Overcoming the digital divide: Diversifying the IT sector

Improvements needed in the delivery of computer sciences education.
By Allan Fisher
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/03/2001

Amid the extraordinary ongoing explosion of information technology and its applications, a shortage of skilled workers poses enormous challenges for HR professionals charged with staffing IT and software engineering departments.

A Forbes magazine survey found that 40 per cent of software projects were canceled while another 35 per cent had serious problems due to a shortage of appropriate personnel. Similar shortages exist for people trained in hardware and systems development.

Despite this demand, participation of women and minorities in the creation of new hardware and software remains low compared to that of white males.

The disparity between the number of white male computer scientists and minority computer scientists is significant. In recent years, only five per cent of all bachelors degrees in the United States — the standard credential for software jobs — in computer science and engineering went to Blacks and Hispanics of either sex, while only 15 per cent were awarded to women.

The widening gap between available IT jobs and potential candidates is partially attributable to the digital divide — the gap in access to and participation in IT by minorities, women and individuals of lower income levels.

The impact of this under-representation is profound, both for individuals in the under-represented groups and for society at large. Talented individuals are missing out on great economic opportunity, and business and society are missing both the productivity and the unique perspectives those individuals could bring to the technology enterprise.

Origins of the digital divide

In order for HR professionals to deal with the digital divide, it is important to understand its origins.

The gap seems to begin in the education system. Schools in lower income areas have far fewer computers than schools in wealthier districts. Moreover, low-income households are less likely to have computers at home than their wealthier, suburban counterparts.

Studies show that when computers are available, teachers of “higher-achieving” classes use the Internet more often, and find it more useful to their teaching.

Boys and “better students” also tend to dominate computer use. Studies also show that even when minority children use computers extensively in school, they are often assigned more rote activities in contrast to the higher-level activities engaged in by the majority children at school.

The result, over time, is that women and minorities seem less likely to become computer professionals.

Part of the lack of involvement among under-represented groups, white women included, seems to involve the attractiveness of the field, both in reality and in its popular perception.

When asked as part of a Carnegie Mellon University study to explain the reasons why she thought computer science wasn’t right for her, a female student responded, “When I have free time I don’t spend it reading machine learning books or robotics books like these other guys here. It’s like ‘Oh, my gosh, this isn’t for me.’...In my free time I prefer to read a good fiction book or learn how to do photography or something different, whereas that’s their hobby, it’s their work, it’s their one goal. I’m just not like that at all; I don’t dream in code like they do.”

Changing the

corporate culture

The perception of Carnegie Mellon University survey participants was that successful computer scientists are “at the computer 24 hours a day, seven days a week (24/7), living, thinking and breathing computer science.”

In order for more women and minorities to be attracted to careers in computing and to employment at specific companies, HR professionals would do well to promote the fact that their corporate cultures promote work-life balance.

By virtue of their narrow demographic makeup, corporate technology departments can be unintentionally unwelcoming to individuals from other backgrounds. Members of under-represented groups are also likely to bear the brunt of stereotypes about who does, or can do, computing work.

Stanford University psychologist Claude Steele’s research on stereotype threat offers one explanation for the link between these negative stereotypes, drops in confidence and declining interest.

In his 1997 American Psychologist article “A Threat in the Air,” Steele looks at the experiences of blacks in higher education and women in traditionally male fields, examining what could be depressing their grades and scores on standardized testing, and in advanced math and science courses especially.

Steele says that when one is in a situation in which a negative stereotype about one’s group applies, one is fearful of confirming the stereotype. This creates a “stereotype threat,” which can lead to poorer performance and ultimately may lead to minorities leaving the field.

Having role models of successful minority computer scientists within a company’s technology department may do well to attract more women and minorities.

Training and

development required

Enhanced recruiting of diverse populations to computing-related positions will succeed only if educational institutions and employers change to serve them well.

Any given initiative will necessarily focus primarily on one area, but all should be designed with an understanding of the big picture. Similarly, no one discipline or type of institution holds the entirety of the solution; cross-disciplinary and cross-sector collaboration is critical to creating systemic solutions.

Though more research is needed, the solutions may be found in these areas:

1. Understanding why minorities choose computing careers: What are the patterns of access, experience and attitudes of various minority groups in computing fields?

What factors drive key decisions, from childhood through career entry? How do the preferences of various groups differ from the “norm?” The answers can inform both the “marketing” of technology studies and careers, and the restructuring of existing institutions.

2. Understanding how minorities receive computer science training: What is the shape of the education and career pipeline for different groups of minority students? At what points in the pipeline are minority students lost? What are the pathways into various types of computing careers? How might those losses be prevented, and opportunities to re-enter the pipeline provided?

3. Evaluating existing programs regarding minorities in computing fields: Which have been successful and not so successful? What elements are crucial to success? What successful programs in other domains might be adapted to IT? What are the best practices?

4. Dealing with employer stereotypes: What are the stereotypes that exist at your company or organization? How can those stereotypes be changed so that the organization is better equipped to attract, recruit and retain women and minority computer scientists?

5. Realizing that one size doesn’t fit all: Individuals, communities and institutions differ greatly. Programs and approaches that work in one company may not work in others.

Involve minority employees in developing a recruiting strategy and its execution. Even if a top-down plan is well conceived in principle, it is unlikely to be accepted without early involvement by its target population.

6. Marketing the advantages of computing careers: Paint the possibilities of computing as more than isolated hacking. Emphasize that computing professionals really can address important real-world problems, work in close contact with people, and have rich personal and community relationships.

7. Publicizing role models: While they constitute a distinct minority, many members of under-represented groups are highly successful technologists and entrepreneurs. Making them more visible can encourage others.

Allan Fisher is president and CEO of Carnegie Technology Education (CTE) in Pittsburgh, Pa. CTE is a non-profit subsidiary of Carnegie Mellon University that partners with colleges to provide students with access to IT curricula. For more information visit www.carnegietech.org.

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