Congratulations to our friends at NCWIT - the National Center for Women & Information Technology! Executive Director Lucy Sanders and the rest of the NCWIT team are at the Google Campus in San Jose, CA, this week hosting their semi-annual meetings AND celebrating the organization's 5th birthday. (Not bad to have the world's coolest company throwing your 5th birthday party, huh?) NCWIT - a non-profit established in 2004 with the goal of increasing women's participation in information technology - today boasts a coalition membership of more than 170 prominent corporations, academic institutions, government agencies and non-profits. And based on the numbers, they have a huge task ahead:
  • In 2008 women earned only 18 percent of all CS degrees. Back in 1985, women earned 37 percent of CS degrees.
  • Women hold more than half of all professional occupations in the U.S. but fewer than 24 percent of all computing-related occupations.
  • Only 16 percent of Fortune 500 technology companies have women corporate officers.
NCWIT's goal isn't just about parity for parity's sake. It's about ensuring that the information technology that this world creates is the most innovative and useful it can be. And having women involved in the IT creative process makes it better: A study on U.S. technology patenting reveals that patents created by mixed-gender teams are the most highly cited (an indicator of their innovation and usefulness); yet women were involved in only 9 percent of U.S. tech patents. In January, I attended a talk by NCWIT Communications Director Jenny Slade at the Chicks Who Click social media conference in Boulder. Jenny's talk about "Enlisting Women in Tech" was informative, eye-opening, clever, funny and accessible. She used the right mix of data with real-world examples of why women's participation in IT matters. The example I loved the most was about the first voice-recognition software used in answering machines. When a woman tried to use the system, it hung up on her because the machine hadn't been programmed to recognize female voice octaves; the creators - all men - had only tested it using men's voices. When I recently asked Jenny about the creation of NCWIT, she recalled this of the organization's initial plenary discussion in 2003: "A huge snowstorm blew in the night before and it snowed all the next day, but almost everyone showed up anyway - many from out of town. There were industry folks and academics and researchers and marketing types and several people who had been single-handedly working to attract and retain women in computing for decades. We gathered in a conference room at the UMC. ...In the afternoon we split up into groups to brainstorm what solving the "problem" of women's lack of participation in IT would look like, and when we re-gathered it turned out that every group had proposed creating some sort of united, national organization. Originally we called ourselves the National Center for Gender and Information Technology, but then that seemed opaque when it was clear our focus was to be on women (why not just say what you mean?)." A year later, NCWIT was on its way, with funding from the National Science Foundation and others. At NCWIT's board of directors dinner at the end of April, Brad Feld - NCWIT Board Chairman and well-known venture capitalist - told the audience that NCWIT had always considered itself a two-decade organization. It had spent the first five years figuring out why there's a derth of women in IT, and now it will spend the next 15 years changing that. Let's wish them luck as we all will surely benefit from NCWIT's success.