Jon Swartz, USA TODAY
REDWOOD CITY, Calif. -- Back in the mid-1980s, Jeanine Swatton was in an all-girl band in Boston, belting out top-40 hits -- just like the then-popular band The Go-Gos.
The all-female band from the 1980s was iconic for making noise in the predominately male music industry. Years later, Swatton is trying to do the same with an all-female engineering team at her software start-up.
Her narrative is one of a supremely talented engineer and app writer who grew restless as the only woman engineer at previous employers. "It's time for the women to band together," she says.
It all makes perfect sense for Swatton, 40. Yet in an age of more early-stage tech companies led by women, and against a backdrop of demand for technical talent, female engineers remain a rarity.
Despite an influx of females among Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial ranks, the computer-science field remains dominated by men. According to the National Science Foundation, women have plummeted from 28% of the graduates in computer sciences at U.S. schools in 2000 to 17% in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available.
"There should be more female engineers," says Rani Borkar, general manager for Intel's Architecture Development Group. She came to the U.S. from India in 1985 and has seen steady, if slow, progress.
The field's stunted growth, especially for women, is rooted in education. There just aren't enough kids weaned on the topic in high school and, before that, elementary school, says Gary May, dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech.
Computer science is taught in a fraction of U.S. high schools. Only 2,100 of 42,000 were certified to teach advanced-placement computer science courses in 2011,and just 21,139 students took the AP exam.
Overall, some 120,000 engineering students graduate annually from U.S.colleges and universities each year -- a fraction of the nearly 1 million from China and India annually.
The urgency highlights the race in innovation for global economic supremacy. Engineers are considered among the most vital foot soldiers as companies vie for the business of consumers and businesses. Yet, for years, it's been a male-driven race.
"Many boys start programming at a young age, and for a variety of reasons, girls do not," says Elizabeth Stark, a lecturer on Internet issues at Stanford Law School. "If they start at 18, it can be discouraging to be around people that have done it for years."
In his acceptance speech after being re-elected, President Obama stressed the need for more college-educated engineers in the U.S., both men and women -- a major meme of his administration the past few years.
The administration has made it clear it intends to reform immigration for 11 million people who are here illegally, but offered no guidance on whether it intends to increase the cap on H1-B visas so more foreign workers can bring their engineering skills to the U.S. "The U.S. is still the cradle of innovation," says Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who wants to boost the annual U.S.graduate total by 10,000.
Several programs are filling the void. The CodeEd.org program teaches computer science to middle-school girls in low-income areas. Another, CodeHS.com, is about to launch a crowd-funding campaign to get computer science in every high school. Smith, the nation's first women's college to have an engineering school, graduated its first such tech class in 2004.
Catering to women, companies such as IBM have for decades targeted career development and work-life programs.
While one in seven engineers is female, according to a 2011 report by the Department of Commerce, Intuit is attempting to buck the trend. Of the 121 software engineers it hired upon college graduation since June, 47 were female -- or more than one in three, says Intuit CTO Tayloe Stansbury.
And for the first time in its more than 30-year history, Microsoft's Windows unit is led by two women -- Julie Larson-Green and Tami Reller -- who served under Steven Sinofsky, who is leaving the company.
Underscoring the push, Jack Dorsey's Square plans to host Code Camp, an interactive experience for female engineers at the company's San Francisco headquarters Jan. 9-12.The conference includes mentorship sessions with Square leaders, developer workshops and networking opportunities.
The grassroots programs have paid dividends, slowly ushering in a new wave of women.
There are others who have arrived by a different path. She doesn't have a formal degree in engineering, but Caitlin Johanson is one of Core Security's white-hat hackers (her official title is technical support and training manager).
As a child, instead of playing with building blocks, she tinkered with an IBM PS/2 personal computer. "A ball can only go so far," says the tattooed Johanson, 26, who likes to pick locks. "I can get into your server room either by hacking or opening the door.
"Until I was 18, I didn't know there were other people like me until I was at a vocational high school in Massachusetts," Johanson says. From high school, she jumped into freelance coding.
Self-described "bad ass" Vivian Kam is an extreme biker, motorcyclist and hockey-playing software engineer at Complete Genomics. "The issue in this industry is not becoming stagnant," says Kam, 34, a molecular biology college major.
An uphill climb
Twenty years ago, there was "a lot of energy around computer sciences" because it was "new and exciting, and there were a ton of opportunities," says Erin Cech, assistant professor of sociology at Rice University.
But the current computer climate has excluded females, for the most part.
