Rebooting the system
Iyer helps close the IT gender gap
If women make up 58% of the American workforce, why are only 26% of computing positions held by women?
Dr. Lakshmi Iyer’s efforts to bring IT to young women began with this simple question. Popular rhetoric implies no women wants a boring, isolating job; that there is little security in the often-outsourced IT field; that girls just don’t like working with computers.
But popular rhetoric is often founded in falsehoods.
“Some people think that if you go into IT, you won’t have a social life. You’re always in front of a computer, you do your work, and you don’t have a life. And that’s a misconception,” explains Iyer. “In information systems, we are a very people-oriented area. We are the intersection of technology and people. That’s our focus.
“Many people feel like there aren’t not enough jobs in IT, and that’s not true because if you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the trend in IT demand is always going up,” she adds. “And we can’t say, ‘women don’t like math’ … that’s not the case because in the ‘90s there was still a significant percentage of women in computing.”
These misconceptions impede women and the IT field as a whole. Dismayed by this state of affairs, Iyer decided to trace the decline to its source. She found the pipeline breakdown in high schools.
“Typically people would have had to have taken some courses related to computing before they say, ‘well, this is what I want to major in.’ So I said, ‘let me go back to the county high schools and see how many girls are actually taking computing-related classes.’ …It was really dismal.”
Recognizing that something had to be done, Iyer teamed up with Dr. Steve Tate, head of UNCG’s Department of Computer Sciences, and founded the Women in IT (WIIT) initiatives. Aimed at middle and high school girls, WIIT serves to educate and interest young women in the growing IT fields.
WIIT began with a half-day program called “IT is for Girls.” Launched in 2009, the pilot introduced some 50 high school girls to web design and software interfaces in novel ways that cater to their interests. The program also directly attacks falsehoods that fuel the IT gender gap. Iyer invites professional women from IT fields to break bread with the girls, giving them a chance to network and learn together. Parents are invited to the table as well in a calculated effort to combat cultures of misinformation, including those that might exist at home. With IT is for Girls, it’s not just about teaching young women to code – it’s about changing public perceptions of careers in technology.
Since the program launched, IT is for Girls has grown into a week-long summer camp and boasts a newly conceived sister program (We Make IT) that focuses on additional subjects such as robotics. These diverse programs and focuses allow young women to learn the fundamentals of computing according to their own unique interests.
As of 2014, WIIT also encompasses Triad Tech Savvy, a local branch of the national American Association of University Women conference. The one-day program informs girls from sixth to ninth grade about careers in STEM areas and what they can do for them. Hands-on activities in all aspects of STEM are provided by Greensboro collaborators that include the UNCG physics department, the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, the Guilford College chemistry department, GTCC, and more. And like IT is for Girls, it also seeks to inform parents and guardians about the truth of STEM careers.
“We have some sessions where there’s information about how to prepare your daughters for STEM education … psychologists led this panel on teen brain development and what parents need to do to tune their daughters into STEM education,” explains Iyer. “Then there’s a financial planning for college session, and there’s information about careers, and the parents get to visit the sessions attended by the girls.” The 2016 Tech Savvy program is expanding to include medical and musical elements.
WIIT is also addressing students who have already arrived at college. Just this year, Iyer introduced Rise IT for Social Good. The program aims to “Recruit, Inspire, Sustain and Engage (RISE) young women in IT projects based on social themes.” RISE specifically targets undergraduate women at UNCG and offers an innovative and practical way to learn programing. It also emphasizes building community among women in IT.
“Studies have shown that programming classes are being taught in a very abstract sense that doesn’t really engage female students. It’s rather a very ‘masculine’ way of teaching programming that girls feel very disengaged with. We teach these programming concepts in the context of a social problem.”
What ultimately sets WIIT apart is the focus on engagement, not just information. If the gender dynamics of the IT field are to change, that change must begin with how IT is perceived by students and parents. Iyer’s work in her community not only offers fulfilling careers to a younger generation of women – it also invigorates IT. WIIT brings a wave of new voices to the field, and grants those voices an opportunity for dialogue.
Author Ben Tasho is a Media and Communication Intern with the UNCG Office of Research and Economic Development. He researches and writes articles about the on and off campus impacts of UNCG research. Ben is a sophomore at UNCG, majoring in Media Studies. His interest in writing, media, and education led him to his current position.