NSF puts IT work force under the microscope
- By Colleen O'Hara
- Apr 03, 2000
The National Science Foundation is funding research to help explain why
women and minorities are underrepresented in the information technology
work force and find out what might be done to change that inequity.
The research should provide valuable information to agencies struggling
to fill their IT work force gaps. "The whole point is to look at it from
a nationwide basis," said Caroline Wardle, program manager and deputy division
director of NSF's Experimental and Integrative Activities Division. "We
want research results that are applicable throughout the country that benefit
government, education" and other organizations.
In general, women and minorities are underrepresented in IT fields,
but they are a "ripe source" for consideration in the federal government,
said Ira Hobbs, deputy chief information officer at the Agriculture Department.
A CIO Council report released last summer, co-authored by Hobbs, recommended
that the Office of Personnel Management encourage agencies to recruit from
nontraditional labor pools including women, minorities and disabled people
as a way to cope with the IT work force shortage.
Women and minorities in government generally make up a larger percentage
of the IT work force than in the private sector, the report said.
"The government does a better job than the private sector, but that's
not to say we couldn't do more," Hobbs said. "I think we need to be more
inclusive in our recruiting programs."
Mentoring and career development programs that are geared toward women
and minorities are good ways to encourage these groups to enter and advance
in IT fields, Hobbs pointed out in his report.
Some steps are being made in that direction. This year, the Information
Technology Association of America launched its Digital Opportunity Initiative,
which matches minority college students with IT jobs in the private sector.
The ITAA's program consists of an IT internship program as well as
an education and outreach program.
"We're doing this because we are concerned about the lack of minorities
in the IT work force. But we see these underrepresented groups as very untapped
resources of IT talent," said Marjorie Bynum, vice president for Workforce
Development at ITAA.
"Not only do they have the talent, but they have the interest. We feel
that these positions we're asking companies to [provide] will give them
exposure to IT," she said.
By reaching younger workers earlier, they are more likely to consider
an IT career, Bynum said.
Seeking Solid Data
NSF decided to fund between 15 and 25 research projects this fiscal
year to collect the data it needs to help determine why women and minorities
are underrepresented in IT and help encourage their participation in the
The awards will range from $75,000 to $250,000 per year for up to three
years. Proposals are due June 22.
The research projects will address how IT education and career choices
for women and minorities are influenced by access to technology, popular
culture and quality-of-life issues.
Studies will look to fields such as engineering, medicine and law for
successful strategies for attracting and retaining women and minorities.
Wardle said she wants the NSF researchers to take a multidisciplinary
approach to come up with solid data. "Instead of just funding ideas, we
decided it is important to have a research program that will give us the
hard data," Wardle said. "When the [results] start to come out, we can fund
the implementation of those results."