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.”
That’s why Schatz, Schlosser and others plan to take part in the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, which kicks off Wednesday in Minneapolis.
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.
For instance, at a recent TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon, two men presented an app called Titstare in a pitch loaded with jokes about women’s breasts.
Classic “brogrammer” behavior, critics said.
At another conference, frustration boiled over when a woman in the audience overheard men making sexual jokes behind her. She snapped a photo of them and tweeted her disapproval. She lost her job; so did one of the men.
Finding ways to connect
Many women see the Grace Hopper Celebration as a rallying point.
“There’s still a stigma against women in technology, but there is a shift happening,” said Kate Agnew, who works in technology for Target and also leads the Twin Cities chapter of Girls in Tech, a networking and advocacy group.
Girls in Tech drew about 40 people to a recent event about developing applications for Google Glass. Other local programs are starting soon, including an all-girls CoderDojo to teach programming and a Technovation Challenge contest for teens seeking to develop apps.
Paul DeBettignies, who does IT recruiting with Minnesota Headhunter, said companies see diversity as a competitive advantage.
“There will be times when people say, we need to not be just a bunch of white guys,” he said. “It’s about diversity of skills and opinion. They all want it.”
Schlosser, of Thomson Reuters, said the company makes a point of building diverse teams through referrals and outreach. Tech-related job postings are examined for balance between seemingly masculine words (strong, assertive) and those that may appeal to women (collaboration, problem solving).
Nancy Lyons, president and CEO of Clockwork, which is known for being inclusive, said women often bring an emotional intelligence to hard-to-understand technology.
“Sometimes it’s recognizing when people need a little additional support wrapping their arms around an idea,” she said, noting that the combination of intuition and tech skill has been key to Clockwork’s success.
She makes a point of being visible through public speaking to set an example for other women.
“It never occurred to me that I shouldn’t be in this space,” Lyons said. “That’s the permission we owe women and girls now. You want it? Do it.”