Recent Department of Commerce and Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) studies have found that women and minorities are severely underrepresented among those earning undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in core information technology related fields of study, such as computer science and computer engineering. These findings, which echo the concerns that many activists, educators and politicians have been voicing for the past decade, help explain the severe gender and racial disparities of the core information technology (IT) workforce (electrical engineers, systems analysts and scientists, operation and systems researchers and analysts and software programmers and engineers). These reports conclude that until women and racial groups are equally represented in earning graduate and post-graduate degrees in IT-related fields of study, the trend of disparity in the IT workforce will continue.
According to a 1998-1999 Taulbee survey of degrees awarded to American university and college students, men earn approximately 85% of bachelor's, 74.5% of master's and 88% of doctoral IT-related degrees. And White non-Hispanics earn approximately 60% of bachelor's, 29.5% of master's and 38.5% of doctoral IT related degrees. It should be noted these statistics regarding race are distorted due to the significant number of international students awarded IT-related degrees in American colleges and Universities -- especially for post-graduate degrees. International students account for approximately 55% of master's and 48.5% of doctoral IT-related degrees. These statistics provide clear evidence of disparities in IT-related fields of study. But why are IT programs in America's colleges and universities failing to attract women and minorities?
According to the Department of Commerce's The Digital Workforce: Building Infotech Skills at the Speed of Innovation, many educators contend that the K-12 years are the most critical in generating student interest in pursuing IT careers. Educators argue that it is important to provide K-12 students with the appropriate knowledge of and interest in the IT profession. Students that lack interest in IT are not likely to pursue the science and math classes that are required for them to participate in college IT classes. More often than not, middle school is cited as the period in which children form opinions and make decisions that effect their future careers. Middle school is the crucial period when students choose to develop or not to develop the science and math skills necessary to effectively position themselves for IT-related college courses.
Unfortunately, very few children at the age of twelve are familiar with what a computer scientist does or have any idea what a job in the IT industry entails. Moreover, neither are most adults. Although parental encouragement is viewed by many educators as the key determining factor in a child's education and the successful attainment of a child's goals, a recent Harris Poll commissioned by the American Association of Engineering Societies found that 61% of Americans had little understanding about engineering or engineers.
Of course, another avenue for parental encouragement could be regular exposure to computers. But as the Department of Commerce's Falling Through the Net study revealed, as recently as 1998 only 23.2% of Black, 34.3% of American Indian and 25.5% of Hispanic households had a computer. In addition, 31.7% of single-mother households had a computer. And 31.2% of homes headed by a high school graduate had a computer (whereas 68.7% of homes headed by a college graduate had a computer).
The IT industry can help improve minority enrollment in IT fields of study by becoming a more active investor in K-12 (especially middle school) outreach and mentorship programs. IT companies can also become more active investors in the development of successful ed-tech K-12 curriculum. Educators need to and develop ways to make math and science more accessible to a larger number of students. IT mentors and educators, together, can provide the inspiration, encouragement and develop the necessary peer support that might lead a larger number of girl and minority students to the IT career path. Educators, government and IT businesses need to work together to provide K-12 students with appropriate information about the various IT professions and the rewards of choosing an IT career through career fairs, field trips and guest speakers in the classroom.
There are a number of strategies that can be employed to improve minority enrollment in IT-related fields of study at the college level. What is certain is that something needs to be done. Collaboration towards a solution between government, IT industry, educators and parents is one possible path. The IT industry is faced with an enormous labor shortage that could be solved by tapping into the largely untapped American female and minority workforce. The female and minority children of today are faced with previously unheard of opportunities for future employment and upward mobility. But these children need previously unheard of access and encouragement in order to take full advantage of these opportunities.
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