Tech contest aims to break through silicon-chip ceiling

(CBS News) LOS ANGELES - While most jobs in technology are filled by men, you may be surprised by the size of the majority: 75 percent. To get more women breaking through the silicon-chip ceiling, a female scientist created a tech contest limited to teenage girls - no boys allowed.

It's called the Technovation Challenge: 100 teams looking at real-world problems and developing innovative, high-tech solutions. It's girls only - by design.

Tara Chklovski helped create the contest, based in part on her own real-world experience.

"I'm an aerospace engineer, and I have a degree in physics, and I was always the only girl in the class," Chklovski said.

In most schools today, she might still be. A recent survey found only 13 percent of high-school girls - compared to 40 percent of boys - wanted careers in science, technology, engineering or math - STEM for short, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

"The problem is kind of deep, so a girl doesn't think that computer science or programming is something cool," Chklovski said.

The Technovation Challenge, she says, is designed to make it cool.

"This kind of experience should be given to girls much earlier so that before they jump into the workforce they have a positive experience that says, 'Yes, we can do this,'" Chklovski said.

The challenge is bigger than a contest, of course, because smart teenage girls are all too aware of the latest headlines about rampant sexism in the tech world.

Here's what 16-year-old Claire Huang figures she'd have to deal with if she chooses a career in technology:

"Not being intimidated by men in the workforce, not being put down by them, not being given menial tasks."

But she heard about the technology challenge, and she decided to give it a try. Her team from Palo Alto's Castilleja high school reached the finals, developing an app that connects students with places to volunteer. Claire's teammate, Mayuka Sarukkai, is now thinking about studying to be an engineer.

"I'm really interested, in any way I can, just making a difference in people's lives," she said.

The finals were held in California's Silicon Valley, and when that many girls get together in a place where boys get most of the jobs "self-confidence dramatically increases," Chklovski said.

"You have a lot of people cheering for you," she said. "It's a life-changing experience."

Claire's team didn't win. And it didn't seem to matter.

"I'm not intimidated anymore," she said. "I'm ready to go out there, build our app, just pursue a career in this."

When she gets there, perhaps she'll no longer have to feel like a pioneer.