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Increasing visibility of women in technology

Aidong Zhang

Chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Aidong Zhang (standing) is a rare example of a woman who has achieved great success in the technology field. Photo: Douglas Levere

By SUE WUETCHER

Published February 6, 2014

Liesl Folks
“There are great opportunities in the U.S. for young women entering STEM fields now.”
Liesl Folks, dean
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Women interested in pursuing a career in technology face significant obstacles. Consider:

  • Women make up nearly half of the workforce, yet they held only one quarter of all technology and computing jobs in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • In 2008, women earned more than half — 57 percent — of all bachelor’s degrees, but only 18 percent of the degrees awarded in computer and information science, down from 37 percent in 1985, the National Center for Women & Information Technology reported in its “By the Numbers 2009.”
  • According to a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy, 74 percent of women in technology report “loving their work,” yet 56 percent leave their careers at the “mid-level” point — more than double the quit rate for men. And they’re leaving not because of family obligations, but because they’re dissatisfied with their jobs.
  • Only 10 percent of corporate officer positions and 11 percent of board of directors’ positions at Fortune 500 technology companies were held by women, according to the 2008 census of corporate officers and top earners of Fortune 500 companies by Catalyst, a nonprofit devoted to expanding opportunities for women and business.

Raising the visibility of women in technology — and attracting more women to the profession and retaining them in the field — is the mission of Sit With Me, a national advocacy campaign organized by the National Center for Women & Information Technology, a non-profit coalition that works to increase diversity in computing and IT.

UB, which has the distinction of being one of a handful of institutions of higher education to have women serving simultaneously as dean of its engineering school — Liesl Folks — and as chair of its computer science department — Aidong Zhang —is joining that campaign by presenting its own “Sit With Me” celebration on March 4.

UB’s “Sit With Me” event recognizing the important role women play in technology will take place from 2:30-5 p.m. in 101 Davis Hall, North Campus. It will feature a keynote address by Folks at 3:30 p.m., followed at 4 p.m. by panel discussion with distinguished women in technology from UB and Western New York. The event will open at 2:30 p.m. with an information fair and networking.

Participating in the panel discussion will be Kim Grant, business development executive for UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences; Michele Triolli, executive vice president and chief information officer at M&T Bank; Josephine Anstey, professor of media study at UB and an expert in the production of interactive, computer-mediated stories, performances and games; Jeanette Sperhac, scientific programmer at UB’s Center for Computational Research; Sabina Ramsey, owner of Insight International USA LLC, a communications agency that designs digital and traditional marketing programs for corporations, small businesses, non-profits and community initiatives; and Bethany Griswold, a UB doctoral student in computer science. Griswold earned a BS in computer science from UB.

UB’s “Sit With Me” program is free of charge; seating is limited so those attending are asked to register online.

The event is presented by the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Computing and Information Technology, Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender, Intercultural and Diversity Center, Organizational Development and Training, Professional Staff Senate and the student chapter of Society of Women Engineers.

The national Sit With Me campaign maintains that “sometimes you have to sit to take a stand.” The campaign’s red chair logo symbolizes “that women in technology need more seats at the table,” says Kathleen Murphy, service manager, CIT Network & Classroom Services, who organized the Sit With Me event at UB.

The campaign’s website urges women and men —in technical and non-technical professions — to sit in a red chair and share their stories about the important role that women play in creating future technology.

And as part of her keynote address at the UB celebration, Folks will share some of her personal story as well.

“I was the first woman to graduate with a PhD in physics from the University of Western Australia in about 20 years, so I know what it is like to be an “underrepresented minority,” she told the UB Reporter, noting that when she began her studies the nearest women’s bathroom was five floors away.

“But in that position, I was also the recipient of fantastic support within the department and, in fact, the chair had a new bathroom installed right across the hallway from my lab — how supportive was that?” she says. “Over the years that followed, I was able to see the difference that having one role model had. By the time I graduated, there were eight women PhD students in the pipeline behind me.”

Folks’ talk will focus on the need to have more women involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields “so that all our best brains are engaged in solving society’s problems, not just half of them, and so we can solve problems in ways that are best for men and women because both genders are at the table inventing and creating, building and manufacturing.”

Many U.S. companies are trying to employ more women in STEM fields, but the number of women graduating in those fields “remains stubbornly low” in the U.S. and companies are struggling to find enough qualified women to hire, Folks notes.

“There are great opportunities in the U.S. for young women entering STEM fields now. I very much want our current and future students to understand that in an increasingly technological society, STEM education is a ticket to a great career,” she says, calling the low numbers of women in STEM fields “at minimum mostly a cultural issue, largely — if not entirely — unrelated to DNA differences.”

“The fact that other countries have much more even male/female ratios in STEM speaks to this very strongly,” she adds. “It is essential for UB to tackle this problem head on so that our students aren’t sidelined by technology trends in the future.”

Folks says UB is addressing the issue aggressively, with the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences partnering with the College of Arts and Sciences in developing a “Women in STEM” program for freshmen, starting in the fall 2014 semester. The program, she says “seeks to make STEM more attractive to female students” and provide them with the resources to help them continue in the field.

Further information about UB’s Sit With Me celebration and the national Sit With Me campaign can be found online