Jane Stout and her team ­analyze thousands of data points to understand ­influences on diversity in computing fields.

Aug 15 2017

Q&A: CERP’s Jane Stout Shares Strategies to Increase Diversity

Jane Stout explains how a top-performing team is one that brings different perspectives to the table.

As the director of the Center for Evaluating the Research Pipeline (CERP) at the Computing Research Association in Washington, D.C., Jane Stout studies factors that often encourage (or discourage) women and minorities from pursuing IT careers.

CERP’s survey data help researchers evaluate and improve progress toward increasing diversity in computing fields. Stout spoke with EdTech Managing Editor Amy Burroughs from her home office in Boulder, Colo., about ways that IT leaders can build more diverse teams.

EDTECH: How do institutions benefit from diverse teams?

STOUT: A diverse group of thinkers brings diverse perspectives, which ensures that innovations can meet the needs of a wide range of people.

A lot of social science research indicates that groups with diverse perspectives are associated with high creativity, innovation and problem-solving ability, so teams with diverse perspectives tend to perform better than homogenous teams. It’s a competitive edge.

EDTECH: Why does a lack of diversity persist in IT?

STOUT: The problem starts early. Children often don’t receive formal education in IT concepts, so unless kids are exposed to IT concepts outside of school, they are probably not going to get interested in a career in IT.

Boys and affluent children are more likely to have access to technology, so by the time kids start thinking about career options, these groups tend to have a head start in developing an interest in technical fields. That’s likely to make their peers — girls and women, poor students, students of color — feel like they don’t belong.

Should women or other minority groups actually make it through IT training and into the workforce, the environment in those jobs is often chilly toward those individuals. The culture has taken shape over the years, and it has not tended to be very diverse, so it can feel unwelcoming for “outsiders” or those who don’t fit the stereotype of who is there usually, which is Asian or white men.

EDTECH: Why is that sense of belonging so important in a work setting?

STOUT: Social psychology theory tells us that we are social creatures, with a basic need to belong and feel accepted. When employees feel they are not welcome in the workplace, they tend to disengage. Their motivation wanes, and performance can suffer. At best, these people may stick around and underperform. At worst, they may leave and go somewhere they do feel welcomed.

EDTECH: What can managers do to prevent this dynamic?

STOUT: One thing that is important is creating a sense of community. Make the workplace a setting where everybody feels, “I like being here. I have people I can talk to, trust and go to for advice.”

Create opportunities to develop that: social mixers during the workday, doughnut breaks or fun activities that give employees a chance to chat, off-hours picnics that include family members. Letting people bring their personal lives into their professional lives a bit can go a long way to give people the sense that the whole person is valued and welcomed.

Make sure that activities are gender-neutral; make sure you’re not just going to baseball games, but doing a lot of different activities. That’s not to say all women don’t like sports. Some women love sports, and some men don’t like sports. Provide a mix of activities so people with different interests have a chance to have fun with their colleagues. Promote special-interest groups, like an after-hours coding meetup, to help people connect over activities they enjoy.

EDTECH: Your research has shown that when young women have a role model, that increases their confidence in work settings. How can IT managers connect female employees and mentors?

STOUT: First, leaders should actively recruit senior women to present their technical work in colloquia or brown-bag sessions. Even if you don’t have senior women on your team now, hopefully, you know women who you can bring in to give a technical talk. Leaders should also try to provide opportunities for these speakers to meet one-on-one with employees, especially women, and mentor them.

Organizations should strive, of course, to diversify their leadership. This shows underrepresented groups that all types of people are capable of rising to the top. The road to success seems more feasible if you see successful people who look like you. One might make the argument that there aren’t enough qualified women to nominate for leadership roles. To that I say: Try harder. If this is really your intention, you’re going to need to do things like search outside of your own professional network and think about whether your promotion guidelines unintentionally favor men over women.

EDTECH: How can IT managers increase diversity at the top?

STOUT: In our culture, the typical leader is assertive and commands the room, a stereotypically masculine concept of leadership. But a lot of research shows that people who are compassionate, good listeners and democratic in considering others’ opinions and needs are also good leaders. So I would encourage organizational leadership to recognize that there are different types of effective leadership styles. If you broaden the lens of the traits you’re looking for, you’re probably going to get different sorts of people who meet those qualifications.

Editor's Note: CERP’s work is supported through National Science Foundation awards CNS-1246649 and DUE-1431112.

Photography by Jeff Nelson

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