Young Women Tour Technology Landscape Through DigiGirlz Camps
According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, the percentage of female Computer Science undergraduates at major research universities in the United States has declined from 37 percent in 1985 to 14 percent in 2006.
This is a problem for technology companies, not only because of the shortage of talent trickling through the pipeline, but also because the diversity of this talent is a key element to designing the products that customers want to use.
To address this issue, Microsoft has been taking action since 2000 to help strengthen the pipeline and get more women excited to explore technology careers. As part of that effort, this week Microsoft kicks off its annual Redmond DigiGirlz camp, a week-long technology camp for girls.
DigiGirlz has also grown to include camps in various geographies such as Las Colinas, Texas; Fargo, N.D.; Charlotte, N.C.; Stony Brook, N.Y.; Chicago, Ill.; Washington, D.C; and Stockholm, Sweden. The goal of each of the camps is to educate and inspire girls by introducing them to the many opportunities and career choices available in the high-tech industry, and break down the stereotypes associated with these typically male-dominated careers.
“The camp is an effort to show high-school age girls what the technology industry is all about, what careers are available, and to let them see how exciting it is to create something that can truly impact a large number of people,” says Mylene Padolina, a Microsoft senior diversity consultant responsible for the overall program management of DigiGirlz. “We try to give them a broad view of the technology and the products we create, along with the different kinds of positions it takes to make all that happen.”
Padolina joins Microsoft senior executives and other female employees to talk to this year’s group of high school girls about the opportunities for women to excel in technology. To add color to this topic, the girls are given tours of technology labs as well as new product demonstrations, and they also take part in hands-on sessions to learn computer skills such as HTML, Visual Basic, product design, graphic design and resume building. The students also have the chance to interact with Microsoft employees throughout different classes at the camp and learn about different career opportunities.
“We want these girls to know that IT’s not just for boys. IT’s not just for geeks. Technology innovation is for everyone,” says Padolina.
Attendees also go through a job shadow experience, where they get a chance to meet with an employee for a few hours and learn what that person does day to day. During the camp, they interact not only with full-time employees, but also with interns both at the high school and college level.
“This way they can see the different opportunities available within a technology company,” says Padolina. “And importantly, they see the diversity of positions and functions, so those stereotypes they might be holding onto can be challenged. It’s interesting to see the girls from the first day of the camp, how they have grown and changed by the end of the camp, and how many of them are inspired by what they see here.”
Inspired to Learn
Kara Fong, a recent high school graduate, applied for a high-school internship the year after her participation in DigiGirlz, and was hired at Microsoft. Fong will be heading off to the University of Washington in the fall, and credits DigiGirlz for helping shape the career path she plans to pursue.
“I hope to do a double major in computer science and business administration for HR management,” says Fong. “I’m not exactly sure about my career right now, but I know I really love technology. I really love working with computers and working with other people.”
During her stay at the Digi Girlz camp, Fong took an introduction to programming class. After her experience there, she enrolled in a Java programming class at her high school. There, she says, her teacher helped her discover how much fun it could be to be creative with technology.
“It wasn’t work, work, work,” she says. “It was that computers are fun and learning is fun. I got into learning the other programming languages as well, just driven by my interest.”
Fong is now fluent in HTML and Java, and uses C# programming in her work at Microsoft, through Visual Basic and Visual Studio.
“It’s a lot more fun than it sounds,” she says. “It’s fun learning, fun creating, and fun teaching other people, and seeing them get excited about it. It’s a reward within itself.”
Through her internship at Microsoft, Fong works for the Office Excel Services team as a tester. Excel Services is a feature on Microsoft SharePoint server that enables users to publish workbooks from Excel onto a SharePoint site. Fong works to create tests for her features, and fixes these bugs when problems arise.
With so much opportunity as a result of her DigiGirlz experience, Fong is a strong advocate of the program.
“It was a wonderful experience,” she says. “The minute we got into the conference center where the program was held, you could really tell that the Microsoft employees wanted us there as much as we wanted to be there. In those four days we learned a lot.”
Technology, Hope and Potential
One of the unique aspects of careers in high tech is that the technology doesn’t differentiate between any ethnicity, gender, or physical makeup. To help bring this point home to all camp participants, DigiGirlz leaders make strong efforts to ensure that a diverse pool of participants attends each camp, partnering with organizations such as the Washington State Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR), and the University of Washington’s “Do It” program.
Last year DVR referred one extraordinary participant, Logan Olson of Spokane, Wash.
In 2001, at the age of 16, Olson had a heart attack and received CPR for about 20 minutes. She was in a coma for three weeks, and when she woke up, she found that her life had changed completely.
“She forgot how to walk, talk, eat, drink — everything,” says Laurie Olson, Logan Olson’s mother. “It took about a year for Logan to be able to speak, stand, tie her shoes, read, type. Everything was really difficult for her. She had a whole lot going on in her head, but it was difficult to get it out.”
After coming home from rehabilitation, Laurie Olson began looking online for magazines that catered to girls with disabilities.
“We wanted hope, tips, advice, dreams, for the ‘now what’ questions that Logan had,” says Laurie.
To their surprise, no such magazine existed at the time. So Logan Olson did what she didn’t before think possible — she started a magazine herself. For the past four years, the Olsons have been hard at work developing Logan Magazine, and the third edition is coming out this fall.
In the process of creating the magazine, Olson’s DVR counselor told her about the DigiGirlz camp. In the summer of 2006, Olson’s senior year of high school, she went to DigiGirlz and found more inspiration and hope from the program than she expected.
“She was going to need to stand-by assistants,” says Laurie Olson. “She had a walker full time. And Microsoft made accommodations for Logan, so that she could do everything, just like any other girl.”
According to Microsoft’s Padolina, Olson was one of those girls who stands out as an exception.
“She participated in everything, asking questions, was really enthusiastic, loved the technology she was seeing,” says Padolina. “She was an inspiration for all of us who run the camp, and for the other girls as well.”
While at the camp, Olson was given a tour of Microsoft’s accessibility lab, and had a chance to try out the new voice recognition features being developed for Windows Vista.
“That was huge for us,” says Laurie Olson. “We didn’t think that speech recognition could pick up Logan’s voice because she has a speech impediment and it’s hard for her to articulate. They put the headset on her, took about 15 minutes to calibrate it, and when she started talking, it was typing. We were shocked that it was working for her.”
Moved by the power of their technology to make a difference in Olson’s life, the Accessibility team sent Olson a copy of Windows Vista when it was released.
“She gets a lot of emails now, so she practices using the speech recognition constantly,” says Laurie Olson. “It’s like a speech teacher to her. It encourages her to speak clearly. We have a really awesome story in our next issue about Windows Vista and Logan’s experience, and we’re doing a call out to our readers to see if anybody else has used speech recognition.”
Other important elements of the conference for Olson included the job shadow portion, where camp leaders had her visit with the marketing group to get valuable ideas on how to launch and publicize a magazine, as well as the camp’s focus on the power of networking.
“We’ve created relationships with so many people, with Microsoft partners such as Texthelp Systems, sending us samples of programs they have,” says the younger Olson. “We’ve been hearing people using Jaws for Windows, for girls that are blind. We have a text-only spot on Logan Magazine Web site so they can read the stories we’re putting online.”
In addition to those contacts, Microsoft’s Accessibility Lab also did a video with Olson, which was featured on evening news networks across Seattle.
As a direct result of that clip, she was invited to the Worldwide Partner Conference in Denver earlier this summer, to be on stage with Kevin Turner during his keynote. As a result, hundreds of Microsoft partners got to hear about Logan Magazine.
“The number one desire for people with disabilities is to be independent,” says Olson. “We were amazed by Microsoft’s commitment to its accessibility Web site, and how many partners they work with to create software that’s helping a lot of people.”
Olson has now been invited to an assistive technology conference in Indiana, and the Olsons plan to share the latest issue of their magazine with its Windows Vista speech-recognition story. After that, says the pair, the sky’s the limit for Logan Magazine.
“We’re going global,” Olson says.
According to Padolina, Olson’s story is a powerful illustration of the human factors that underlie careers in technology.
“IT is more than punching out code in front of a computer in an office all day,” she says. “There is human interaction and the exciting opportunity to create a product that can impact people across the world.”
And that, she says, directly ties to the goal of the DigiGirlz program — the girls can be a part of it regardless of their background, as long as it’s something they want to do and they want to work toward.
“The goal of the camp is to show them what’s possible, expand their view, and give them information to make informed decisions about their future,” she says.
It’s a message that comes through loud and clear for participants like Fong.
“I think whatever you’re interested in, whether it’s technology or not, let your passion drive you to success, and sure enough you’ll end up in the right place,” she says. “Here at Microsoft it’s all about passion — if you have passion for what you do, you’ll succeed.”
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