Categorized | Diversity & Inclusion

The Role of Diversity in IT Innovation

The lack of diversity in the IT workforce isn’t just a matter of filling jobs by numbers; we are blunting a key national differentiator if we don’t fully involve our diverse population in the invention of new technology.

The lack of diversity in the IT workforce isn’t just a matter of filling jobs by numbers; we are blunting a key national differentiator if we don’t fully involve our diverse population in the invention of new technology. There is a strong return on investment to companies that diversify their IT workforce, including better decision-making, higher return to shareholders, and technological design more applicable to a wide range of customer needs. And yet IT professionals are still culled from a very narrow segment of our population.

Why should we care about information technology? Information technology is the language and toolbox of our modern lives. We use it to communicate and to innovate, in our work and in our play. It is the means for our individual well-being and our collective progress. Simply put, we live in a global information-age economy, one in which increasing knowledge drives our society.

According to the OECD Science, Technology, and Industry (STI) Scoreboard, IT continues to be a key contributor to economic growth, accounting for approximately one-quarter of all productivity gains in the U.S. economy.

In his opening remarks at the Town Hall, Microsoft Research Senior Vice President and NCWIT Executive Advisory Council member Rick Rashid called innovation the key driver of the U.S. economy, and addressed the need for more students to pursue careers in the innovative world of information technology. The Town Hall also featured remarks by Motorola Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Padmasree Warrior, who noted that “IT is a vital component in everything today, from national security and homeland security to commerce and other scientific disciplines.”  Town Hall participants included U.S. Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.); National Academy of Engineering president Dr. William A. Wulf; National Science Foundation (NSF) deputy director and chief operating officer Dr. Kathie L. Olsen; NSF Broadening Participation in Computing program director Jan Cuny; Computing Research Association director of government affairs Peter Harsha, and other representatives from the executive branch and Congress. At the NCWIT reception following the Town Hall, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) cited the need to reverse “long historic discrimination in the area of gender” saying that locking women out of IT is “like having one hand tied behind our competitive backs.”diverse_contributors

He mentioned his own daughters while hailing the importance of opening doors for members of underrepresented groups to participate in whatever field they choose. Ilene H. Lang, president of Catalyst, also spoke at the reception, citing her organization’s recent research on women in leadership positions. Catalyst is an active member of NCWIT’s Workforce Alliance, which leads efforts in corporate institutional reform and helps NCWIT gauge its success in achieving workforce gender parity. Lang said that the number of Fortune 500 company boards with 25 percent or more women has increased almost six-fold—from 11 in 1995 to 64 in 2005. Yet women still hold only a small number of all Fortune 500 board seats. The dialogue at the Town Hall covered extensive ground, with conversations ranging from passionate appeals for reform to specific suggestions and solutions.

Some of the recommendations included:

For educators: Use novel methods of working computing concepts into other core courses at the K-12 level; emphasize computing’s more relevant, social, and creative elements; reach out to guidance counselors with respect to IT careers – explain what “real” IT jobs are like and why they should be recommended; and look to minority-serving institutions as a graduate school pipeline.

For corporations and business owners: Support re-training of retirees as IT teachers and as resources for classroom teachers; commit to better representation of women and minorities in technical leadership positions; create bridge programs for people wanting to re-enter the IT workforce, providing them with training and mentoring.

For government: Pass and implement innovation legislation; and support sustaining infrastructures to ensure that progress continues over the long term.

For not-for-profits: Work together and share resources; commit to practices that have been shown, through evaluative evidence, to work; and use distribution lists and member bases to build awareness and activism.

For the media: Foster a more accurate representation of IT and its practitioners; realize that diversity has a critical role to play in maintaining U.S. leadership in IT innovation; seek out and report stories that support diversity in IT.

Diversity is an opportunity, not an obstacle. Many avenues exist through which to increase the number of women and minorities participating in every aspect of information technology — if we just work together. As a society, we must recognize and mobilize:

Recognize that this is an issue we must address, and mobilize for rapid change. We must form alliances including but not limited to industry representatives, public and private school teachers, university faculty and administrators and others who can be change agents. We need to focus on institutional reform, based on practices that have been proven to be effective by solid research. We need to reform curriculum at K-12, ensuring that computer science is taught in high schools as well as at higher education levels. We need to improve the public image of computing so young people understand that, far from a narrow technical field suited only to white male hackers, computing is socially valuable work that can be a good career choice for a diverse cross-section of America.

In short, we need to broaden the appeal of IT to people who previously may have considered themselves merely its consumers and not its creators. When we do, the face of IT will begin to change and to better reflect the face of the nation.

Lucinda Sanders is the CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology.