UNO's goal: More women in high-demand IT field

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Posted: Monday, May 27, 2013 12:00 am

Being the only girl on her Papillion-La Vista High School robotics team, Berkley Lyman recalls, “It would get kind of lonely.” Now as a student in the Information Assurance program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, she knows of only two other women who share her major.

Lyman said that's a problem for the college and for the fast-growing field of information technology, where there are more jobs than workers to fill them.

“The men are very smart, but that's only half the population,” Lyman said. “If you get more women in there, they can bring a lot to the table.”

Her college's dean agrees, and has a plan to do something about it.

UNO is launching an effort to raise $400,000 for programs to introduce girls to IT, with the goal of doubling the number of women in the College of Information Science & Technology in the next two years.

Women currently make up just 14 percent of undergraduate students in the College of IS&T, Dean Hesham Ali said. At that ratio, a class of 21 students includes just three women. Nationally, women earn just 18 percent of all computer and information science degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. It's a big disparity at a time when women make up 57 percent of all undergraduate students at four-year institutions.

The lack of women in the field is especially a concern at a time when Omaha area employers cannot find enough skilled IT professionals to meet the demand. The college graduated a little more than 100 IT professionals this spring, while there are 500 IT jobs listed on AIM's Careerlink.

“A lot of successful careers are waiting to be uncovered by initiatives like this,” said Ali, dean of the UNO college for six years.

UNO in February was chosen as one of 20 universities to participate in the Pacesetters program of the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Schools previously involved in this intensive effort have seen dramatic improvements in the number of women in computer science majors.

“We are taking this extremely seriously,” Ali said. “This is long overdue.”

In Phase 1 of the fundraising effort, the university will seek $250,000 in the next four months for several initiatives:

» Create an immersion experience for local middle and high school girls

» Support achievement awards given to local high school students through the Aspirations in Computing program of the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

» Allow more IS&T students to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing networking and mentoring event, planned this fall in Minneapolis.

» Support a recently launched mentoring program for women IT students

» Recruit more women and minorities into IS&T programs from area high schools.

» Fund $70,000 in scholarships for women IT students, and put $125,000 in an endowment for future scholarships and activities.

The programs will build on other new efforts UNO is making to spark girls' interest in technology. This year the College of IS&T added sections just for girls to its lineup of summer workshops in computing for students ages 11 to 18, including “for girls” workshops in IT Innovation and in bioinformatics. The content is the same, but planners hope girls will feel more welcome in a class just for them.

And this year the school created the IT Innovation Cup, a new high school competition. The winning team, from Skutt Catholic, included girls and boys.

In Phase II, the task force behind the effort will raise an extra $150,000 over two years to endow additional scholarships and ensure opportunities continue.

UNO needs to fight misconceptions about IT that may be keeping women out of the field, Dean Ali said. One is that the programs and jobs just aren't for women, because of the challenging coursework or the culture.

On the contrary, Ali said, “Most of our top students that receive awards are girls; the only problem is we just don't have enough of them.”

Another is the nature of the work itself — “the misconception that IT is about programming in a basement, in a dark room, and you're not connecting with people.”

These days, he said, IT is an interdisciplinary field where technical professionals have to connect with customers to help solve their business challenges.

“If we just present an accurate description of the possibilities and aspects of the IT careers, we will attract more girls to the program,” he said.

With current resource levels, there is room for plenty more women in the College of IS&T without making it more competitive for men, Ali said. And if the initiative is so successful that the college has to hire faculty, that's OK, too — UNO as a whole is trying to grow its enrollment to 20,000 students from 15,000.

Creighton University has nearly equal numbers of men and women in its IT program, called Business Intelligence and Analytics. Forty-eight percent of BIA majors are women, said Deborah Wells, associate dean in the College of Business. Department Chairman Ravi Nath said that may be because an emphasis on management of IT, not code writing and computer science, makes the degree more appealing to women.

At the graduate level, however, just 23 percent of students seeking Creighton's IT Management and combination MBA/ITM degrees are women.

Sue Thaden, chairwoman of UNO's fundraising task force, is chief executive officer of IT consulting firm CRi. She said bringing more women into the field would be a “lift” for a workforce that relies heavily on foreign workers. Women held 26 percent of jobs in computing-related occupations in 2012, up 1 percentage point from 2011, the Department of Labor says.

“There is such a high demand, and so many companies are trying to hire those top graduates,” Thaden said. IT professionals are accustomed to weekly calls from recruiters, she said.

“There are so many unfilled jobs in IT, you just need to get more creative,” Thaden said.

The new fund represents the first “collective focus” to address the local workforce issue by encouraging women to join the field, said Thaden, also a member of the IS&T advisory board and the board of the national TechServe Alliance.

She said she's sure the task force will be successful. It's following a proven model through the Pacesetters program, and has support from the University of Nebraska Foundation and task force members from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska, Union Pacific Railroad, Physicians Mutual, Gallup, Interpublic Group, ConAgra Foods and software engineering firm Baldwin Hackett & Meeks.

Female IT graduates from UNO might find their first job with one of those companies.

Stephanie Petersen joined CRi's mobile development team after graduating from UNO in 2012 with a degree in IT Innovation. Dean Ali introduced her to Thaden after Petersen's senior capstone project, an app that helps home cooks prevent kitchen waste, was awarded first place in the Undergraduate Information Science & Technology Research division.

She said the technical side of her work is a means to helping clients.

“It's great working with clients and hearing what their problems are, and researching and presenting different options for solutions, and working hand in hand,” she said.

Petersen always had an interest in technology — she attended Omaha North High School for its science and technology magnet program, then earned a Regents Scholarship and chose UNO, where she said it didn't bother her that she was often the only female student in her class.

Another woman IT student said for her, it was intimidating to be just one of only two girls in an IT Innovation class. Coming from Fairbury, Neb., where she didn't have much exposure to computing classes, Cassi Tucker worried she wouldn't be able to keep up with her classmates.

Also, “I was worried that people were going to think it was weird that I was a girl studying this.”

Tucker entered IT almost by accident. She enrolled in UNO as a history major, and was doing secretarial work in Dean Ali's office when he talked to her about how IT Innovation could be incorporated into any discipline — even history. Soon Tucker had a double-major and was thinking about ways to use 3D printing technology to make historic artifacts available on-demand in educational settings.

Tucker said once she overcame her hesitation, she found the college faculty and students inclusive.

Lyman, the Information Assurance student from Papillion, expects the number of women in the program to grow once more college-bound girls hear about the career opportunities and see other women students being successful. She said students are actively recruited by local companies and can expect to earn $50,000 to $70,000, figures supported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Lyman is doing her part to recruit women to campus, volunterring to talk to high school students about the opportunities. And she has her sights set on one student in particular — younger sister Delaney.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1336,

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