While women have made gains in other traditionally male-dominated fields, the glass ceiling in the tech world is proving particularly tough to break.
The conference room is full, but there’s only one woman seated at the table.
Lisa Schlosser has seen this scenario play out far too many times. She’s grown accustomed to working in a computer and information technology field where men hold 75 percent of all jobs and nearly 90 percent of the executive positions at Fortune 500 companies.
“Every once in a while, I have a meeting where it’s all women. I notice it,” said Schlosser, a chief technology officer at Thomson Reuters in Eagan. “I love it when I can say, ‘Hi, ladies, what are we all working on today?’ ”
While women have made gains in other traditionally male-dominated fields, such as law and medicine, the glass ceiling in the tech world is proving particularly tough to break. The percentage of computer science degrees awarded to women has fallen over the decades, and the industry still has a masculine feel, despite successes by women such as Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer.
Rather than accepting the disparity, women are increasing their efforts to confront it.
“It’s so lopsided that you begin to feel like you’re in a fishbowl, and that’s uncomfortable,” said Rebecca Schatz, a veteran of tech careers and founder of local tech nonprofit Code Savvy. “There’s no reason it can’t be changed.”
The annual conference, started by a group of women seeking professional camaraderie and named after Navy Rear Adm. Grace Hopper, one of the pioneering women in computer science, is expected to draw 4,500 participants from around the world. High-profile Facebook executive and author Sheryl Sandberg is among the keynote speakers.
The celebration is designed to send the message that women belong.
“You will see a room full of women in computer science who are very excited about what they are doing,” said Telle Whitney, president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute, which organizes the event.
While the number of jobs that require high-tech skills has grown dramatically over the past few decades, the percentage of undergraduate degrees in computing and information sciences going to women has dropped.
Thirty-seven percent of such degrees went to women in 1985, but women earned just 18 percent of the degrees in 2009, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.
At the University of Minnesota, about 10 percent of computer science majors are women, said Prof. Maria Gini, who for many years was the only woman on the department faculty. This year, there are three out of 38.
“We are at the level where each one counts,” Gini said.
Women in the field say the disparity is largely due to the misperception that tech workers are antisocial, staring at computers all day.
“If people think about the stereotypes of someone who works in software or hardware development, they don’t think of someone who looks like me,” said Liz Tupper, a project manager at Clockwork Active Media Systems in Minneapolis. “I wear a lot of dresses. I go to rock shows.”
Overcoming the image problem is hard, she said, because there aren’t a lot of visible role models. Also, many of the women who have been successful admit they stumbled into the field by accident, through a love of math or Web design, rather than a clear career path.
Breaking into a male-dominated field can also be just plain uncomfortable.