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Friday, 17 November, 2000, 16:47 GMT
It's chic to be geek
Mary Starman of Microsoft holds a new generation Compaq  pocket PC
A woman with a computer - but is she a geek?
American women working in computing are launching a drive to change the image of their industry. At this week's Comdex trade show the Girl Geeks group, which aims to support women in the IT world, told a press conference that it was now "chic to be geek." The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones reports.

Of the two hundred thousand people from across the industry who come to Comdex to see the latest products, under 20 % are women.

In the industry as a whole only about a quarter of employees are female. Now the Comdex organisers are teaming up with Girl Geeks to try to change that.

Girl Geek Golden Horn-Rim Award
Girl Geek - should you change your career?

It is fair to say that to call someone a geek has not always been a compliment.

"What you used to think of was a guy with broken glasses and a hygiene problem sitting up all night in front of a computer eating take-out pizza," says Kristine Hannah of Girl Geeks.

But Ms Hannah says the growth of the internet is changing all that, with the computer world now being seen as a cool place to be.

"People are waking up to the fact that the geeks will inherit the Earth, " says Ms Hannah.

Girl Geeks runs a website giving career advice to women in IT and putting them in touch with others with whom they can share their experiences.

Women at Comdex say the main problem is not discrimination but isolation.

"You find yourself in an office full of guys - and you lack the kind of support you get from other women," says Robyn Navarro.

Dispelling stereotypes

When the Girl geeks organisation was founded two years ago, some questioned the use of a name which has had very negative connotations.

"But that's all changing," says Kristine Hannah " and we wanted to show that you can be a beautiful, sophisticated and very savvy geek."

The group's meeting in Las Vegas attracted not only girl geeks, but plenty of men in senior positions in the computing industry.

Faced with a severe shortage of qualified staff, they see the economic benefits of attracting more women to the industry.

As one woman here put it "there are 800,000 unfilled IT jobs in America and - and we've practically run out of men."

In the past, most women in the computing industry have ended up in areas like marketing and personnel.

Now they are determined to be at the sharp end, writing software code, designing new hardware.

But the Girl Geeks website makes it clear you will do better if you speak the language.

It features a Geek-O-Meter where you can test your knowledge.

If in reply to "What's the power source for the Internet?" you choose steam power as an answer, then you may have to reconsider your career plans.

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