NCWIT 2014

2014-06-03 19.21.42

My daughter constructed one of the “Sit With Me” red chairs that were distributed at the summit–a future computer scientist??

The National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) celebrated its 10th anniversary this year at its annual summit. NCWIT’s goal is to increase women’s participation in computing and technology fields through high-visibility events and activities. This year’s event featured over 600 attendees from universities, colleges, companies of all sizes, government agencies, and other organizations. The NCWIT Summit balances headline events (keynotes, flashtalks, award announcements) with opportunities for focused groupwork. I had a major role with two groups, described in other posts: Pacesetters and the Academic Alliance. We also had a big role in the Sit With Me campaign to get people talking about diversity and inclusion.  I’ll describe the main conference events here.

For me, the most inspirational part of this event was the great collection of keynotes. As always, the organizers did a great job in identifying speakers.  While all the keynotes had value, these three (with links to the talks) are the ones that I found most relevant and interesting:

  • Michael Kimmel, a sociologist from Stony Brook best known to me for his book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, gave a keynote titled Mars and Venus and Planet Earth.  He highlighted ways in which men can become more engaged in gender equality, focusing on the many hurdles to doing so. Too often, men may acknowledge that it’s right and fair to encourage participation by women, but it’s compartmentalized into individual events rather than encouraging of more meaningful changes. Many men don’t acknowledge that differences exist and the benefits of privilege that are constantly present, making it hard to even begin to address issues. To reflect this point, he noted out that ties embody this lack of awareness and its danger: at one end it is a noose and the other points to the genitals.  This is just one of the many amusing analogies and anecdotes he used.
  • Maggie Neale from Stanford gave the opening keynote on influence and negotiation strategies.  She’s talked and written widely on this topic–at this meeting she focused on aspects that relate to issues of diversity.  One issue that she faced hit close to home: she recently faced an increase in her courseload as dictated by administrators who didn’t account for the breadth of value that she brought to the table.  That, and other increases in workload, has been seen at Virginia Tech and a great many other universities in this time of rising enrollment and declining funding, not only for teaching but also for many other professional resources.  She emphasized techniques for addressing these hurdles that I plan to employ in the near future. I agree with Maggie that our leaders generally have reasonable goals in mind when making decisions, but they often don’t fully consider their decisions’ consequences–particularly diversity-related consequences.
  • Chelsea Clinton provided the closing keynote, discussing how her primary interests in global healthcare need partnerships that engage women and technology.  Maybe the biggest cheer came when it was noted she was a newly minted Ph.D. (in international relations from Oxford), to be expected from an academic crowd!  She seemed very knowledgeable about important initiatives that engage women with technology, many of which partner with the Clinton Foundation in some way.  Her talk was good, but even better was the subsequent Q&A session with NCWIT’s Lucy Sanders in which she answered some tough questions–though she didn’t fall for Lucy’s attempt to acknowledge computer science as the most important 21st century skill!

(I’ll also note that Mark Guzdial has a similar list (along with his recap of the summit and his workshop)–I feel like I’m in good company!)

There were many awards that were highlighted at the summit.  The Undergraduate Research Mentoring Award (that I helped to select) went to Bob Beck, Marie desJardins, Silvia Figueira, and Alan Jamieson. This year was the first for the Harrold and Notkin Award for graduate mentoring, won by Nancy Amato. Perhaps most notable was the Pioneer Award this year, to Eleanor Kolchin from IBM and NYU, who worked on early plugboard computers starting in the 1940s.

Another focal point for the summit was a series of workshops to help address key issues regarding women in computing.  The workshops kicked off with a series of 5-minute flashtalks highlighting their respective topics–providing a really interesting view into new directions and concerns regarding women and IT. Alas, the workshops themselves were not as satisfying, perhaps because of the huge number of people in attendance at the workshops of interest to me (standing room only in many, which doesn’t really work well for a highly-interactive workshop format).  Not sure what can be done about that–NCWIT certainly wants more people engaged in these topics, so perhaps encouraging preregistration limits and/or considering different formats for idea exchange will be necessary at future summits.

One other mixed success event from my perspective: Aspirations Award winners were highlighted in several ways but were not as visible as they were at last year’s NCWIT. The Aspirations in Computing program highlights “high potential technically inclined young women”. Virginia Tech has identified and sponsored a half dozen awardees in recent years, with hopes to double that in the next year or so. I’d love to see more ways to highlight their accomplishments at future summits.

2014-05-19 15.03.28

The state of Virginia NCWIT representatives

And I’ve got to end with one other highlight: big thanks to Sharon Simmons, Department Head at James Madison University, for organizing a reception for NCWIT participants from the state of Virginia.  We had attendees at the reception from James Madison, George Mason, Norfolk State, Virginia State, the University of Virginia, Piedmont Virginia CC, NSF, CRA, and (of course) Virginia Tech.  We talked about coordinating some statewide recruiting and retention events, perhaps during computing week.

As always, NCWIT took part in a beautiful environment–Newport Beach, California–with over 600 attendees.  It will require careful thought to manage the continued growth in this event moving forward, but they have great leadership and solid partnership that suggests they will be up for the task.  Looking forward to next year’s NCWIT 2015 Summit in Hilton Head, SC!

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