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Internet2 Gender Diversity Initiative roundtable

To continue the conversation started in our January 28 article 'Why aren't there more women in HPC?' and the March 4th response 'Pursuing diversity in every facet of HPC,'iSGTW caught up with the organizers of the Internet2 Gender Diversity Initiative to discuss the opportunities for women within Internet2 and the tech industry at large. This is part one of a two-part series — for a full transcript of this conversation, look here.

What's the motivation for the Internet2 Gender Diversity Initiative? Why launch this?

Laurie Burns McRobbie, first lady, Indiana University; school of informatics and computing adjunct faculty at Indiana University;co-chair for the Gender Diversity Initiative at Internet2. Courtesy Indiana University.

Burns McRobbie: There are three overall goals for the Internet2 Gender Diversity Initiative. The first goal is classic consciousness-raising. When you look at STEM degree completion, it's computer science and engineering that are pulling those numbers down.

The second goal is to make people aware of why it's important to fix that, and the third is awareness of what the benefits are of creating more diversity in these technical fields, not only for the health of the tech community but also for the health of the sector.

Sanders: We have a study that looks at IT patenting rates over the last 30 years. About 88% of all IT patents come from male-only invention teams, 2% from female-only invention teams, and 10% from mixed-gender invention teams. When you start to look at numbers like that, you realize that most of the technology we use today was invented by one homogenous group.

Hunsinger: We know this is not a problem we can solve alone, so we decided to take some baby steps. For instance, last year at our key technical event we created a scholarship process. In addition to the scholarships, we committed as a community to mentor these nominees, and the leadership of Internet2 has agreed to spend some time with them and get them connected to the community.

Ana Hunsinger, Internet2 vice president for community engagement. Courtesy Internet2/Jocelyn Augustino.

What are the obstacles to gender diversity in the tech world? Who's blocking this desire we all have to include and retain women?

Sanders: It's not so much who's blocking it — it's more like what's blocking it. There is a very strong social bias about who does tech. When we have a bias it causes weird dynamics in the classroom, in corporations. Then inclusion numbers drop, which in turn skews the culture even more. So that's really “who's” blocking it — it's all of us basically.

Burns McRobbie: Tech also has this stereotype problem: It's done by the “lone male geek” with no social skills who sees the computer as an end in itself.

But women are drawn to tech because they want to use it to solve problems and to connect to the world. A lot of men are like that too, but the stereotype is that men just want to code 24/7. Those kinds of practices and work habits don't appeal as much to women who want to have children and families and some work/life balance.

Meehl: We're still in some ways battling this equal rights thing — for a long time women weren't voting. That meant every decision at the government level was being made by men. And we're still kind of battling that, so we're losing a huge amount of our potential by not including 50% of the population.

Marla Meehl, networking manager University Corporation for Atmospheric Research / National Center for Atmospheric Research; manager, Front Range GigaPop/Bi-State Optical Network, co-chair for the Gender Diversity Initiative at Internet2. Courtesy UCAR.

What gains will come from increasing diversity? What does the future look like?

Burns McRobbie: A lot of research talks about how diverse work teams make better end products and improve the bottom line. In any kind of collaborative undertaking, the more voices and the more different perspectives you have, the more likely you are to come up with a solution that is going to be responsive to the fact that there's a diverse consumer and user base out there for those solutions.

Sanders: And I think the upside for that is huge. When you think about that creativity and that kind of thinking at the table — not instead of men, but alongside them — that's fairly startling. We're not talking about being soft on an underrepresented group; were talking about making the culture better for everybody.

Meehl: That's not to say that all women should go into IT. Obviously, we need women in all fields. Many women do go into medicine and law -- so it's not that it's a science and math problem, or a brainpower problem, or a hard work problem. But for some reason the tech culture is really prohibitive.

Lucy Sanders, CEO and founder of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). Courtesy NCWIT.

I think a lot of what we're trying to do is make sure that we understand the scope of the problem and see if we could do something in our own organizations and Internet2.

Burns McRobbie:It's also important to get past the sense of pessimism and defeat we've all felt at some time. In addition to making people aware that there are biases and problems, I think the other key is showing people that there actually are solutions out there. There are things that at least can be tried, and that's where the real hope is and where the real excitement is.

Sanders:There is reason to be optimistic. There is a wide range of opportunities for girls and young women — from a new computer science Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum and test for high schools, to lots of encouragement programs. We now have an encouragement program that starts in middle school and goes all the way through college. So there is a lot to be optimistic about.

But in the corporate space we need to find a way to leverage and scale our approach, and Internet2 can help us with that. Internet2 is the foundation for so much research and innovation that goes on in the world. We want more women inventing and creating technology because they are going to create different things and have different approaches. Having Internet2 as a partner is absolutely essential. We're not just in this for the numbers — we're in this for the innovation.

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