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Published August 06 2011

Tech girlz rule: Microsoft camps designed to draw young women into field

FARGO – When Heidi Triplett was growing up in Adams, N.D., the idea of going into a technical field never crossed her mind. Today, she’s an 11-year Microsoft veteran; back then, she wanted to be a schoolteacher or a fashion designer.

“I just think that in society, so many people look at so many roles and say, ‘That’s for a man,’ ” she said. “Part of it is that you don’t think of it. It’s not on the radar.”

This week, she made it her mission to put it on the radar of the 130 teenage girls who came to Microsoft Fargo for a three-day camp designed to draw young women into a field in which they’re woefully underrepresented.

The camp, a company-wide program called DigiGirlz, draws nearly 14,000 participants worldwide (not all camps were held this week). The Fargo edition is the largest outside of corporate headquarters in Redmond, Wash., and draws participants from multiple states.

It’s free to attend. The company furnishes campers with laptops and other equipment, and Microsoft employees – about 90 here alone – donate time to teach everything from programming to marketing to new technology. The company would not say how much it spends on the camp, but Katie Hasbargen, senior communications manager for Microsoft Fargo, said the investment is “significant.”

For the company, the rationale is simple: Tech talent is in short supply. “You need just everybody you can get our hands on,” Hasbargen said. “We need more females, we need more males – but we really need more females to balance out the disparity.”

The data on that disparity are stark. Just 25 percent of information technology jobs are held by women, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, an advocacy group based out of the University of Colorado.

About one in five undergraduate degrees in computing and information sciences are awarded to women – a figure that’s been halved since the mid-80s.

Brian Slator, head of the Department of Computer Science at North Dakota State University, said in an email that the dearth of women who pursue the field is sometimes called a “vicious cycle”: A shortage of female students leads in technical areas to a shortage of female faculty and role models, which further discourages female students from enrolling.

He said the department has made extra efforts to recruit and retain female faculty to buck the trend. Women currently hold five of the department’s 14 full-time faculty positions.

Dan Brekke, chairman of the Computer Science and Information Systems department at Minnesota State University Moorhead, said in an email women make up about 10 percent of about 170 declared majors in the department. For much of the past decade, he said, the field was facing a shortage of both male and female students in the wake of the dot-com bubble, outsourcing scares, and other factors.

As those numbers have recovered, the scarcity of women has again become an issue, he said. His department, NDSU, Concordia, and 18 other schools in the region participate in Mentorship Outreach and Retention in Education, another Microsoft program that exposes college students to female role models in the industry. That program began in Fargo in 2009.

“We greatly recognize and appreciate Microsoft’s efforts in trying to entice women into the computer science areas,” Brekke said.

But research indicates girls may begin to drift away from science and technology careers long before they get to college – perhaps as early as middle school, when confidence issues, a lack of strong role models, and other factors begin to take hold. That’s why DigiGirlz camps target girls starting at 13, said Babs Coler, who organizes the Fargo camp.

“That’s when girls turn away,” she said. “The teenage years are definitely the most impactful.”

The camp seeks to bring in girls before they start their junior year of high school. “If you get them before their junior year, they can still change what classes you’re taking in high school,” said Coler, who is also the community affairs and campus events manager here. “Get them before their senior year, pretty much they’re done.”

In its seven-year existence, the camp has evolved to foster more mentorship and relationship-building between volunteers and participants. Volunteer mentors – all women with lengthy careers at the company – work with small groups of eight campers.

Billie Schumaker, a Microsoft account manager who helps design the camp’s curriculum, said those relationships are critical for keeping campers engaged after the fact.

“A lot of these girls have actually stayed in touch with their mentors,” she said. “We have girls that are already talking to their mentors about, ‘How do we get a job here?’ That’s what we want.”

The camp’s programming is a colorful blend of social activity and technical discovery: Girls are decorating personalized T-shirts in one moment and coding video games in the next. Schumaker said the goal is to wipe away the notion that technology has to be rigid or boring.

“I don’t know if some women think it’s not as creative or a fun type of environment, but it really is, and this camp always showcases that,” she said.

Anna Scheeler of Fargo, 14, attended the camp for the second year in a row. She enjoyed programming games and working with Windows Movie Maker.

She first learned of the camp through her father, a Microsoft employee. “It’s important because women aren’t as acknowledged as much,” in tech fields,” she said. “Mostly, you think of guys.”

Taylor Dostal, 16, of East Grand Forks, Minn., says she’s aware of the disparity but has never let it discourage her.

“I’ve always felt like I can do whatever I put my mind to. I’ve never felt like I don’t have as many opportunities as guys,” said Dostal, who’s interested in working in the medical field. “It’s great that they have this camp for girls to show us that we can do this and try to jump-start us.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502