NCWIT Provides Tools for Recruiting and Retaining Women in IT

NCWITAlthough women are slowly beginning to make up a larger overall percentage of the STEM workforce, some occupations are still experiencing a wide gender gap — and one field has actually seen a decrease in female representation. In 2013, only 26 percent of computing professionals were women, down from 35 percent in 1990, according to a study from the American Association of University Women. Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that information technology (IT) will add nearly 1.4 million jobs to the U.S. economy by 2020.

The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) is doing what it can to ensure women fill their share of those positions. A nonprofit chartered in 2004 by the National Science Foundation (NSF), NCWIT is made up of more than 650 member organizations, including companies, universities, and government and nonprofit organizations, all focused on the same goal: increasing the number of women and girls in technology and computing.

“We’re not talking about a woman working at [a tech company] … in the HR department. We’re talking about women actually at the innovation table, creating this technology. They’re in technical roles that shape our future innovation,” says Adriane Bradberry, communications director for NCWIT.

One key way NCWIT works to achieve its mission is through its Extension Services for Undergraduate Programs (ES-UP), a customized consulting service designed to help computing-related departments at colleges and universities. Available only to NCWIT Academic Alliance members, the service is designed to help colleges and universities develop high-impact strategies for recruiting and retaining more female students.

A group of NCWIT Extension Services consultants and staff at the 2015 NCWIT Summit on Hilton Head Island, S.C., this past May
A group of NCWIT Extension Services consultants and staff at the 2015 NCWIT Summit on Hilton Head Island, S.C., this past May

Like all NCWIT programs, ES-UP equips member organizations with the tools they need to enact long-term, sustainable change for themselves, rather than doing the work for them. Through ES-UP, institutions consult with NCWIT to evaluate their current efforts and discover areas to improve in order to increase the number of women in their degree programs, as well as supporting and retaining them.

“In Extension Services, we’re focusing on faculty and undergraduate programs — how the teaching is done; the culture of the faculty; the culture the students are entering; how faculty are presenting their fields in terms of addressing misconceptions about computing, which there are a lot of,” says Beth Quinn, director of ES-UP. “Making diversity something that’s not just an add-on or an extra thing … but something that is integrated into the way in which they [operate].”

Participating institutions are assigned an Extension Services consultant with expertise in evaluation and organizational change. The consultant first collects and uses data from the school to determine where it is currently, then works to identify goals and collaborates to construct a strategic recruitment plan. Consultants then act as cheerleaders to help motivate and drive institutional change until the school’s actions become habit, Quinn says.

“The consultants are really good at diagnosing organizations and figuring out how the team is working, what resources they have, how to leverage the resources that are already there, and what’s possible given, say, their geography; also, what’s possible for getting additional funding,” she says. “So it’s really a multi-tiered approach to building capacity in the faculty and then also capacity in the organization itself, and then trying a lot of different things and evaluating them. For a lot of schools, this is the first time they’ve worked with an expert like this.”

Additionally, many of these institutions face unique challenges that require customized approaches to solving — which NCWIT provides. These challenges often include geography and location, demographics, and competition with other schools, among others. Consultants consider all of these factors in their recommendations, then develop strategies for recruiting and retaining women that will work for each institution and situation.

According to NCWIT data, members who have utilized ES-UP are beginning to see results. From 2007 to 2013, ES-UP client programs have, as a group, increased the percentage of women graduates in their programs by 65 percent over the baseline, granted 219 more bachelor of science degrees in computer science, and increased women’s representation in their graduating classes from 11 percent to 14 percent.

NCWIT has been able to develop and assist two ES-UP cohorts, each consisting of 15 institutions, and expand its offering of tools and resources thanks to funding from NSF and Google.org. NCWIT is currently seeking other sources of funding in order to continue offering Extension Services to its members, but the organization — chartered with a sunset clause of 20 years — only has until 2024 to meet its objective.

“In 20 years, our goal is that the problem will be fixed, that the issue of underrepresentation of women and girls will be fixed,” Bradberry says. “Over time, we’ve changed what that looks like, so what do we mean when we say ‘fixed’? When all the organizations that should care do care about having women and girls represented, we’ve achieved our goal.”

Accomplishing this goal will be no small feat, but it is one Quinn, and everyone else at NCWIT, is passionate about — and not just because of the clear benefits it provides.

“We know that diverse teams tend to produce smarter outcomes, smarter decisions, and better innovation, so … we need the people developing those technologies to be representative of the people that they’re serving,” says Quinn. “It’s a great career, so we want to see girls, if they’re interested, be able to pursue it.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. To learn more about NCWIT, visit ncwit.org.