In 1978, when Lucy Sanders got her master's degree in computer science from the University of Colorado, there weren't many women in the program. When she returned for a speaking engagement in 2001, there were even fewer.
"I looked out in a sea of 100 faces and there were four women," Sanders, 57, said. "You always sort of knew that women weren't overrepresented, but I was absolutely shocked."
That shift is now evident in the workforce. Between 2001 and 2010, the share of women in high-tech jobs, including software development and electrical engineering, has dropped from 25.6% to 23.9%, according to a FINS.com analysis of Labor Department data. While the number of high-tech positions in the U.S. has increased steadily, the number of women working in the industry has remained at around 1 million.
Sanders spent 25 years at Bell Laboratories, the research and development arm of Alcatel-Lucent, and now runs the National Center for Women & Information Technology, a coalition of more than 200 companies, academic institutions, non-profits and government agencies bent on reversing that decline. Successes have been scant.
The problem is two-fold: Fewer young women are studying computer science and engineering in school, and those who do graduate with tech skills generally don't last long in the industry, because of a wide range of factors including corporate culture, a dearth of mentors and a lack of opportunities to advance.
Playing Hard to Get
In 2004, almost 15,000 women earned bachelor's degrees in computer science at U.S. schools, 25% of all such degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2009, just under 7,000 earned similar diplomas, only 18% of computer science diplomas that year.
Those pushing for more gender equality offer several explanations. Telle Whitney, president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, a Silicon Valley based organization that helps corporations attract and retain women, said a dearth of girls studying technology is self-propagating, to some extent; those who see few older peers studying computer science are even less likely to choose that path.
Caroline Simard, vice president of research at Anita Borg, said parents and teachers have steered girls away from tech studies as news reports of outsourcing spread, making such careers seem less promising.
Pop culture is to blame for the growing gender gap, according to Karen Panetta, a professor of computer and electrical engineering at Tufts University. "What you see on TV is that brains don't matter and pretty girls can't be smart," she said. The mass media portrayal of tech workers isn't any more nuanced, she argued: "You sit in the dark, eating pizza and playing video games."
The tech workforce can be just as stigmatized as high school computer labs. One in three women joining the tech industry leaves her job within two years, according to the Anita Borg Institute. And slightly more than half of all women in the industry leave mid-career.
Simard, at Anita Borg, said women at tech companies often feel isolated, with relatively little access to mentors, sponsors and role models. "It's not so much a locker-room culture, as it is a geek culture," she said.
Often the turnover occurs despite huge corporate efforts to attract and retain female employees. Sanders said a shortage of female employees leads to an "unintended bias," a corporate culture that is unwelcoming to women.
"You get this sort of double-whammy," she said. "The same kind of thing happens with education. We hear stories of men who wouldn't mind being kindergarten teachers, but the culture just doesn't work."
The gender inequality also cultivates what Sanders calls "stereotype threat." In a workforce with relatively few women, all of the employees (including women) begin to consider that category of worker as less skilled.
By 2000, Panetta, at Tufts, was fed up. She founded Nerd Girls, a course designed to attract women to technology with an annual cutting-edge project like building a solar-powered car or programming a voice-prompted computer for a paralyzed child. The program has been wildly successful with students and is now bankrolled by companies like Verizon who want an inside track on recruiting its alumni.
"Most students wonder 'Am I going to get a job?'; my girls wonder 'Which job am I going to take?," Panetta said.
Nerd Girls was one of Tufts' main attractions for Lauren Jones, who graduated from the university in 2007. Jones, 26, was one of two female students in her high school computer science class. After getting a master's degree in electrical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, Jones took a job in marketing at Intel.
"I still have 'Nerd Girls' on my resume, because I always get questions about it," she said.
Since the program started, the share of female engineering graduates at Tufts has climbed from 5% to 30%. Nationally, only about 18% of bachelor's degrees in the field go to women, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Sanders said that 30% level -- or about one-in-three -- is considered by many gender experts to be a sort of tipping point, a critical mass at which self-propagating cycles of unintended bias and discriminatory corporate culture are defused.
IBM has reached that threshold after a years-long, multi-pronged effort to attract and retain women, including "speed mentoring," "reverse mentoring" and a networking group for female inventors, according to Sarah Diamond, a global managing partner.
Boeing has also hit the one-third threshold, with women filling 36% of its 160,000 positions. In engineering roles, however, that share is only 15%, a ratio that the company is proud of given comparable numbers in the industry and the relatively short supply of candidates.
"We see continued increases every year," said Rick Stephens, a senior vice president of human resources at Boeing.
Take Elizabeth Lund, who joined the firm in 1991 with a master's degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering. Lund is now a vice president and general manager of Boeing's 747 jumbo-jet program. The general managers of the firm's 737 and 767 programs are also women with engineering degrees.
Progress has required some major effort, however. The top 11 Boeing executives, including CEO Jim McNerney, make on-campus recruiting visits to 18 of the country's leading engineering programs, targeting promising female students at each school. Chief technology officer John Tracy calls on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where women comprise nearly half the student body.
"That's the sort of level and focus that it takes to attract the right talent," Stephens said.
Gender equality advocates said the executives in the tech industry at large have been slow to link gender diversity to strategic initiatives. The most successful firms, like Boeing, have senior men pushing equality and making sure that gender issues are reflected in the performance metrics of managers.
"I hesitate to hold anyone up as doing it real well," Sanders said. "But it takes awhile to get everybody moving in the same direction. ...I think if we talk again in three years, we'll be looking at some different numbers."
Write to Kyle Stock