Innovation and the Role of Diversity

Lucy Sanders

What do technical innovation and diversity have to do with one another? Very little, apparently, if you follow the press coverage of our nation's current competitiveness debate. Innovation legislation drafted in the U.S. Congress seems to consider the issue of diversity and innovation a relative non-issue.

But if you listen to the country's leading information technologists, you'll hear something remarkably different, pragmatic, and refreshing.

At NCWIT's first-ever Innovation and Diversity Town Hall, co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and held May 17, 2006, at the National Academy of Sciences, every speaker –- ranging from federal government, industry, and think tanks, to non-profits and academia –- cited the lack of diversity in information technology (IT) as a major competitive and creative problem for the U.S.

Although U.S. Department of Labor projections estimate that there will be one million new jobs in IT by 2014, sharp declines in undergraduate computing and information sciences enrollment mean that we will graduate only half of the qualified candidates we need to fill these jobs.

Unfortunately, the lack of diversity in the IT workforce isn't just a matter of filling jobs: we also are blunting a key national differentiator if we don't fully involve our diverse population in the invention of new technology. There is a strong return on investment to companies that diversify their IT workforce, including better decision-making, higher return to shareholders, and technological design more applicable to a wide range of customer needs. And yet, ironically, IT professionals are still culled from a very narrow segment of our population.

Why should we care about IT? Because IT is the language and toolbox of our modern lives. We use it to communicate and innovate, in our work and in our play. It is the means for our individual well-being and our collective progress. Simply put, we live in a global information-age economy, one in which increasing knowledge drives our society:

  • According to the OECD Science, Technology, and Industry (STI) Scoreboard, IT continues to be a key contributor to economic growth, accounting for approximately one-quarter of all productivity gains in the U.S. economy in 2003.
  • Information technology has become a critical tool of almost every American industry, as well as of the U.S. government, and provides the foundation for systems that support our health, work, entertainment, and security.
  • IT drives developments in science and technology. Where there used to be two kinds of science and engineering -- experimental and theoretical -- today there is an increasingly important third, characterized by the use of information technology to simulate and model scientific and engineering problems.

In his opening remarks at the Town Hall, Microsoft Research Senior Vice President and NCWIT Executive Advisory Council member Rick Rashid called innovation the key driver of the U.S. economy, and addressed the need for more students to pursue a career in the innovative world of information technology. The Town Hall also featured remarks by Motorola Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Padmasree Warrior, who noted that, "IT is a vital component in everything today, from national security and homeland security to commerce and other scientific disciplines."

Town Hall participants included U.S. Congressman Mark Udall (D-CO); National Academy of Engineering President, Dr. William A. Wulf; National Science Foundation (NSF) Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer, Dr. Kathie L. Olsen; NSF Broadening Participation in Computing Program Director, Jan Cuny; Computing Research Association Director of Government Affairs, Peter Harsha; and representatives from the Executive Branch and Congress.

At the NCWIT reception following the Town Hall, U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) cited the need to reverse "long historic discrimination in the area of gender" saying that locking women out of information technology is "like having one hand tied behind our competitive backs." He mentioned his own daughters while hailing the importance of opening doors for members of underrepresented groups to participate in whatever field they choose.

Catalyst President Ilene H. Lang also spoke at the reception, citing her organization's recent research on women in leadership positions. Catalyst is an active member of NCWIT's Workforce Alliance, which leads efforts in corporate institutional reform and helps NCWIT gauge its success in achieving workforce gender parity. Lang said that the number of Fortune 500 company boards with 25 percent or more women has increased almost six-fold -- from 11 in 1995 to 64 in 2005. Yet women still hold only 14.7 percent of all Fortune 500 board seats, and 11 percent of Fortune 500 companies still have no women board members.

The dialogue at the Town Hall covered much ground, with conversations ranging from passionate appeals for reform to specific suggestions and solutions. At its close, it was clear that everyone present agreed on one thing: we need to take action, and we need to do it now.

We need to form alliances that include industry representatives, public school teachers, university faculty and administrators and others who can be change agents. We need to focus on institutional reform, based on practices that have been proven to be effective by solid research. We need to ensure that computer science is taught in high schools across the country. We need to reform curriculum at K-12 and higher education levels. We need to improve the public image of computing so that young people can see that it is not a narrow technical field only for white male hackers, but is socially valuable work that can be a good career choice for a diverse cross-section of America. In short, we need to broaden the appeal of information technology to people who previously may have considered themselves merely its consumers and not its creators.

Diversity is an opportunity, not an obstacle. There are many avenues to increase the number of women and minorities participating in every aspect of information technology, if we just work together. As a society, we need to recognize and mobilize: recognize that this is an issue we must address, and mobilize for rapid change.



Lucy Sanders is CEO and Co-founder of NCWIT and an ardent believer in the importance of diversity to the design and innovation of IT.