My professional ecosystem is more or less centered in the web industry, and the more I hear about its goings-on so much from the blogoverse, the more I think that everything revolves around us. My first trip to the MDWIT (Multinational Development for Women in Technology) Conference this past Thursday reminded me that there's life outside Silicon Alley, and they're facing women in technology shortages in a different, direct way.
MDWIT has worked with every agency high and low to come up with a solid plan to boost the number of ladies getting into tech. It starts at the educational level by developing more scholarship programs for students interested in STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, or Math), providing a regimented mentoring program, fostering more internships, and directly integrating IT more tightly into the K-12 curricula. Sounds ambitious and expensive, but the sense of urgency held by the DC Metro area is compounded by government agencies' aging workforce and increase in IT-related jobs, so funding for these projects is clearly available and comes with the promise of a return on the investment.
Not only will there be a ton of jobs available in that geographic area (especially with the upcoming base realignment plan in MD), the breadth of IT jobs available is huge. The government sector covers Defense-related technologies (planes, submarines, helicopters, radar or communication systems -- you name it) as well as general agency IT needs (HR systems, payroll, custom CMS's, sheesh, it could be anything), and the majority of my employed UMBC college classmates work for Uncle Sam.
The majority of the attendees, sponsors, and workshops of the MDWIT conference had strong ties to the government IT industry. Most of the speakers were either entrepreneurs of government-contract-based agencies, or were long-time employees of defense development companies that performed IT by default. Most of the time, the conference felt more like a women-in-government-related-business conference than a tech conference, particularly when a higher-up from Northrup Grumman admitted that programming didn't excite her, followed by an apology "to any programmers out there". The international entrepreneurial workshop I attended was interesting for its frank discussion about business customs in other countries. One CEO refused to attend a press conference for her game debut in Saudi Arabia because the organizers required her husband's written permission! After the formal conference, a poster session highlighted local students' research in STEM-related fields to bring further closure to the issue at hand.
I will say, though, that the keynote speaker, activist Bernice "Bunny" Sandler, bowled me over with her wisdom. She's known as "The Mother of Title IX"1, and, good lord, I wish she tweeted. In an era when women used to shrug off disadvantages as "weird" or "crazy", she stepped up to call out women's issues in education and the workplace as a denial of basic human rights. The discrimination was so profound that they literally didn't have a name for it, since harassment and lack of access to educational choices due to gender was just normal. BLOWS MY MIND.
MDWIT's efforts are obviously good news for women. Not only do they have the support of local businesses and government officials, but there are other government initiatives that acknowledge and encourage access for women-owned businesses, like the Give me 5 program. We all know that the NY Times has acknowledged the issue for women in the web industry, but it's a shame that they overlooked MDWIT's efforts to turn the tide. MDWIT has really done their homework by quantitatively showing the decline of women in IT compared with the increase in industry demand, and their fliers (thumbnailed above) paint a convincing picture.
Was this a tech conference? No. It was a gathering to appreciate women in the tech industry, from teachers, advocates, entrepreneurs, business-women, and everyone in between, and to acknowledge that, collectively, we have to change things for the next generation. Comments that detract from the glamorous lifestyle of a coder are admittedly bad for everyone, but the overall message was great, and the atmosphere certainly made all attendees feel comfortable, connected, and empowered. We're a little bit closer to Progress.1 I know Title IX gets a lot of flack for 'taking away' funding from male teams, but when you hear Sandler speak to its original intention, it totally makes sense. She performed studies across the country where the budgets for female athletic teams were literally $0, where at schools like the University of Michigan, the football team alone had a million dollars and the women's teams had none. Conditions were so wack that the male gymnastics team would sympathize with their female counterpart and donate their used, sweaty tape and bandages because the womens' team couldn't buy any. You get my drift. Besides, it applies to all of education, not just the athletic department. Before this law, some schools wouldn't girls to take shop or mechanics classes and colleges could reject qualified women from admission without consequence.