High-tech corporate ladder -- a tough climb for women

There is a new generation of Rosie the Riveters helping build vital components for America's high-technology industry. Headlines and magazine covers tout the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of such high-tech wizards as Apple Computer cofounders Steven Jobs and Stephen Wozniak. Less noticed inside the factories is the work force that produces the complex microelectronic equipment for computers, video technology, defense systems, and medical technology.

In some parts of the industry, women make up half of the production work force. Women assemblers help build 50 percent of electronic computers and accessories, 46 percent of semiconductors and related devices, and 37 percent of electronic computing equipment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But some industry experts point out that an invisible but clearly drawn line separates women from most of the more skilled, more professional, and higher-paying jobs in high-tech.

Patricia Tasker, a resolute, black mother with five children, and her friend Jean Carr, a soft-spoken redhead, are among the mostly female assembly crew at a Teledyne plant in nearby Cambridge.

Twice a week at night and every other weekend, the two women cross the Charles River to Boston to take courses in electronics and mechanical principles. They want to move up and out of their production work - and into better-paying, more secure jobs. Some high-tech firms are setting up manufacturing plants in countries with lower wages.

''My salary is not enough (now),'' says Ms. Tasker, a five-year production worker who wants to be an electronics technician. She doesn't know how much she will make if she gets a new job, but ''it will be better.''

Why are women clustered at the lower end of a booming industry? Most experts agree it is not overt discrimination. In fact, many argue that the relatively new industry is more open to women than other nontraditional fields. And starting salaries for women and minorities entering high technology are roughly equal to those offered men.

Still, experts say there are few women in the upper levels of the high-tech industry. For example, women have 13 percent of all science and engineering jobs , which includes many positions in high-tech firms.

''I'd give high technology a better-than-other-industries grade,'' says Ed Devin, vice-president of human resources at Wang Laboratories Inc. But ''it is not an issue that (industry) has solved, but must continue solving.''

High-tech workers and industry observers point to some reasons why women are scarce.

There are still far fewer women than men with degrees in such fields as math, science, or engineering. The semiskilled production work makes up nearly 45 percent of the high-tech jobs in a state like Massachusetts. But jobs further up the ladder require technical skills. Research and development requires advanced degrees in special fields such as physics, materiel sciences, and electrical engineering. High-tech firms need employees with business and management backgrounds, but women with these qualifications have tended to migrate to other fields.

At schools and in industry, women are sometimes treated differently from men - in subtle ways. One technician points out that while she was getting her doctorate, she was never really encouraged. If a man failed an exam, he was told to ''buck up.'' When she once failed an exam, a professor said, ''Oh, it's OK. You can always be a teacher.'' She was the only woman to finish the program out of six who started.

And as the industry grows, more traditional corporate structures emerge, some women say. This can discourage women who are not part of the ''old boy'' network.

Another problem, say some, is that women tend to be less assertive than men, particularly when it comes to pay and promotion. ''Women don't stand up to say they deserve more,'' says one female technician. ''Competence is rewarded.''

The rapidly growing high-tech industry needs lots of workers. And industry realizes that many of the people entering the work force in the coming years will be women or minorities. Charles Baker of the Massachusetts High-Tech Council points out that these are the people who traditionally are the least technically savvy.

''It makes us nervous,'' says Mr. Baker. ''We see them as the fuel of the industry.''

So industry, education, and professional groups are working to get more women into the high-tech pipeline in these ways:

* Through educational programs. Some industry and professional groups begin to interest students in high-tech careers through visits to junior high and high schools. If women researchers are included in such visits, points out Terri Berker, a member of the technical staff for Sperry in Sudbury, Mass., the chances of attracting young women are greatly enhanced.

Some schools offer programs to attract women. Groups such as the National Science Foundation give grants for visiting women professors. At work, many firms offer tuition reimbursement for workers.

* Through local and national professional groups. These give women a chance to meet, form networks, and find role models.

* Through recruitment. Helene Fish, co-owner of Recruiters for Industry in Framingham, Mass., says some companies specifically request female applicants.

* Through special benefits for working parents. Wang Laboratories Inc. tends 200 children in a day-care center for its Massachusetts employees. Hewlett-Packard has offered part-time work for some assembly jobs.

Others predict that day care and flexible work schedules will be a long time coming. Another woman points out these issues will probably be addressed more fully when there are more women in management.

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