20 Mar Diversity still an elusive goal in IT, other tech fields
Former Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers created a firestorm last year when he suggested that female under-representation in math and science fields might be the result of intrinsic aptitude differences between men and women. While that comment may be only part of the reason Summers is the former president of Harvard, it focused the spotlight on the need for more diversity in science and technology.
In Wisconsin, diversity in top IT positions has a way to go, but is gaining a foothold. The Fusion2006 CEO-CIO Symposium‘s CIO panel featured three Wisconsin women and two minority men who have been entrusted with technology management. The panel signified an effort to embrace diversity, an effort that will be necessary to address a shortage of workers in science and technology and maintain the nation’s technological edge.
According to the National Science Board’s 2006 Science and Engineering Indicators, the United States still relies on foreign talent: 40 percent of doctorate degree holders in science and engineering occupations in 2003 were foreign born. The proportions of women, African Americans, and Hispanics in science and engineering occupations have grown, but they still are well below their respective proportions of the population. The percentage of women grew from 12 to 25 between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of African Americans rose from 2.6 to 6.9, and the percentage of Hispanics increased from 2.0 to 3.2.
These numbers suggest that diversity remains an elusive goal, but some organizations have more success than others do. James Barr, III, president/CEO of TDS Telecom, recently elevated two women, Lisa Cvengros and Leslie Hearn, to technology management positions. Cvengros, now the highest ranking woman at TDS, was promoted from CTO to executive vice president/CTO. Hearn is CIO.
Part of TDS’ affirmative action plan is to evaluate who is populating various jobs, and adjust where possible. “When we determine that we are particularly light in one area, say for women or minorities,” Barr said, “we set targets for ourselves, particularly for HR recruiters to make sure that when a job is open, we are objective about it.”
Even in the public realm, diversity still is a challenge. Annie Stunden, director of information technology at UW-Madison and a speaker at Fusion2006, has three female network managers, but most of the 500 employees in the university’s Department of Information Technology are males. Men still dominate her pool of network engineers, systems administrators, and desktop support people.
Women, however, are making inroads in the areas of academic technology support, training, and applications development. Stunden’s female managers run the telecommunications, campus network, and wide area network units. “That’s sort of unusual,” Stunden acknowledged. “We were lucky.”
In the future, luck may indeed be a lady, but K-12 education will have to pick up the pace. The NSB reports that improvements in student performance in math and science are uneven. Scores rose in math between 1990 and 2003, but they declined in science in grade 12 between 1996 and 2000. Ominously for diversity, students from disadvantaged backgrounds lagged behind, and the disparity widened over time.
As part of the American Competitiveness Initiative, the Bush administration has proposed training 70,000 high school teachers to lead advanced-placement courses in math and science, bringing 30,000 math and science professionals to teach in classrooms, and giving early help to students who struggle with math.
If K-12 comes through, the task of higher education will be easier. Jennifer Sheridan, executive and research director of the Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute at UW-Madison, said one of the strategies being used to reverse declining enrollment in engineering and computer science is the recruitment of women and under-represented minorities.
“It’s a huge untapped pool of talent for those disciplines,” said Sheridan, whose office is located in the UW College of Engineering. “When the external advisory boards come through the college, that’s when I hear business and industry’s take on this. I know that a lot of businesses are very critical of some of the top universities for not producing a diversified work force out of their science and engineering departments.”
David Cagigal, CIO of Alliant Energy and a former college recruiter at De Paul University, said it’s too late to address the issue in college. He said the consequences of not being on the college track has to be explained to minority students early in high school, and any fears of math and science must be removed. “There has got to be a way of segueing into a math and science and IT curriculum in such a way that it is not as daunting as it is to some of the minorities,” he said.
For women, the question may not be denial of opportunity, but work-life balance, Hearn said. “What I hear more from women close to me is, ‘Can you have a career?'” she said. “‘Can you advance to say a VP, CIO level and still be a mom?'”