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'We have to stop scaring women out of IT'

Women make up nearly half -- 44 percent -- of the federal workforce. But they hold just 31 percent of IT positions. That discrepancy has sparked a lot of discussion recently about how to get more women working in the tech space.

Four senior federal IT leaders talked about solutions during a Jan. 15 panel discussion hosted by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management.

"We have to stop scaring women out of IT," said Liz DelNegro, associate CIO of acquisition IT services at the General Services Administration. "We have to start this process of bringing people into the workforce. I also think we need to be actively recruiting. I'm not sure we're actively recruiting women in IT as much as we need to."

DelNegro started her career as an intern at GSA, where she discovered her interest in technology. From that beginning, she moved to other parts of the organization, working in technology and business applications.

Margie Graves, deputy CIO at the Department of Homeland Security and another federal IT veteran, agreeed that the government should be actively recruiting women into IT careers.

"We should be always scanning for opportunities to get these individuals into the paths and make sure we're telling them what can be done and what the impact is," she said.

But the panelists agreed that efforts to recruit women into technology careers must start even earlier. A report from the Girl Scouts of America found that more than 80 percent of girls are interested in careers in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, but only 13 percent pick one of those fields as their top career choice.

"We have to start earlier than college. Start in elementary school," said Donna Seymour, CIO at the Office of Personnel Management. "Start introducing technology earlier, in a way that both boys and girls can adopt it a little bit better."

That includes changing the way parents and teachers interact with girls during their primary-school years, she added.

"When I was coming along, girls were expected to sit and study, and we had excellent penmanship," Seymour said. "The boys were allowed to run around a little bit more."

"There's a way we can appeal to the girl generation and encourage them to be builders and problem solvers," DelNegro added.

Gender aside, these issues are part of what Seymour said is the biggest challenge she faces: preparing for the future workforce.

"It's very important we put money and time in mentoring, coaching and training," she said. "It's important for the federal workforce and making sure we're prepared for tomorrow."

But the government also has a slight advantage, said Lisa Schlosser, acting U.S. CIO and deputy administrator of the office of E-Government and IT. For perhaps the first time ever, there are five generations of employees in the federal government, which offers a huge opportunity for mentoring, she added.

About the Author

Colby Hochmuth is a former staff writer for FCW.

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