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Working to Close the Gender Gap in IT

While more women are working in higher education IT, fewer are moving up the ladder to leadership positions. Here's what universities are doing to improve the balance.

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What is the current state of the gender gap in the higher education IT workforce? According to the latest research from Educause, there's good news and bad news: On the one hand, the number of female IT staffers has been increasing; on the other, fewer women are being promoted into CIO positions.

In a Dec. 6 webinar, D. Christopher Brooks, Educause's director of research, described the glass ceiling women face in higher ed IT: "For staff members, we are pretty close to parity in terms of distribution between men and women holding those positions. The place we run into problems is as people move up the ladder in terms of managerial responsibility," he noted. "Between 2016 and 2018 we saw a slight dip in the percentage of women holding CIO positions. We have made some progress, but we are still confronted with some pretty serious glass ceiling issues prohibiting women from moving up the management chain."

Recruiting Diverse Talent

Some universities are devoting considerable resources to changing this dynamic. Yale University, for one, began working on gender gap issues in 2013 when the leaders of Information Technology Services realized they needed a younger and more diverse workforce. They began to build a talent pipeline, starting with internship programs, including a high school program, college program and an early career development program.

"Five years later we are starting to see the realization of that effort with students from the early career program becoming full-time employees of the university," said Alina Collasale, a program coordinator in the Office of the CIO for Information Technology Services. "One of our goals is to communicate that there are so many diverse roles in IT — communications, project management, finance. You don't have to be a coder."

Yale's early career development program recruits recent college graduates for an 18-month rotational program through areas such as systems administration, finance and information security. The university offers long-term jobs to between four to six of the participants per year — and about 50 percent of those hired are women. "We have hired women into traditionally male-dominated areas," Collasale said. "They are on a managerial and professional track to become our future IT leaders. We have not come across other higher ed IT groups that have this early career pipeline. We are lucky to be in an urban setting and to be able to work closely with the community's high schools and local colleges."

What also is unique about the Yale effort, she noted, is that the university created her own position dedicated to overseeing it.

Networking with Peers

Many campuses across the country have formed "Women in IT" peer groups to raise the profile of women IT employees in order to change the culture and improve recruitment and retention efforts. When Edward Aractingi became CIO of Marshall University in Huntington, WV, a few years ago, he realized he wanted to make more of an effort on diversity and inclusion in IT. "When I looked at my organization and at computer science programs on campus I was seeing fewer women represented, so I felt we needed to do something. I helped set up this Women in IT group. We have a group of talented women in the department. I felt like I could support this."

The Women in IT team started going to high schools and middle schools to talk to girls about technology. They attended a few women-in-technology conferences and then started speaking at them, Aractingi said. "Now they are taking it to the next level by inviting other local colleges and universities to start collaborating," he said.

The group of women at Marshall suggested that when the department creates job search committees, it should include women on every one so candidates won't feel they are speaking to a group of only men. "We may discourage candidates from accepting positions if they are worried that the environment is not inviting," Aractingi explained. "We also want to make sure questions are not worded in a way that would discourage women from taking the position."

In his webinar presentation, Educause's Brooks also stressed working with human resources on changing the recruitment process. "We recommend that we need to build equity into the culture as well as the process of talent recruitment," he said. "This has a lot to do with HR responsibilities on campus as well. We have to rethink the language we use when we are writing job descriptions, and think about doing blind interviews or blind evaluations of résumés that come through to limit unintentional bias. We also should consider hiring panels to make sure no one person has too much power in the decision-making process around hiring."

Brooks also recommended cultivating a supportive culture for everyone in the workplace. "This has to do with the leadership promoting equity especially when it comes to gender, and defining measurable goals and benchmarking against them each year," he said. 

The Marshall women in IT group has created a web presence and is active on social media. "When someone is looking to apply for a job here, they may search the website and find that this place honors equal opportunity for women, Aractingi said. "When they see that Marshall acknowledges the gender gap and offers an environment that is inviting for women to work in technology, it may make them want to come."

In the last year, Marshall's IT group has hired five new employees and three were women. "Women are being encouraged to apply and are finding a supportive environment," he said. "Some of the small steps we are taking are starting to pay off."

Strength in Numbers

As these campuswide groups mature, they are teaming up. For instance, several groups have come together to form a Big Ten Academic Alliance Women in IT community group, whose purpose is to proactively foster and support collaboration of best practices for recruitment, retention and advancement of women in IT.

The group was formally recognized by all the Big Ten CIOs early in 2018 and after a meetup at the Educause conference in the fall, a virtual conference was held in early February 2019.

Sandee Seiberlich, an enterprise project manager in academic technology at the University of Wisconsin, said the Madison campus Women in IT group came together in 2014 and has grown to nearly 500 members. "We did some climate surveys and found we were close to national averages, where 24 percent of the IT workforce is women, and 14 percent in management. We saw that things could be improved," she said. After developing mentorship programs and partnering with the vice chancellor for equity and diversity on campus events, the Wisconsin group began working with other Big Ten campuses to form a community.

Every campus in the Big Ten has some activity, ranging from small pockets of people interested all the way to UW's group with its 500 members. "In our peer group, we are sharing what each campus is doing and where they are on that scale of activity," said Marcia Dority Baker, assistant director of academic technologies in the Office of Information Technology Services at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "If you go to your CIO and say another Big Ten school is doing something, and we could try it here, that has a lot of weight."

The Nebraska group is having conversations with human resources about creating more gender-neutral job descriptions and detailing the people skills that staff members need to be successful, Dority Baker said. "We can train employees on the technical end, but there are interpersonal skills we need to highlight more."

At Nebraska, there is also a recognition that the required change is not just up to women. "My peers have started a male allies group. There are colleagues willing to speak up and change how we think about things," Dority Baker said. One of her male colleagues just took three weeks off because his wife had a baby. "That is very powerful," she said. "It helps the men under him in client services see that one of the directors took time off to be home with a baby. That speaks more than I could ever tell people about maternity leave. When everybody involved sees that this is good for all of us, that is when we are really going to see the change. This is a team sport and we need everybody participating. The more people we can have involved, the faster this is going to change."

Opening Doors in High-Performance Computing

In network engineering and supercomputing, women are even more underrepresented than in higher ed IT operations, according to Marla Meehl, head of the Network Engineering and Telecommunications Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research/University Corporation for Academic Research (NCAR/UCAR). "We always count the number of women in the room. Usually it is about 10 percent," she said. "I remember at one national meeting I walked out of the room and there were no women left. That is a pretty significant gap both in terms of trying to attract diverse participants and diversity of thought."

Meehl has been the principal investigator on the National Science Foundation-funded Women in IT Networking (WINS) at SC project since 2015. (SC is an annual supercomputing conference focused on high-performance computing, networking and data storage.) Before each conference is an event called SCinet, during which 180 volunteers from research universities come together on the convention center floor to build the fastest network in the world for a week. "It is a great learning opportunity to work with state-of-the-art gear and bright people," Meehl said.

Organizers of the event, however, recognized that few women were participating. Meehl worked with Wendy Huntoon, president and CEO of the Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research (KINBER), and others to establish the WINS project to make sure more women have opportunities to participate in SCinet. The program enables five talented early- to mid-career women from diverse regions of the U.S. research and education IT field to participate in the ground-up construction of SCinet. The project gets approximately 35 applicants each year and funds five participants' travel to participate in the event. "It has been much more successful than we expected," Huntoon said. "It has had a positive impact on SCinet itself but also for the women who end up being volunteers."

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