Academy-Industry Partnerships to Bring Women to IT
By Alka Harriger and Gail Farnsley
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
These days, it is difficult for anyone to argue that a gender gap exists in the information technology (IT) industry. In the early 1980s, the ratio of male-to-female student enrollment was close to equal. Today, the nationwide female enrollment in most computing programs varies between 5 to 20 percent of the total.

Why should anyone care that a gender gap exists in IT? Given how ubiquitous IT has become across many facets of the society, including only one gender when designing IT solutions could yield outcomes that are less appealing to the excluded gender. Recall the result when air bags first came to the market – they were found to be fatal to women drivers: The all-male design team failed to take the generally smaller size of women into account while designing.

Although the gender gap is a significant problem, it is also creating an ideal opportunity for the academia and the industry to forge partnerships that not only address (and solve) this problem, but create unique, collaborative programs that benefit all parties. This paper will share some examples of these partnerships and the benefits they bring. In each of these solutions, the reader should keep the following points in mind:
* Despite high levels of unemployment, IT continues to enjoy job demand. Several IT-related jobs appear on the top 20 list of the US Department of Labor’s predictions.
* Women want a career to benefit society, but few believe that computing does that.
* Female college freshmen often don’t realize the value of mentors.

Industry Reaching out to Academia
One very effective way industry can get involved with academia is through direct interactions with students beyond the typical college recruiting process. Industry partners can provide important role models and mentors for students. At Purdue University there are many different ways for industry partners to engage with our underrepresented students.

Student organizations are a great way to connect directly with students, and they allow the industry partner to target students with specific interests. Here are examples of some student organizations to consider:
* Women in Technology
* Minority Technology Association
* Association for Computing Machinery
* Association of Information Technology Professionals
* Society of Women Engineers

Industry can provide support for their activities, fund special programs, and share their experiences with students. Our industry partners regularly provide leaders to speak to student groups about their companies and about careers in IT in general.

Once a relationship with a partner is established, it is not uncommon for the partner to begin providing scholarships for students. Again, this is a way for the industry partner to have a very positive impact on a small number of students, as well as increasing the presence of the company on campus.

Instead of physically going to the school, companies can bring students and faculty to their organization by offering tours and company visits. In addition to getting to showcase their facilities and organization, the tours provide students with informal access to industry leaders and industries with excellent mentoring opportunities. In planning the tour, you should make sure the tour highlights how women are contributing to your organization and sharing the positive impact they have brought to a product or service line or to the society in general.

There are many more ways in which industry can connect with the IT faculty. Given the dynamic nature of IT, it is important for the faculty to share the latest IT trends being used in industry. IT professionals can share experiences using the latest technology and processes as a classroom guest speaker. Because academic budgets rarely include allowances to reimburse guest speakers, the IT professional should expect to have all costs covered by his or her company. To take advantage of the opportunity of increasing representation of women, the presenter should either be a female IT professional or should include images in the presentation that show women performing the work and having fun and thus making a difference.

Taking the faculty contact further, you might consider engaging in a collaborative project in your shared research area. Providing collaborative support to a female faculty member will help increase her impact on her students of both genders. Working with a male faculty member on a project where female IT professionals can participate will provide him with additional examples to illustrate successful IT women in his classes. If faculties lead research projects that directly address the IT gender gap, IT professionals should initiate contacts to find out how they can get involved. For example, the SPIRIT project at Purdue (www.ITPossibilities.org) has benefited from industry partners who gave presentations, led hands-on sessions, provided give-aways to participants, sponsored evening activities, and loaned PCs for special sessions.

Academic programs also use Industrial Advisory Boards (IAB) to maintain currency and relevancy. If you want to make a greater impact, look for programs with IABs that meet regularly and discuss the issues related to facilities, curriculum, recruitment, or other issues of interest to your organization. Some departments may look for volunteers who attend a minimum number of meetings annually, while others may offer a fee-based partnership program. Once on the board, share your insights about how the program can address (in all areas including curriculum, recruitment, retention, and faculty) some of the issues that have contributed to closing the IT gender gap.

Many faculty members choose to work in the academia to have a more flexible summer. Some may seek work to supplement their income as well as expand their knowledgebase to take back to the classroom. Providing faculty internships to create collaboration between men and women will give the faculty valuable experiences to take back to the classroom.

Academia Reaching out to Industry
Most leading academic programs will undoubtedly initiate and welcome industry collaboration. However, it is important to get connected with the right companies. The ‘rightness’ of the company will depend upon the goals of your academic program, your geographic location, and mutual interests. You need to identify your strategic areas for research, teaching, and engagement along the lines of your current and future strengths and weaknesses.

Once you can explain who you are, the next step is to identify the companies that could help your program accelerate progress in your strategic areas. If you don’t already have an IAB, create one with an eye for representation across these areas. Be sure to include employers who recruit your graduates, especially those that target your program. Try to balance the gender representation on the board and focus on long-term, sustainable relationships and benefits to all parties. Develop a framework to manage an ongoing relationship that brings mutual benefit. As you do this, consider whether the relationship is between the faculty and individual IT professionals or between the academic unit and business or corporate foundation. Provide opportunities for them to get involved on important projects, such as reducing the IT gender gap.

Conclusion
Developing effective academy-industry partnerships can lead to collaborative opportunities that benefit all constituents. When done with the strategic thinking towards reducing the IT gender gap, both parties will reap the benefits: The state of the IT discipline will be improved considerably because we will have a greater chance to develop IT solutions that appeal to the entire population rather than to just half of it comprising of one gender. The solutions themselves are likely to be more creative and successful both in the short and the long run.

The authors are Alka Harriger, Computer and Information Technology Department at Purdue University and Gail Farnsley, Visiting Professor in the Computer and Information Technology Department at Purdue University.
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