Feds: Lack of diversity in IT could derail U.S. competitiveness

Officials from the government's science-dependent agencies spoke out yesterday about the under-representation of women, minorities and people with disabilities in information technology, emphasizing that diversity is critical to the United States' competitiveness.

Women and minorities are under-represented at every level of computer science higher education, according to the National Science Foundation's latest data.

At a town hall meeting sponsored by the National Center for Women and IT and NSF, Sharon Hays, chief of staff at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said diversity in IT plays a fundamental role in the nation's security, commerce and the advancement of other scientific disciplines.

"We can't go into this fight to maintain this nation's competitiveness if we're fighting with one hand tied behind our backs," she said.

The Defense Department relies heavily on IT skills, but immigration policy can make it hard to hire the brightest people, said William Berry, DOD’s acting deputy undersecretary of Defense, laboratories and basic sciences.

Seventy-nine percent of all computer scientists who work for the federal government work for DOD, he said, but "we have a particular problem in DOD in that the majority of our employees have to have a security clearance,” which requires citizenship.

The Education Department and NSF are now working to ensure students of all races, genders and backgrounds better understand and appreciate computer science, the panelists said.

In explaining the root of the diversity problem, Tony Fowler, program analyst at Education's Intergovernmental and Interagency Affairs Office, recalled something former Education Secretary Rod Paige said.

"We don't know how to teach math and science," Fowler said.

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