“Technology Designed Without Women’s Input Can Be Critically One-dimensional”

Lucy Sanders
Lucy Sanders

As the one-year mark in October approaches, can you elaborate on how successful NCWIT has been with the $3.25 million grant from the National Science Foundation, and in what areas?

Sanders: The NCWIT has been officially operational since September 2004, and in that time we’ve focused on building a sustainable, efficient infrastructure, building a coalition of committed experts, and building a strong, united voice. Most importantly, we’ve grown our coalition to include over 40 academic institutions, 15 corporations, 16 distinguished social scientists, and 8 hub partners; together, these Alliance members and leaders are developing the research projects, intervention programs, effective practices, and policy platforms that will catalyze our work to increase women’s participation in information technology careers.

Are there – to your knowledge – similar organizations in other countries?

Sanders: We know that women’s participation in information technology is a problem around the world; when we look at women’s participation levels in education and the workforce in other countries, we have yet to find a single country that would be represent an admirable benchmark. Although we don’t know what similar organizations exist in other countries, we’ve been contacted by movements and individuals from Africa, Europe, and Asia who are sympathetic to our mission.

Since the problem we’re trying to solve is really one of US workforce competitiveness, and since it’s a problem of huge scale on a national level alone, we’re quite determined to maintain a national focus before elevating our work to a global level. However we are very much aware of synergistic efforts going on in other countries and are eager to learn and share from them in ways that accelerate our collective progress.

Where do women stand today compared to the data that they only accounted for 28 percent of IT degrees in 2001, down from 37 percent in 1984?

Sanders: Where do women stand today? In the US workforce, although they make up more than half of all professional workers, they represent only 25 percent of professional information technology workers. Women are only 14 percent of faculty in US computer science departments. Only 11 percent of corporate officers at top 500 technology companies are female. Women inventors still submit fewer than 11 percent of all US patents.

In the IT education pipeline, things don’t look much better: women receive more than half of all undergraduate degrees in the US but account for only 25 percent of all computing and information sciences degrees; at major US research institutions, this number is even lower. Girls accounted for only 15 percent of Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus test-takers, and at this year’s Intel Science Fair, only 11 percent of the finalists in computer science were girls – despite their strong showing in other sciences such as microbiology and chemistry.
At a time when the US Department of Labor is predicting that computer-related disciplines will comprise one of the fastest-growing job sectors, and that more than 1.5 million IT jobs will be added to our workforce by 2012, interest in IT fields of study is steadily declining, and at a faster rate for women than for men. Women’s participation therefore becomes a powerful issue of innovation, competitiveness, and workforce sustainability. They are a valuable, untapped resource whose absence can only be measured in technology not created, problems not solved, and jobs not filled.

What is the reason so few women are enrolling in computer sciences classes? And what positive actions can be taken to bring them back?

Sanders: The image of IT – which encompasses both the image of what IT really is, and the image of who IT people really are – is a huge factor in why many women choose not to study computing and information technology. Many women see IT jobs as occupations that are isolating, devoid of human impact, and overly focused on inanimate objects. And they see the people who “do” IT as geeks – mostly male, lacking in social skills or outside interests, obsessed with computers, and happy to work alone – with whom they have trouble identifying. IT is badly in need of a makeover that will allow women to realize their potential within it, and conquering IT’s image problem will be one of our biggest challenges.

We’ll be working on changing girls’ perceptions through education and media campaigns, for example, that introduce them to female role models with whom they can identify, and inform them about IT jobs – jobs in product development, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence, jobs like being a sound engineer for Hollywood movies, developing new treatments for illnesses, or creating robots to help the disabled.

Why is it important that roughly equal numbers of men and women work in IT?

Sanders: Information technology is a hugely pervasive influence in our lives today, and its importance to our health, safety, work, and entertainment grows exponentially. Why, then, would we allow something so important – something all of us use, need, and depend upon – to be designed mostly by men? Technology innovation, like any other creative process, is one in which the innovators bring their perspectives and experiences to the design table. If those innovators do not represent the breadth of diversity in our society, the best and brightest of all races and genders, and the future users of the technology they design, then we are all missing out. As we’ve seen already, technology designed without women’s input can be critically one-dimensional – as in the case of airbags, various medical treatments, and even voicemail. The original speech-recognition systems, the precursors to our modern voicemail, were developed and tested without the presence of female engineers. As a result, the software failed to recognize a broad range of octaves and actually hung up on women’s voices.

Is the old belief that men are naturally better at math and science a major factor that influences women’s choices of college majors worldwide?

Sanders: The mere perception that men excel at some disciplines (and the inverse implication that women do not do well in these disciplines) certainly has been found to influence the academic and career decisions that women make. This negative perception has been mostly discredited in the case of math, however, where women now earn nearly half of all undergraduate degrees, and in the case of many of the sciences, where women have actually over taken men. We’ve also seen that in some disciplines formerly considered a male realm, such as law and medicine, women in the US have made great strides in achieving academic and workforce parity.

In the case of computing and information sciences, however, women in the US have much progress to make in erasing the perception of gender inequity. From an early age, American girls receive unenthusiastic messages from their parents, teachers, and the media about their association with computers. In surveys, girls equate computing-related occupations with derogatory connotations like “nerdy,” “isolating,” and “boring.” Girls are not aggressively encouraged to pursue math and computing in grade school, certainly not to the degree that boys are; they typically get less experience relating to computers, whether from video games or programming classes; and by the time they are ready to choose a college major, many have ruled out computing altogether. If you consistently receive the message that computing and technology are not appropriate fields of interest for you, then you’re more likely to believe that message, over time, and that belief can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What are some of the ideas NCWIT is working on for the future?

Sanders: Our approach, going forward, is three-pronged: 1) create a national community of practitioners; 2) broaden the conversation; and 3) target key policy and opportunities. These areas of focus constitute a strategy designed to stimulate reform along the education and workforce pipeline; foster grassroots interest and build momentum with a public voice; and yield accelerated progress in the immediate future.

When will you know if you’ve achieved your goals?

Sanders: NCWIT is a unique non-profit in the sense that it’s run on a business model. We’re constructing a set of internal metrics to help us evaluate the effectiveness of our work against the larger goal of increasing participation and achieving workforce parity. These internal metrics will define specific objectives – such as growing the Academic and Workforce Alliances, defining and disseminating effective practices, engaging with key government policies, and shining the spotlight on women and IT – that will help us gauge our success in tangible, measurable ways. Of course, ultimately our goal is to put ourselves out of business: by making significant progress towards workforce parity within the next few decades, we’ll make the need for our organization obsolete.