experts on such large-scale systems. Her first project has been developing the "head tracker" of a large flight simulation project. "The pilot sits in the middle and can only see what's in front of him or her. We program the connection where the pilot's head is pointing and where the image should be displayed. It's as if you were camping and going around with a flashlight; first you see one image, and then you move the flashlight to the left and see another image."

She credits Duke with much of her success. "I specialized in computational geometry, which gave me a good background in computer graphics. I think that's why this firm selected me." But she also reports that the percentage of women in her classes at Duke was surprisingly low, especially for the late 1990s. "Of seventeen first-year graduate students, there was only one other girl, and she was from India."

The problem persists in Luoma's work world. "On my floor at my company, there are about forty computer science, electrical, or mechanical engineers. And of all them, only two are women: me, who just started last year, and another woman, who started six months earlier."

Jenkins and others of her computer generation may have been pioneers on the information highway, but Kelly Shaw is making inroads of her own. Planning to become a professor after earning her Ph.D. from Stanford, she is pursuing the ultimate computer science career destination.

"In middle school and high school, I wanted to prove that I could do the math and not just follow the pattern of dropping out of it," says Shaw, who grew up in Connecticut, New York, and Florida. "I saw other girls getting turned off to math and computers, believing it was something only geeky people did and that it would be too hard. When I got to college, I decided to continue with math and began taking computer courses. And when I discovered there was a problem for women in the field, I only got stronger in my belief that I was going to get through. I was ticked off.

"I knew a guy at MIT, and he said all women think they are bad at math--it's a complex all women have, sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that actually egged me on. I have a chip on my shoulder against society for not encouraging and training women in computer science. I want to prove to everyone that they're wrong."

Shaw says she doesn't regret her decision. "When I finally find a bug in a program and can fix it, it is the biggest high. I love thinking about the issues, working on them on a daily basis." She's been thinking about the issues for a long time. Besides graduating summa cum laude from Duke, she spent three semesters as a teaching assistant, holding one-on-one grading and counseling sessions with other students. Because of her exceptional accomplishments and potential, her Duke professors nominated her for the prestigious Computing Research Association Outstanding Undergraduate Award (she won an honorable mention). More recently, the National Science Foundation selected her as a graduate research fellow.

Shaw says she received a lot of support

and encouragement at Duke. Susan Rodger, associate professor of the practice in the department of computer science, "was great," she says. "And [computer science professor] Carla Ellis also became a mentor. She encouraged me to go on in computer science and helped me believe in my ideas. She always made me feel as if I were asking pertinent questions--and she still tries to keep up with what I am doing."

With her hard work and determination to become a professor, Shaw gives hope that more young women might follow her path and provide the female role models so desperately needed in academe. Despite her achievements, she still harbors doubts. "I will do fine at teaching and mentoring, but I have a lack of confidence as to whether I can direct someone else's research. One of my professors told me that I have good solutions but I need to have more confidence in them. I know that I can do this on an intellectual level, but I don't always feel that way emotionally. I am often at war within myself.

"When I have bad days, I can be miserable. I ask myself, 'What am I doing here?' A professor with whom I worked on one of my internships was one of only two women in the department, and I often wondered if she asked the same question. There are so many large barriers for women."

What are those barriers that keep women out of, or at least behind in, the high-tech race? And what can be done about it? No one has conclusive answers, which is why governmental and private-sector organizations are studying the issue. But based on the research that's already being conducted and their own personal experience, Duke alumnae and faculty hold their own views.

Almost everyone agrees that the problem starts early, as early as the first games that girls play. "A lot of what you see on games are violent images, images that are degrading to women. Chasing people around and shooting their heads off just isn't that appealing to girls," says Kimberly Jenkins. She says the

situation is improving, as software manufacturers give greater attention to the kind of software that might appeal to both sexes.

Kelly Shaw thinks the problem begins when parents encourage their sons to play on computers more than their daughters. "Boys are given more technical things to play with; they are trained to tinker. In computer science, you have to think a different way, you need to begin playing with things, to see what works and what doesn't, and not just get frustrated because you don't immediately have the perfect answer."

Getting comfortable with technology at an early age, and earning the confidence that comfort instills, leads to the next step: being able to go into computer science class and not be intimidated. "Males are more confident and are quick to present an answer, even if it is not correct. Even if a guy's wrong, he often never thinks it or admits it," Shaw says. "But women question themselves more, so they end up beating themselves up asking, 'Why is he right and I am wrong?,' when the guy is the one that's wrong after all."

Susan Rodger, Shaw's professor at Duke, has seen extensive proof of that phenomenon. At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where she taught computer science courses before coming to Duke, she initiated a special program funded by the NSF called "PipeLINK" to encourage young people to enter the computer field. "We discovered when we went to visit high schools that the boys were much more aggressive. It was amazing to watch how they would dominate the discussion. It was an eye-opener."

"Boys might get to the solution fast, and they are going to shout out, 'I got it!' But girls might have a more elegant computer code when they get there--they're the ones who actually approach the problem in the best way," says Melinda Gates. "There are nuances between the way girls and boys approach computer science, and you really have to encourage the girls. Girls need someone to be a mentor or guide who can say, 'you are good at this, you should pursue this area.' But there aren't enough people in the school system today who are really playing that role."

Boys, supported by parents and teachers, gain the confidence to take more computer courses and excel; girls tend to do the opposite. The trend runs all the way through the college years. "Every guy I respect in the field has had a lot of computer experience outside of class by the time he gets to college," notes Shaw. "But the girls don't, and it's a big problem. A girl often gets into an introductory course where all these guys already know how to do much more. So she is struggling. She feels like an idiot, as if she can't do it."

Shaw and other women say the "geek factor" also discourages women. "A lot of the guys in computer science are seen as extremely geeky, math-oriented people. Their image--and that of hardcore computer-science women--is of people who wear jeans and T-shirts, have crummy lifestyles, get no exercise, eat poor food, and stay up late at night behind a computer. If you were a young girl, would you want to be someone who has no social skills and no social life?"

Besides those roadblocks, women can run into subtle and overt discrimination at advanced levels in the business world and education. It all adds up to fewer women with computer science backgrounds in both business and academe--which in turn means fewer role models and mentors to encourage other women, and the turning of a vicious cycle. But if Duke alumnae and faculty see such obstacles, they also see paths around them. "If their daughter has an interest in this area, parents should really encourage her--even when she might want to give it up because she doesn't feel as if she's very good at it," Gates recommends. "Parents should help their daughters stick with it."

Says Shaw, "Parents should let their daughters tinker more. Let them do what boys do-- rip things apart if they want. It's okay if things break. They also need to tell their daughters the idea that women aren't good in math is just a societal stereotype. And that women can go into math and computer science and still be socially acceptable, not just geeks. Parents need to teach both their sons and their daughters that women can and will do well."

"If I had a daughter," says Jenkins, who has two young sons, "I would tell her what my mom told me: 'You can do anything. You like that software program? You can create it yourself. What don't you like about it? You are smart enough to be able to improve it.'"

Schools must also do their part. Melinda Gates tells a story about how a local K-12 school developed a computer science program that allowed children to practice very technical work, such as fixing computers. But the girls started dropping out, even though they were better than the boys. "I told the person who had organized the program to bring some women in from around the area who work in computer sciences so that they can talk to the girls, maybe after school or on a Saturday. Or those women could take girls to their workplace," she says. "It would help girls realize that computers can be a great area for them, not just for boys."

Fortunately, just such a trend is beginning across the country. "Women who have made it are starting to realize that they want more women at the table," notes Jenkins. "And they want to give back."

Duke professor Susan Rodger is one of those women. As part of her PipeLINK program at RPI, she organized a two-week, residential computer science program to expose twenty high-school girls to different areas of computer science. Rodger knows first-hand the isolation of women in the field. "I often took courses where I was the only woman in the class. One professor called the roll the first day and said, 'Well, I guess we all know who she is.' "

Rodger says she believes PipeLINK was successful because it gave young girls a much better sense of what they could accomplish through the study of computer science. "A lot of girls think computer science is just spreadsheets, but we talked about different topics-- artificial intelligence, cars that drive themselves, topics that would be of special interest to them. And we definitely had some girls change their minds about the field. One girl was going to be an aerospace engineer, but by the end of the term she had decided she would pursue both computer science and aerospace engineering. The key was simply education, letting them know what computer science really was."

Duke is encouraging interdisciplinary work and real-world applications of computer science, demonstrating that women can even apply information technology to social problems like pollution, health care, and education. "Many of our faculty work with faculty in other departments. We have a B.A. degree especially set up so you can do a double major of computer science with another discipline," says Rodger. "Software needs to be written for almost every field: medicine, business, education. That makes it much more attractive for women. For example, we have a senior who is majoring in visual arts and computer science and she plans to go into animation."

Women at Duke can participate in the Howard Hughes Research Fellows program, a summer research mentorship program, which targets women and minority students after their first year. Duke also works with the Computing Research Association Distributed Mentor Project, which matches women undergraduates with female faculty members at other colleges and universities. Most recently, Duke initiated Project Advance, a program funded by the NSF to encourage women in math, computer science, and statistics. An innovative, interdisciplinary year-long seminar, "Perspectives in Science," which will entail guided mentorships, three additional first-year seminars, special speakers, and events, begins this fall.

