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Pacesetters 2014: The Final Chapter

November 19, 2014 Leave a comment

The National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) Pacesetters program consists of a group of companies and universities committed to adding Net New Women to their institutions through targeted recruiting and support programs. The group commits to meeting twice per year to review approaches and track progress. November 2014 marked the last meeting of the current cohort of Pacesetters, with a slate of interesting talks and discussions.

Exploring more deeply the (lack of) diversity revelations by Google, Facebook, and others, there were several talks and presentations by companies of varying sizes. The keynote talk by Carol Mullins, Associate Commissioner of the Office of Technology and Survey Processing (OTSP) gave a candid view of diversity in her office. The numbers seemed better than in most tech-related organizations, but there was still room for improvement. It was interesting to see the desire in the workplace to do things to help diversity, but sometimes a lack of will to commit resources (e.g., employees are told they can work from home vs putting security in place; encourage tech employees but not paying them). Representatives from SendGrid and Google discussed challenges and opportunities at their companies, along with the sensitivities in releasing numbers (particularly for big companies).

Another focus point for Pacesetters relates to bias that can occur in job ads that discourages participation by women and other minorities. Pacesetters created a checklist to help craft job ads to reduce this unconscious bias. The goal is to focus on gender-neutral descriptions of the job and workplace. Several groups worked very hard in crafting their ads using this checklist, though in the discussion several people noted that HR offices often have rules and guidelines that can require certain language. (I ran into that at VT, as much of the language in job ads seemed to be because of some guideline or regulation or requirement.) Charlie McDowell put forth an important suggestion: to compartmentalize the steps that need to be done, and hand those off to the appropriate person in our organizations. It seems vital to do that with an eye toward the existing myriad guidelines that exist, ensuring (perhaps consolidating?) them into a coherent and consistent package.

I’ll end by circling around to the central focus of NCWIT that was discussed at the Pacesetters meeting: net new women. We talked about the definition of net new women, and the advantages and dangers of “counting” them. For one group, a net new woman might be a new faculty or grad student, for another it might be a woman retained due to an extended maternity leave, another possibility is a scholarship that helps ease the burden on attending school, and still another is a visit with a group of women that points them toward a technical career. At Virginia Tech, we’ve counted women from several of these categories (and more), which seems a bit like adding apples and oranges—which are then added to the pears and cucumbers and other assortment from other places. Numbers are important, but these numbers may not best quantify the goals of Pacesetters.  It seems this issue will be addressed for the next Pacesetters cohort, slated to start in 2015.

So what’s next? The NCWIT Annual Summit take part next May—a celebration of diversity that has had notable speakers like Chelsea Clinton, Michael Kimmel, Michael Schwern, and others. Since the event takes place in Hilton Head—in the “neighborhood” of Virginia Tech—we’re hoping to have a big presence. Ruthe Farmer suggested having undergraduate Aspirations award winners at VT as ambassadors at the summit, with access to a great slate of people and activities. More then!

Categories: Uncategorized

ASSETS 2014

November 13, 2014 Leave a comment

Last month I attended the ASSETS conference for the second time. ASSETS is the flagship conference for the ACM special interest group on accessible technology (SIGACCESS). Even in the face of recent growth, ASSETS remains a single track conference, keeping the numbers of attendees around 150 and thus keeping everyone in the same room. That makes it easier to get a sense of the major players in the community and details about the set of most important topics for this community. ASSETS this year was in Rochester NY, two years ago I attended in Boulder CO. ASSETS 2015 will be in Portugal—we’ll see if they do as good a job!

Rochester was a great place for ASSETS, as the host schools Rochester Institute of Technology and University of Rochester both have large groups focused on disability issues–RIT hosted the reception in a building dedicated to research on disabilities. It was eye-opening to go to one of the floors populated by deaf researchers—clearly the culture was to use sign language to communicate, and they were in the process of accomplishing great things. I’d encourage any student or researcher who wants to develop interfaces for people with sensory impairments to look closely at RIT. A second reception was at Rochester’s Strong Museum of Play—great fun. Other conference highlights include a well-attended poster session and some excellent paper sessions.

The biggest presence seemed to be from UMBC with 17 people, thanks to Amy Hurst and the recently departed Shaun Kane and their students leading many papers and posters and such. Hosts RIT and U of R had groups in attendance, along with the University of Colorado, the University of Washington, IBM, and others. We had a good VT crowd in attendance, with Ph.D. students Bobby Beaton and Shuo Niu along with alums Walter Lasecki and Stacy Branham. Walter is finishing up at U of R (and CMU, sort of, as his advisor moved there) and Stacy is in the middle of a postdoc at UMBC.  Hire them!  Hire them all!

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Hokies past and present at ASSETS 2014.

So who should submit to this conference? The dominant presence focuses on researchers who look at physical disabilities, though there are a good number of papers that consider cognitive disabilities instead.  Just about every paper included some sort of user testing, with a focus to include people with disabilities in the testing. Clearly there were a lot of regulars at the conference, but it seems to be a welcoming community that wants to grow and include other researchers (though if it grows much larger I worry it will lose some of its intimacy). I’m not sure I’ll make it to Portugal next year, but I suspect I’ll make another appearance at ASSETS some time in the future.