Can the media help turn geek into chic?

Remember the ’80s TV show L.A. Law, which hooked a generation of young viewers on its glamorous presentation of the legal life?

If professional groups fighting global shortages of IT workers have their way, you could soon be seeing TV shows or public service announcements planting a similar idea – namely that being a geek is actually chic.

To join the two ideas in the public’s mind, all-out media blitzes have begun in at least four countries, using Hollywood-style recruitment tactics to attract women, in particular, toward careers in technology. By revamping technology stereotypes, these groups hope to curb labour shortages that are in danger of crimping their countries’ future business success.

If, however, you think glamourizing geekdom is a tougher challenge than hyping a California attorney lifestyle, you’re right.

“Young women would actually prefer to be undertakers rather than work in IT,” said Tim Conway, policy advisor for the European Information Services Alliance (EISA), in a speech given at a recent Information Technology Association of America conference. He was referring to a finding from a recent survey of women in the U.K. done by non-profit group e-skills NTO.

And that’s a serious problem. The IT labour shortage haunting the U.K. makes losses suffered in agriculture and tourism as a result of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak seem almost negligible, Conway said. By 2003, the U.K. will have over 330,000 unfilled technology positions, causing losses in excess of 6 billion pounds per year to economic output. This pressing threat has Conway and others pushing to draw in talent from as of yet untapped pools of prospective workers – including women.

Women tend to view technology careers as isolated, uncool, boring jobs, according to the U.K. survey. The study also showed that women, be they young or old, see tech jobs as a path toward anti-social behaviour, unexciting lives, and even a driving factor for divorce. In Australia, Finland, the U.K. and the U.S., the number of women entering the IT field pales in comparison to that of men, especially in high-tech’s high end – engineering and programming.

“There is a need to take technology and put it in a context that people in general can absorb and understand,” said Gloria Montano, senior program manager at Compaq Computer Corp. and director of the virtual development centre for the Institute for Women and Technology, a U.S. group that fosters women’s presence in the technology field. “When you look at fields like education and business, it is easy for women to see value because (these fields) make up parts of their lives. Now, the challenge is just to show how technology is approachable and useful as well.”

To dissipate some of the more daunting aspects of a tech career, Conway’s organization, with the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), prepared a proposal for government bodies to use television and films as a tool for bringing a little panache to the geek scene. Both EISA and AIIA will push producers and writers to develop tech characters in their shows, depicting suave, social geeks driving fast cars, living a swanky life and interacting well with others.

The groups also want to work with mainstream women’s publications to present more appealing images of technology workers.

If they can garner enough media support, both EISA and AIIA claim they can show some of the more appealing sides of technology careers, such as job security and high wages. If this works, it will help solve this crippling labour shortage problem.

“Australia is now a knowledge nation, we are not just a tourist destination,” said Mike Hedley, national education policy manager for the AIIA. “We have a workforce problem both in quantity and quality, and we are missing out on attracting a sizeable portion of our population.”

To help solve the problem in the U.S., the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) has started a “Get Tech” campaign to teach kids that technology is attractive for playing games and sending messages but also for opening doors to a fruitful career, rich in travel and cooperative work with others.

NAM recruited the non-profit group Women in Film to direct and add professional polish to a series of public service announcements that currently air on U.S. television.

“Get Tech is geared toward students roughly 11 to 14 (years old) and is designed to encourage them to go after their studies in math and science,” said Kerry Lynn Schmit, NAM’s assistant vice-president for communications and media. “Part of the mission is to dispel those stereotypes about computer geeks and show kids all of the different careers available to them if they have technology knowledge.”

The commercials use a music video where children “rap” about technology and feature one part that says “everybody wins, when the girls get tech.”

By nudging girls toward technology early on, many in the IT field think women can regain lost ground and profit from working in a segment with good salaries, job security, travel and a team-centred approach to solving problems.

Cathy Benko, global e-Business practice leader for Deloitte Consulting LLC., decided early in her career to complement her business skills by taking night classes on computer science and systems management. The added technology expertise not only opened doors for Benko but convinced her how important basic technological knowledge was for most workers.

“Technology will actually draw women in because it helps make it more practical to sustain their lifestyle,” Benko said. “It could be good for women to do jobs like programming where they can telecommute more readily or work at odd times. Women are not practical about the clothes they wear, but they are about what they can do to best sustain the work-life balance.”

– IDG News Service, San Francisco Bureau