Group seeks to close digital gender divide


The old stereotype of the “computer geek” — taped Coke-bottle glasses, pens and protractors in breast pocket — has gotten a series of upgrades over the last decade. The geek has morphed into the “techno-wizard,” complete with a huge salary, power, influence and sometimes even new glasses.

But one consistent characteristic is that the majority of these guys are, well, guys. This is especially true in Japan.

DigitalEve Japan is on a mission to change all that.

“In Japan, only 17 percent of IT workers are female. With the recent estimates of 1.85 million new IT jobs in Japan by 2005, this means that there is tremendous opportunity for women to find careers in IT,” says DEJ coleader Kristen McQuillin, who helped found one of the first public Internet service providers in the United States in the early 1990s.

DEJ focuses on providing access to digital technology for women, so that more career opportunities — and economic, social and cultural parity — are available to women in digital technology fields.

“DigitalEve is a stepping stone for women who are just starting out and a community of like minds for women already in the field,” McQuillin explains.

In a study on women in the global IT workforce, at 17 percent Japan ranks last among 20 countries surveyed, including South Korea, Portugal and Hungary. And though unemployment is growing here, the demand for IT professionals still far exceeds the supply.

According to the World Bank, women account for just 38 percent of Internet users in Japan, just 1 percentage point more than women in China. This compares to 50 percent in the U.S. and 49 percent in the EU.

Why are women in such a technologically advanced country as Japan lagging in IT technology?

“Unlike women in much of Southeast Asia, Japanese women aren’t encouraged to study technology. They’re discriminated against in terms of age also,” says Chiharu Kawai, a DEJ member who learned IT on the job in the U.S. for 12 years.

“In the U.S., I met a woman in her late 40s who was a schoolteacher. She decided she wanted to be an IT engineer, so she studied and then got a job at my company. That’s almost impossible in Japan,” she maintains.

DigitalEve Japan was born less than a year ago, when a group of techie women discovered the international organization of DigitalEve, liked its community-oriented approach and decided to launch a Japan chapter.

DigitalEve International has about 50 chapters and 24,000 members worldwide.

Already, membership in Japan has snowballed, with about 350 subscribers to the group’s e-mail list. Here, members can ask questions, from why their computer screen has gone blank, to the pros and cons of different kinds of broadband Internet access, to the intricacies of Javascript in Web site design.

Fortunately many members — whose professions run the gamut from software and Web designers to teachers and artists — are knowledgeable enough to provide instructive answers.

“A lot of people ask ‘why for women?’ and I think people like me dare to ask stupid questions, and we know we will probably get a supportive and helpful answer,” explains Heera Melrose-Woodman, a member who teaches English and intercultural training.

Men can and do take part as well, she notes.

DEJ has monthly hands-on tutorials and occasional weekend-long workshops on IT-related topics like HTML, creating digital videos, using Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheet, creating Web graphics, database design and others.

This year, quarterly events will help women with professional development, including how to build an IT portfolio and prepare for interviews, while monthly meetings enable face-to-face networking.

“I think there are many women who work in the technology sector here who could find benefits as members of our organization, because there’s no other like ours in Japan,” says coleader Kristen Elsby, a self-taught Web content and technology coordinator at United Nations University.

DEJ works for those less technically inclined as well. This summer, DEJ members will offer an eight-week seminar series on IT for absolute beginners, starting with what to look for when computer shopping, how to use basic software and how to get connected to the Internet.

Melrose-Woodman, who had “practically nonexistent” IT skills a year ago, joined DEJ because she’s considering launching a business.

“Today, if you want to do this you need IT skills. If you don’t use IT, you’re outdated,” she asserts.

DEJ also has an outreach program for younger women and girls.

“We meet them and help them be aware of the opportunities available to them in IT, so they think, ‘I can be part of that,’ ” said Elsby.

DEJ made an IT presentation at a girl’s high school in Kamakura in November that McQuillin says was successful “beyond our expectations.”

DEJ members are primarily in Tokyo, but hail from the Kansai region to Hokkaido, and overseas as well, including Hong Kong, India, Poland, Russia, New Zealand, Taiwan, China, the EU, Australia and North America.

English is the de facto language for the group because an estimated 60 percent of DEJ’s members are non-Japanese, and most Japanese members are comfortable with English.

“I think English is absolutely indispensable for working in IT, even in Japan. So DEJ is in a really good position,” says Mamiko Matsumura, a former systems engineer who now works in marketing communications at Compaq Computer Corp.

However, English is daunting for some potential Japanese members, and the group is working toward becoming more fully bilingual by offering more Japanese-only events, translating the group Web site, and building up the Japanese membership.

“I think there are a lot of these kinds of volunteer groups in the U.S., but in Japan we don’t have this custom. It’s a good thing for people who want to improve their skills or just get started,” Matsumura said.

DEJ is also designed to be a general support group, with members exchanging information about IT and digital technology in daily life and at work.

“At my job we sometimes have translation projects, and I can get them through the DEJ network,” Kawai points out.

All in all, DigitalEve Japan is well-poised to make a difference in Japan’s digital age.

“Supporting women in information technology and IT careers is very important,” says McQuillin. “I’m hoping that DEJ will make women in IT more visible, promoting the idea of women in IT jobs. Just by our presence and our activities, I hope we get people to think about women and IT in a good way.”