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Women in Software Engineering

Women software engineers have some influential figures to look to: among them, Betty Jennings, Roberta Williams, and Grace Hopper. Grace Hopper is credited with developing the first compiler and with playing an instrumental role in the creation of the COBOL language. Today, her accomplishments are commemorated through the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. The annual event, a joint venture of the Anita Borg Institute and the Association for Computer Machinery, does far more than just celebrate women’s accomplishments. It also allows women to network, build mentoring relationships, and submit their resumes to companies that are actively recruiting female candidates. On November 15, 2011, PhD Software Engineer Elaine Weyuker discussed her challenges and accomplishments at the Grace Hopper Celebration. Weyuker has been a research fellow at AT&T, a professor, and a leader in multiple professional organizations.

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Software Engineering was ranked the #5 top paying job for women in 2010. - CNN Money

Obstacle and Opportunity

Such events are needed. Despite women’s influence in the early years of the software industry, software engineering remains a male-dominated field. Female graduation rates declined in the late 20th century even as they went up in other science and technology fields. Many suggest it’s largely about image – and stereotypes. Girls who identify as feminine may not see it as an appropriate career choice. Donna Milgram, founder of the Institute for Women in Trades, Technology, and Science, says that girls need to see that software engineering is not at odds with how they view themselves. She notes that there’s "hard evidence" that the color pink is effective for recruitment; this is something that Microsoft seems to have taken note of when creating the Digigirlz website for teenagers.

Mature women who have an interest in the field may be intimidated at the thought of being in the minority. Many in the software industry believe that women’s success largely comes down to role models and relationships. Milgram notes that UC Santa Cruz is far above the national average when it comes to the proportion of women earning engineering master’s, and that the website does a good job of portraying women and men together in technical tasks. These two things may well be related.

"Girls need to see that software engineering is not at odds with how they view themselves" - Donna Milgram, founder of the Institute for Women in Trades

Organizations Supporting Women in Software Engineering

There are a number of other organizations working to break down obstacles for those who want to enter the field or move up in the ranks. The Coalition to Diversify Computing offers internships and research opportunities as well as discipline-specific workshops for graduate students and senior researchers. There are scholarships specifically for women who are majoring in software engineering and related fields. These are offered by national organizations like The Society of Women Engineers as well as by individual schools. The SWE has chapters at many campuses. Many schools also sponsor branches of the Association for Computer Machinery’s Committee on Women. Women can participate in the Women in Software Engineering (WISE) group on LinkedIn.

Those who are just beginning to consider the field can find free or low-cost resources. High school girls may enjoy paid camps or free online classes through Microsoft Digigirlz. They can also listen to Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics on the air through Northeast Radio. Girl Develop IT teaches introductory software courses to adult women.

Female-Friendly Companies

Some companies are more female-friendly than others. IBM recently won the Anita Borg Top Company for Technical Women for 2011. This award reflects representation, retention, and advancement – both the current levels and the improvement over past years. Other large companies with favorable press are Microsoft, GE, Accenture, and Cisco.

Among the good news for women: software engineering is a high-paying career with less gender disparity than that which exists in many industries. In 2010, CNN listed software engineering as one of the ten top paying jobs for women – in fact, it was listed at #5.


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