NCWIT 2015

The National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) held its annual summit last week in Hilton Head, SC. NCWIT’s goal is to increase women’s participation in computing and technology fields through high-visibility events and activities that engage universities, colleges, companies, and government institutions. The NCWIT Summit balances headline events (keynotes, flashtalks, award announcements) with opportunities for focused discussion, posters, and workshops.

It seems like NCWIT always does a great job of lining up keynotes; my favorites were Ben Jealous and Karen Ashcroft. Former NAACP leader Ben Jealous talked about his experiences with prejudice and how it’s important to work hard to recognize and overcome it. CU communications prof Karen Ashcroft highlighted how changing the work environment is key to improving diversity, focusing on a re-valuing of skills, priorities, and communication habits. Most keynotes will be available on the NCWIT site in the near future (Ashcroft’s slides are already there).

Pacesetters wrapped up its latest two-year session last November, but the group met to discuss future directions. Pacesetters is a subset of NCWIT members that seeks to define and exercise approaches to diversity. The last few cohorts focused on increasing the number of “net new women”, though it seems that term was used in so many different ways that it lost much of its meaning. (And some companies were reluctant to supply such numbers.) It seems decided that the next two-year focus will be on “retention of women”, which seems could suffer from the same definitional issues. I look forward to seeing how the definition evolves, and how it might fit CS@VT’s needs and goals. In addition, several companies demoed software to help remove bias from the hiring and promotion bias; most relevant was Textio’s tool that automatically reviews job ads for biased words and phrases and suggests alternatives. Perhaps focusing on the retention and mentoring of women faculty, e.g., seeking to ensure a lack of bias in annual review letters, would be a possible Pacesetter direction.

NCWIT consists of several alliances—Virginia Tech is part of the Academic Alliance—that held various breakout activities during the summit. I took part in a panel on undergraduate mentoring of women and underrepresented minorities, providing direction and tips to about 15 attendees. I also showed off a poster of our work with Extension Services. I attended other breakout groups on pursuing funding, and I viewed posters on diversity activities at other institutions.

There were a few little hiccups along the way.  The workshops were overfull, and I couldn’t get in either I signed up for in advance.  (Unlike last year, when there were people lining the sides of the rooms of the most popular workshops, they just closed the doors when it was full…not sure which is better/worse, but neither worked for me!) The venue was beautiful but a bit small for our growing group—something that the organizers seem to realize and plan to move to correct. And the Aspirations award winners, so visible at the summit two years ago, seemed to be lurking in the shadows for the second year in a row. Our students seemed to enjoy the event, and they made lots of great contacts, but they weren’t as visible around the venue as I hoped. I realize this becomes increasingly difficult as the program grows.

Virginia Tech was well-represented since this was a “local” conference. Also in attendance from VT were fellow change leader Libby Bradford and four Virginia Tech undergrads. Libby had several presentations and meetings related to our participation in the Aspirations program. Our undergrads were invited to lots of dinners and other meetups with companies and organizations. I served on a panel titled “How to be an award-winning mentor”, focused on ways to engage with young women through research experiences. We’re putting together a collection of tips that will be posted online soon. I also presented a poster about our involvement with NCWIT’s Extension Services—big thanks to Cathy Brawner of NCWIT for helping out with that.

As always, a big plus was connecting with the great people in attendance. It’s always wonderful to talk with the positive and energetic NCWIT staff, especially Kim Kalahar and Jill Ross. Organizations from the state of Virginia had an informal meetup, corralled by JMU department head Sharon Simmons. There were countless regulars in attendance that I connected with, and I caught up with lots of VT alums, including Cheryl Seals and Felicia Doswell, And there were plenty of new faces and new ideas; e.g., Hai Hong from Google told me about CS-first.com as a possibility for expanding what our CS Squared outreach club does, and several new faculty attendees discussed the possibility of joint hackathons.

It’s always great to connect with this enthusiastic group. Pacesetters kicks off a new cohort in November, and Virginia Tech may be part of that. And next year’s summit will be in Las Vegas—no longer local, but certainly a popular destination.

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  1. April 6, 2016 at 9:45 am

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