From 2000 to 2011, there was a 79% decline in the number of first-year undergraduate women interested in majoring in computer science, according to data supplied by the National Center for Women & Information Technology.
Tracy Chou, a 25-year-old software engineer at Pinterest, couldn't shake feelings of "imposters' syndrome" at Stanford University, where she didn't feel up to par with the computing skills of male students with more technical expertise.
"The girl syndrome is still there," says Lila Tretikov, 34, chief product officer at software company SugarCRM. "Males are brought up different culturally, to be confident and market themselves.
"I'm still not comfortable promoting myself," she says. "It's like working against what I was brought up to do."
Of course, building an ecosystem takes time -- often, years. Only 20% of the chief information officers at Fortune 250 companies are women.
"We've got to get kids interested in math (in grade school), and think about how we teach math to girls," says Dorothy Nicholls, vice president of Kindle for Amazon.com. She taught her 3-year-old daughter how to add by counting pieces of Skittles and chocolate.
"Having role models is important," Nicholls says."The problem is there aren't enough, as there are in entertainment and sports."
Yahoo sent ripples throughout the business world, however, with the hiring this year of new CEO Marissa Mayer, a trained engineer who oversaw several major projects at Google, including Maps and the search engine homepage. "Marissa changed the game," says Sally Salas, principal group program manager for Microsoft's Bing Experiences team.
What's more, there are ample growth areas within tech for women -- project managers, business analysts and Web developers -- that do not require computer science degrees, says Matthew Caruso, recruiting director for Atrium Technology, a national staffing firm.
"I left the United Kingdom because I hit the glass ceiling there," says Lisa Pavey, 49, vice president of engineering at Vyatta. She moved from her native country in 1996 to head up Sun Microsystems' networking group.
"My talents were not appreciated there, so I decided to go elsewhere," says Pavey, who adds she encountered overt sexism in the UK. "There is opportunity in the Bay Area."
Discrimination exists in the Silicon Valley workplace, she acknowledges, which forced her to leave one tech employer. But she says the threat is more in attitude than in physical harassment. "It's not an issue here (at Vyatta)," says Pavey. More than half of its 14 engineers -- eight -- are women.
The most direct path to a career in engineering may actually start at home, say several women.
"The earlier you get in, the more confidence and experience you have in (college and the job market)," says Sophia Chung, 31, a software engineer at Facebook. At an early age, she was exposed to the field through her father, a math professor at Johns Hopkins, and two older sisters, both of whom majored in the field and now work in tech.
The MIT graduate's affinity for tech took her to Hewlett-Packard, Electronic Arts and Google, and she is now heavily involved in events such as a recent hackathon sponsored by ESPN to get more women to participate in technology.
SugarCRM's Tretikov immigrated to New York from Moscow at 16 after the Soviet Union collapsed in the mid-1990s. She learned English as a waitress, and was accepted at the University of California at Berkeley, where she earned majors in computer science and art. Her father is a mathematician, her mom, a filmmaker.
For some, the career path can be circuitous.
Duana Stanley, 30, a back-end engineer at SoundCloud, studied psychology and neuroscience at the University of Melbourne before artificial intelligence "sucked" her into computing. As a kid, medicine and law were her first two career choices.
"A computer-science degree is not a prerequisite to jobs in technology,"says Dina Hilal, vice president of product at ad-tech company BlueKai. She majored in international studies and journalism.
"Age is really more of an issue than gender," says Hilal, 28, who previously helped shape Microsoft's technology road map for audience-targeting services. "The best technologists are people who really know their products, and bring energy to their jobs."
Increasingly, Swatton and others are redefining normative boundaries.
Kimber Lockhart co-founded a company, Increo Solutions, to call the shots and circumvent the gender gap. It was acquired by cloud-storage services company Box in 2009 for an undisclosed amount.
"I don't have to work with people who could be arrogant jerks in college, with high opinions of their coding skills," says Lockhart, 26, now director of engineering at Box.
While braggadocio may have worked in college, the real world calls for exceptional coding and collaborative skills. "It's neat to see a slightly different skill set than the traditional image of people locking themselves in a room and drinking Red Bull," Lockhart says.
Sometimes, it just takes self-motivation and thick skin, says Tamar Yehoshua, 47, director of product management for search at Google. "My philosophy is, follow what interests you."
That's what piqued the interest of Yehoshua's two children, both of whom have the engineering bug. "We talked about tech products at the dinner table and played with products," Yehoshua says. "They thought Google was cool."
Yehoshua's daughter, Shir, 21, just got job in engineering at Google. Her son Ron, 17, plans to major in computer science in college.