A key theme of special programs has been women guiding other women. Virtually every woman cites a mentor as critical to her success. "The first year of study is so overwhelming, it's especially helpful to have a mentor," says Stacey Luoma. "I try to keep up with and support those working toward their Ph.D.," says Rodger, "because so few women are going into academe." Jenkins says, "I still talk often with Jean O'Barr, head of the Duke Women's Studies program. She's been enormously supportive throughout my career."

Sometimes it just helps to have a woman friend. "One of the biggest assets is other women in the class with whom you can feel a kinship," says Shaw. "In college, I would occasionally get so upset about things that I would think of switching my major. But I had a female friend, and we would work together and bounce ideas off each other. We could share problems and assure each other that we weren't crazy."

A number of alumnae and faculty members have suggested establishing more scholarships for women in math, science, and computer science. Jenkins has endowed the Kimberly J. Jenkins University Professorship of New Technologies and Society at Duke. As an Internet2 participant, Duke is currently among more than 120 universities working with partners in industry and government to develop advanced Internet technologies. The Jenkins professorship will encourage an interdisciplinary approach to examining the impact of technological innovation on society and culture. One of the areas of research will be women in technology, and Jenkins wants to go further. "I am approaching other women in technology about helping fund seminars, colloquia, and maybe even student research," she says.

Duke alumnae in information technology also have advice for women not yet in the field. First, they recommend that women try computer science--and then stick with it. "Both males and females should get a technical education in college. It gives you an ability to think about problems and solve them--which is valuable for everyone, even if they are history majors," Shaw says.

She also encourages women to be assertive: "You have to get used to questioning others, and to asking the other person to explain if something doesn't make sense. If you aren't willing to question what the guys are saying, if you avoid conflict within the group, you can get relegated to documenting what others decide to do. You have to be forceful enough to let others know that you are not going to do just the scut work."

Women who have been in the field a while also say that discrimination has to be acknowledged, but not accepted. "One of my frustrations is reading articles and seeing the positive spin put on things," says Jenkins. "They don't acknowledge the struggle, despair, and depression that I have often felt. People should know they are not alone--there is real discrimination out there. When the channels weren't open for me, I went out and did my own thing. You need to create your own opportunities. Say what you mean. Speak your own mind. But don't beat your head up against a wall. If you can't progress in an organization, start your own."

From the Silicon Valley perspective, says Shaw, "So many people find so many opportunities here. The jobs are so fantastic and you can make so much money.É I personally can't understand why women don't see the potential for wealth in the industry. I think it's phenomenal that more women haven't gone into it."

"Besides opportunity for career progress, women can make a big impact on society," says Jenkins. "As much as I want to see women go into programming, the critical issue is how technology is changing our lives: what it is doing to medicine, education, and agriculture, or the way our families communicate with each other. All these things are very exciting, and women can fit into such areas really well if they get enough technical expertise to complement their creative skills.

"You have to see what can be done, not just focus on the barriers. I am very optimistic. I am encouraged because there are enough women now that we are starting to get into senior positions where we can make those important policy decisions. It's slow, but it's a lot better than it was. We just have to be patient and keep working at it.

"When I went into the very first meeting of the Internet Policy Institute board of directors, I was one of the only women at the table. My vision is that in five years I can walk into the room and see that half the people are women. And, by being in that room myself, I have kept the issue alive."

Bray '72 is an editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education and a member of Duke Magazine's Editorial Advisory Board.


www.awc-hq.org/ Association for Women in Computing (AWC). A nonprofit organization, founded in 1978, dedicated to promoting the advancement of women in computing professions.

www.cra.org/ Computing Research Association (CRA). An association of more than 180 North American academic departments of computer science and computer engineering; its mission is to strengthen research and education in the field and to expand opportunities for women and minorities.

www.douglas.bc.ca/leaps/ Quantum Leaps Home. A program designed for girls in grades 11 and 12 to meet and talk with women who have challenging high tech jobs.

Girl Geeks. Provides online training and chat events with women in the field, as well as Mentor Match technology, which connects girls with well-established technology-savvy women.

www.iwt.org Institute for Women and Technology. Provides workshops and conferences, research, and outreach related to women and high technology.

www.systers.org/mecca/ Systers home page. An informal organization for technical women in computing; there are now 2,500 "systers" in thirty-eight countries.

www.webgrrls.com/ The international online community for women interested in new media, the Internet, and technology. Offers networking, meetings, classes, and job opportunities.

www.witi.com/ Women in Technology International. Provides news, career opportunities, live chat, articles, and information about new and developing technologies as well as access to online experts.

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