Building the next generation of female IT professionals

Some companies are putting money where their good intentions are.

STEM skills and female information technology (IT) professionals
Credit: Thinkstock

Like most technology executives, Jon Bischke worries about attracting and retaining top talent and the ever-widening skills gap that's plagued the IT industry for years. But Bischke, CEO of Entelo, a talent search, recruitment, hiring and staffing solution, is also troubled by the lack of women in the industry, and the ever-widening skills gap as women and minorities increasingly choose other professions.

"What's concerning to us is the dire need for diversity in the IT industry, and we see this huge gap in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills and training, especially with women and minorities," Bischke says. "While we have tools within our Entelo solution that allows recruiters and hiring managers to specifically focus on hiring from these underrepresented groups, we wanted to do more to encourage women's interest in STEM starting very early," he says.

While woman make up 48% of the US workforce, they comprise only 24% of STEM workers, according to the Census Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey (ACS). In other words, half as many women are working in STEM jobs as one might expect if gender representation in STEM professions mirrored the overall workforce, according to data from a 2011 US Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration report.

This underrepresentation has remained fairly consistent at 24% over the past decade, even as women's share of the college educated workforce has increased from 46% to 49%. That low level of representation is consistent across all levels of the STEM career pipeline; as defined by the Girl Scout Research Institute (GSRI) in a 2012 research report as, 'interest and intent to major in a STEM field in college to having a career in a STEM field in adulthood.'

According to the report, girls lose interest in math and science during middle school, and STEM interest for girls is low, overall, compared to boys. While most research on this topic has focused on the obstacles preventing more girls and women from entering STEM fields, the GSRI suggests focusing efforts on understanding and developing solutions that work in practice - not just in theory - for girls who show interest and want to engage in the fields of STEM.

One approach that's working according to Angie Schiavoni co-founder and executive director of CodeEd, a non-profit program that teaches computer science to girls from underserved communities, is starting in middle school. "The idea is that we partner with schools, businesses and with other social programs serving low-income girls to provide teachers - who are volunteers - computer science courses, and computers," says Schiavoni.

CodeEd began in 2010, and currently holds courses in San Francisco, Boston and New York City. Schiavoni, herself a technology product manager and her husband, co-founder Sep Kamvar, now a technology professor at MIT, were looking for ways to use their skills and knowledge to give back to the community, she says.

While living in New York City, Schiavoni and her husband connected with a group of girls from Manhattan's lower east side and started teaching them to build basic HTML-based Web sites.

"We weren't sure how successful we were going to be. But the girls loved it. It was such a simple, yet powerful experience - they loved seeing how learning these skills could help bring their passions and their interests to life in a very public way, and we looked at each other one day and said, 'We're onto something, here,'" says Schiavoni.

CodeEd's executive team trains volunteer teachers, all with technical backgrounds, and then places them in classrooms to help teach basic skills like HTML and CSS. "We find that starting with these simpler tools is a way to gauge interest and show quick results for these kids. Many of these kids have struggled through so much just to get through middle school, and it's encouraging for them to see results right away - it keeps them engaged," says Schiavoni.

Students can choose to build sites around almost any topic they want, which does tend to revolve around 'typical' teenage concerns: boy bands, clothes, school events, gossip, etc. However, Schiavoni points out, it's not as much about the content as the process and the skills the girls are learning. "We try, first and foremost, to create a safe space for these girls. We let them come up with whatever topic they're passionate about, and they develop the sites around that. It's a great entry to the 'pipeline' - they suddenly see this as a field that's open to them and is available as a career option," says Schiavoni.

To date their program has 'graduated' between 80 and 100 girls and initial data shows interest is growing. Partnerships with businesses like Bischke's Entelo and hosting provider GoDaddy are also helping to expand CodeEd's reach.

Bischke's Entelo solution, for example, has integrated analytics that can identify when a client makes a hire through the platform. For every hire made through the platform, Entelo will fully fund the overhead and education costs of coursework, technology and training for one girl to complete the program. "We were looking for ways to help address the skills gap, get more women and minorities involved in technology, and incentivize our clients to hire from these underrepresented groups. A bottle of champagne wasn't gonna cut it - but when we introduced our partnership with CodeEd, the client response was amazing. They love it. We are helping them not just make hires for the present, but we're making a difference for the future, one girl, one site at a time, and hopefully correcting the imbalance," says Bischke.

This story, "Building the next generation of female IT professionals" was originally published by CIO.

ITWorld DealPost: The best in tech deals and discounts.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon