May 22, 2006

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama cites need to reverse "long historic discrimination in the area of gender" saying that locking women out of information technology (IT) is "like having one hand tied behind our competitive backs."

At the 350-person, first-ever Innovation Town Hall sponsored by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) at the National Academy of Sciences, every speaker – from the federal government, industry, think tanks, non-profits and academia – cited the lack of diversity in IT as a major competitive and innovative problem for the U.S. With 50 percent of the professional workforce identified as female in 2004, only 29 percent of the professional IT workforce was female and the numbers are declining.

A video feed of NCWIT's Town Hall is available at http://research.microsoft.com.

In his opening remarks, Microsoft Research Senior Vice President and NCWIT Executive Advisory Council member Rick Rashid referred to innovation as the key driver of the U.S. economy and addressed the need for more students to pursue a career in Information Technology.

"By 2012 the Department of Labor estimates that there will be 1.5 million new jobs in IT and yet declines in undergraduate CS enrollment mean that we will only graduate half of the qualified candidates we will need," Rashid said. "There is a significant gap – and both women and men must contribute to filling it. Microsoft has provided a new $1 million grant to NCWIT to help address this."

NCWIT is the first public organization to explore this issue in all its dimensions, understanding that a diverse workforce is one of our nation's competitive advantages. Solutions to the deepening problem of gender disparity in IT are the focus of NCWIT's work.

According to Lucinda Sanders, CEO of NCWIT, a former Bell Labs fellow and corporate executive who holds six patents, "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."

Sanders added, "Nationally, women comprise a powerful consumer base, making over 80 percent of the purchase decisions. Having more women inventing technology will help companies create products that better meet women's needs."

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."

Additional Town Hall speakers and panelists 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; and a group of Executive Branch and Congressional representatives.

U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) addressed participants at the reception following the Town Hall, as did Catalyst President Ilene H. Lang. 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.

Recommendations from the town hall discussion include:

For Educators

  • Implement curricular reform; use novel methods of working computing concepts into other core courses at the K-12 level; emphasize computing more relevant, social, and creative elements
  • Reach out to guidance counselors with respect to IT careers – explain what "real" IT jobs are like and why they should be recommended
  • Emphasize a community college (two-year) to four-year institution pipeline: create institutional and educational articulation agreements that work
  • Look to minority-serving institutions as a graduate school pipeline
  • Recognize education students as a source for IT teachers; encourage university faculty from STEM disciplines to recommend IT career options to their students

For Corporations and Business Owners

  • Support re-training of retirees as IT teachers and as resources for classroom teachers
  • Commit to better representation of women and minorities in technical leadership positions
  • Create bridge programs for people wanting to re-enter the IT workforce, providing them with new skills training, mentoring, etc.
  • Activate parents and employees through awareness campaigns
  • Demand excellence in IT education

For Government

  • Implement innovation legislation and give communities ways to contribute to the development and successful implementation of this legislation
  • Consider a military to civilian re-entry program, capitalizing on technically trained armed forces members and their potential contributions to the workforce
  • Support sustaining infrastructures to ensure that progress happens over the long term

For Not-for-profits

  • Work together and share resources
  • Commit to practices that have been shown, through evaluative evidence, to work
  • Fix the geeky, white image of IT
  • Use distribution lists and member bases to build awareness and activism

For the Media

  • Foster a more accurate representation of IT and technologists
  • Realize that diversity has a critical role to play in maintaining U.S. leadership in IT innovation
  • Emphasize that education – from K-12 through college – must incorporate IT training and concepts as well as an appreciation of the fundamental role of IT across a wide variety of disciplines and careers


The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) is an expanding coalition of over 70 first-tier corporations, academic institutions, government agencies, and non-profits that believe the future of U.S. competitiveness and innovation means creating and maintaining a representative, creative, and technically-trained workforce (http://www.ncwit.org.)