How the NCWIT Summit Promotes Diversity in Computing

Posted By Terri Williams on June 5, 2017 at 1:50 pm
How the NCWIT Summit Promotes Diversity in Computing

The National Center for Women & Information Tech 2017 Summit focused this year, as always, on increasing diversity in computing. “This one-of-a-kind summit is an invaluable setting for change leaders to have a candid, effective dialogue about practical ways to make change for women in tech,” NCWIT co-founder and CEO Lucy Sanders tells GoodCall®. “These conversations aren’t empty promises; these conversations lead to sustainable change for the society at large.”

In addition to workshops, the variety of speakers at the recent summit, the largest such event in the world, included professors from CUNY, Duke, MIT, UMass, University of Maryland, Arizona State, and Georgetown, as well as executives from Google, Televisa, Qualcomm, Microsoft, Intel, and Hewlett Packard. Sanders and several of NCWIT’s research scientists also spoke during the event.

Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, was the keynote speaker at the final session, and talked about the importance of finding the women who were hidden in technology.  Regarding the subjects of her book, Shetterly told the audience, “Though they were exceptional, they were not exceptions.”

That message is precisely why these types of events are so important.

NCWIT’s report, Girls in IT: The Facts, reveals some disturbing facts concerning diversity in computing:

  • Girls comprise 56% of all Advanced Placement test-takers; they make up 46% of all AP Calculus test-takers but only 19% of AP Computer Science test-takers.
  • Women earn 57% of all undergraduate degrees, but only 18% of undergraduate computer and information sciences degrees.

Recently, GoodCall® reported on Brigham Young University’s efforts to increase the number of women in cybersecurity. While some efforts to keep girls interested in STEM are more successful than others – depending on the discipline – the fact that we have to ask what happened to women in computer science, as if we’re referring to relics of some bygone era, is problematic at best.

One father’s personal stake in diversity in computing

As the father of two young daughters in the 2nd and 4th grade (and two sons in the 6th and 7th grade), Jeff Gray, Ph.D., Carnegie Foundation professor of the year in the University of Alabama’s computer science department, tells GoodCall®, “Attending the summit helped me to understand the influence that my actions and word choices have in forming my daughters’ vision of themselves.” One of Gray’s daughters recently received the 4th grade coding award at her school, and he explains “I want to help them to see themselves as candidates and future participants who have the potential to create exciting innovations through a career in computing.”

Gray participates in some of the NCWIT’s mentoring programs. “The AspireIT program offers a near-peer mentoring model that pairs high school students with college mentors and celebrates the accomplishments of young high school women who have aspirations of computing careers.”

On both a local and national level, he believes it’s important to nurture and support young women. “A constant phrase throughout the 2017 Summit was ‘see it to be it’ – underscoring the need for women and others from underrepresented populations to view role models and near-peer mentors who help identify new pathways of opportunity.”

Gray says the summit concentrated on the concept of ‘intersectional underrepresentation.”  He explains, “There are multiple threads of underrepresentation that may have unique intersections, each with its own set of challenges and opportunities for empowerment – for example, African American women, or women of all color from rural areas with low socio-economic opportunity.”

Role models play a part

Having role models and mentors plays an integral part in creating and sustaining interest in technology, as well as diversity in computing. Mary L. Gorden, author of Life Without Ceilings: A Woman’s Career in Computers, tells GoodCall® that she was 12 years into her career when she got her first mentor, and it was a game changer. “Not only did it give my career an immediate boost, but it also moved my career into a more opportunity filled direction.” However, Gorden wonders how much more successful she could have been with a mentor earlier in her career.

She admits that since she’s been retired for 16 years, her technical skills are obsolete, but she is committed to doing her part to inspire the next generation. “I can still be a role model and encourage other women to keep fighting for the career they want.” Her memoir describes the ups and downs in her career to help other women understand that they can also pursue a career in computing. “There are many factors that influence how successful a person can be in their chosen career,” Gorden says. “There is no reason why gender should be one of those factors.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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