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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Thousands of women are gathering in Portland, Oregon for The Grace Hopper Celebration. It is the world's largest technical conference for women in computing, and there's a lot of recruiting going on. High-tech companies are discovering design teams with men and women often create better products. But as NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports, there aren't nearly enough women to meet the demand.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Kate Schmalzried, a grad student at Stanford, recalls one of her very first classes at the university: Computer Science 106A.

KATE SCHMALZRIED: That was definitely a very good introduction into women in tech. There weren't very many women in the class. I very distinctly remember being the only girl in my section.

KAUFMAN: It's no secret that beginning in middle school, young women often lose interest in science and math. So it's not surprising that relatively few women sign up for computer courses in college. And when they do, they're often at a huge disadvantage.

SCHMALZRIED: I remember the guy on the first day sitting next to me, he was telling me how he had coded up a search engine. And I'm sitting there, like, are you kidding me? I've never coded anything. This is like day one introduction.

KAUFMAN: Kate Schmalzried was able to catch up, but says by the second semester, fewer than half the original women were still in the course. Nationwide, only about 20 percent of the bachelor's degrees in computer science go to women. And Mark Bregman, the former chief technology officer at Symantec, says for the industry, it's not nearly enough.

MARK BREGMAN: One of the things that's a barrier to our ability to grow is our ability to hire the best talent. If we could get more women to go into computer science, we would have more talent to hire from.

KAUFMAN: Bregman, who's now a senior executive at a company called Neustar, says there's an acute shortage of computing talent. He not only worries about the small number of women coming in the door, but also about the industry's inability to retain them. They leave their technical jobs far more often than men. Bregman cites empirical and anecdotal evidence that teams with men and women are often more productive and build stuff that's more interesting. Take Symantec's effort to develop software to limit what kids could see and do on the Internet.

BREGMAN: The initial engineering approach was we will just block the bad stuff. And through some of the internal discussion, it became clear that, well, that's not really going to work, because the kids are going to get around it. And so rather than do that, why not create a product which enhances the dialog between the parents and kids about what is safe behavior on the Internet? That's very different than the hard-and-fast, engineering-driven - I'll use the term male - approach, which just says no, yes or no.

KAUFMAN: In an effort to bring in more women, Bregman began requiring hiring managers to interview women for engineering jobs, even if on paper they weren't as strong as the male candidates. And once in the door, the women often demonstrated their worth and got the jobs. Other companies have their own initiatives. Here at Facebook's sun-drenched offices in Silicon Valley, you'll find nursing rooms and premium parking slots for pregnant women. But Jocelyn Goldfein, the director of engineering, says there are far more substantial efforts to hire and retain women.

JOCELYN GOLDFEIN: One of the things Facebook has that I love - I arrived here too late to take advantage of it - is the parental leave. Facebook offers four months paid parental leave - not just to women, but also to men. And because the men are taking it, it's not this abnormal thing that only affects the one person on the team who's a woman.

KAUFMAN: Over time, that should help women whose careers have often been derailed when they took time off to have kids. But there's something quietly insidious happening in many high tech companies: Women engineers - more often than men - end up in testing or project management. Those positions usually pay less and carry less status, so moving up the career ladder becomes more difficult. And when women aren't promoted, they are more likely to leave. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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