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Male advocates for gender diversity in tech

Speed read
  • Gender Diversity Initiative at Internet2 touts male advocates.
  • As leaders and gatekeepers, male advocates are a key link in female tech advancement.
  • A diverse workforce breeds the innovations to match diverse consumer desires.

Balancing the technological needs of the research and education community is a task Internet2 has been successfully completing for the last 20 years. Achieving balance is also the aim of Internet2’s Gender Diversity Initiative (GDI)

Through community scholarships, mentoring opportunities, and enhanced awareness, the GDI is leading a discussion about balanced gender representation in the technology workplace. 

At Internet2’s recent 20th anniversary Global Summit, Laurie Burns McRobbie and Marla Meehl hosted a panel about the place of male advocates in the effort to achieve gender parity. McRobbie is adjunct faculty for the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University, and Meehl is networking manager for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

<strong>Strength through diversity. </strong>Internet2 has worked for the last 20 years to meet the needs of the research and education community. The Gender Diversity Initiative is a crucial step toward providing the diversity of viewpoints needed to remain competitive. Courtesy Internet2.

The numbers are stark: In 2011, women earned nearly 60 percent of all undergraduate degrees, yet only 18 percent of those degrees were in the computer sciences. These numbers are borne out in the work force, where women hold only 26 percent of US tech jobs.

Some of the causes of this imbalance stem from secondary school. “Most high school girls are not encouraged to pursue computing or engineering subjects,” says Meehl. 

Because of this lack of exposure, female students end up not choosing to study these subjects in college. If they do pursue computer science, “female undergraduates often find themselves either as the only female in a class or one of just a few. This can, of course, be alienating,” she says.

Another factor affecting the pipeline of girls and young women “is that we still don’t have a national requirement for computer science education in high school,” adds McRobbie. “Teaching CS in mainstream, real-world, project-based ways will give young women more successes to take into college. The college experience, in turn, needs to change so that young women who may not have had as much exposure to computing and coding aren’t deterred.”

What’s so great about diversity, anyway?

Some may look at the tech landscape and see a surging field replete with discovery and breakthrough and wonder why change is needed. If computer science is already transforming our lives, what advantage will be gained through gender diversity?

According to John Kolb, vice president for information services and technology and chief information officer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “not caring about this issue means ignoring a majority of high quality workers and missing the diverse insights that they might provide. Gender diversity is both a pipeline issue and a productivity (through creativity, effectivity, and efficiency) issue.”

This is a powerful way to think about the value of diversity. The social justice argument for inclusivity is common, but just as easily ignored. But when an industry’s innovative ability is hindered by lack of diversity, gender equity gains urgency.

“In the long run, diverse teams will outperform homogeneous teams,” notes Bruce Maas, vice provost and information technology and chief information officer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Men and women sometimes view problems differently and bring different strengths, so having more equal representation on teams also helps to reduce risks and blind spots.”  

In the long run, diverse teams will outperform homogeneous teams. ~Bruce Maas.

These combined motives – social justice and productivity – may have something to do with increasing numbers of men participating in and advocating for the GDI. And since men remain the leaders, power holders, and gatekeepers in the tech workplace today, enlisting their participation is vital for change to occur, Meehl notes. “Women report that support and encouragement to pursue and persist in technical careers often comes from men,” she says.

Stepping in the right direction

Leaders in the IT field have an important role in balancing gender representation, and their example and persistent management within the workforce is irreplaceable. For all their efforts and advocacy, however, they realize the problem won’t be corrected until systemic changes are implemented.

Kolb agrees with McRobbie’s call for curricular reform. “We need to increase the introduction of computer science and technology-based project work early in education. Having challenging real-world projects in elementary and middle school with continued work in high school will help immensely,” he says.

For Jason Zurawski, science engagement engineer with the Energy Sciences Network (ESnet), retention of qualified women can’t occur without significant professional development opportunities for early and mid-career women, beyond what they receive during their time in school.

“Technology fields are always changing, and it’s important to stay abreast of these changes to remain knowledgeable and competitive.  Immersive educational experiences, such as those fostered by Women in IT Networking at SC (WINS)*, facilitate training opportunities that go above and beyond simply observing a lecture or viewing a webinar.  Programs like this bring back the excitement that many had when they first decided to pursue a career in technology, and encourage a culture of mentoring and fellowship throughout the larger technology community.” 

<strong>Teach your children well. </strong> Without a national computer science requirement, working with computers will remain a hobby and retain its 'boys group' status. Courtesy Indiana University.

Early education and exposure to computer science, plus concerted effort to retain women through important professional development, are crucial elements to balancing the IT workforce. But it’s more than any single initiative, says Maas. “Leaders need to be positive role models, and be authentically engaged. Be patient, but be strategic and focused. So stay committed, listen, identify barriers to retention, and engage your teams in addressing these barriers. Make progress every year, celebrate the wins, and make improvements where needed.”

Bright future — bring shades

Few would disagree that gender relations in our culture today skew toward male benefit. Traditional gender ordering prescribes what roles we can perform and which activities we can engage in. To change this thinking requires the effort of several generations of women and men working together.

“The tech workplace can’t be the realm of a single sex or race,” concludes Zurawski. “It needs participants to be as diverse as the problems they are trying to solve. To stay competitive, our field must innovate, and the only way we can truly be innovative is to encourage as many viewpoints as possible to fully understand problems and come up with novel solutions."

*WINS is made possible though a grant from the US National Science Foundation (NSF).

Want to read more of Science Node's coverage on efforts to balance gender representation in tech?
Our roundtable with Lucy Sanders of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) and the Internet2 GDI crew can be found here.
Suzanne Parete-Koon's discussion of her early exposure to computer science — and how she's continuing the family tradition with her daughter — can be found here.

For more on emphasizing inclusion, read Kelly Gaither's XSEDE16 article over at HPCwire.

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