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Recently, I was included as one of the White House Champions of Change on the topic of the recruitment and retention of girls and women in STEM fields. Of course there are many, many people who are champions for their efforts in this area, lots of them far more deserving than I am, but I am happy to use this occasion to share a few quick thoughts on this topic.
First, it is great to see computer science included by the White House in this event. Computing is a hugely important part of the STEM world in terms of its impact on our economy and our lives, and the fact that the greatest current and projected future demand for STEM jobs is in computing. Still, it is a relative newbie to the STEM table and it’s important that it has a seat.
Second, when I mention progress to people, such as the fact that the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University Bloomington has doubled the number of undergraduate women majors (from 75 to 150) in the last two years, I often get asked, “what’s the secret sauce?” My answer is, “it’s the whole kitchen.” That is, progress requires a comprehensive, holistic strategy that makes the full participation of women an organizational priority and gives attention to issues of recruitment, image, atmosphere in the classroom or workplace, community, mentoring and more. By now we know what works – see for example the National Center for Women & Information Technology’s resources website – but whether in an educational or corporate context, there needs to be a commitment from leadership and an ongoing systemic approach.
Third, this is not a women’s issue, it is everyone’s issue. The participation of a diverse cross-section of our society in the creation of our nation’s information technology infrastructure and products is essential to our ability to have enough people in that workforce, and to producing the most creative products that address the needs of our full population. To be clearly seen as an organizational priority, both women and men need to be champions.
Finally, I’d like to give a shout-out to two of my biggest champions in the area of women in computing, Lucy Sanders and Telle Whitney. Both are extremely talented and accomplished technical women who have chosen to devote many years of their careers to the cause of women in computing, Lucy as CEO of NCWIT and Telle as President and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. I have had the great pleasure of working closely with them for nearly a decade as the co-founders and executive team of NCWIT, and I know they deserve and have the admiration and thanks of our entire community.
Bobby Schnabel is Dean of the School of Informatics at Indiana University, co-founder and executive team member of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, and chair of the ACM Education Policy Committee.