Video: Regional leaders come together at Northeastern to explore how we can increase diversity in Puget Sound technology industry

Video: Regional leaders come together at Northeastern to explore how we can increase diversity in Puget Sound technology industry

As discussed in recent blog posts, ever since the visit by Rev. Jesse Jackson to the region last December, a growing number of companies, individuals and organizations have come together to figure out practical strategies which will make the Puget Sound region THE region where talented women and minorities with tech skills will want to work and stay.

This regional effort took a big step forward at the Speaker Series: Women & Minorities in Technology event that took place earlier today at Northeastern. Dr. Carla Brodley, Northeastern’s Dean of the College of Computer and Information Science, led a panel of national experts on this topic: Gwen Houston, Microsoft’s General Manager of Global Diversity and Inclusion; Dr. Telle Whitney, CEO of The Anita Borg Institute and co-founder of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing; and Dean C. Garfield, CEO and President of the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC).

Watch The Seattle Channel’s video of the discussion:

More than 100 stakeholders from the entire state joined us, with many tech companies and educational institutions in attendance, including large contingents of Amazon and Microsoft employees, and representatives of Ada Academy, University of Washington, Washington State University, UW-Bothell, Seattle University and Bellevue College.

Our goal was to identify specific strategies we can take to increase the percentage of women and underrepresented minorities (URMs) in the Puget Sound region’s technology companies. Key points and suggestions for this region made by panelists included:

  • All the metrics show that companies with a diverse workforce are more effective. Telle Whitney stressed the importance of gathering rich data on diversity: “What you measure, you will achieve”.
  • Companies must be thoughtful on whom they send out to do recruiting, and the panel encouraged use of women and minorities to help interviewees see representatives like themselves.
  • “Talking about diversity in tech needs to evolve beyond the numbers. You need to look at making a more inclusive workplace.” Gwen Houston stressed that the commitment to diversity and inclusion must be a lot more than a HR conversation; diversity is the bridge to the marketplace, and senior executives must understand that and make it a priority at all levels.
  • Dr. Brodley emphasized the importance for the nation to broaden the pipeline of smart students we can attract to computer science programs, especially at graduate level. One million women and 400,000 URMs graduate each year from America’s colleges – not including those who major in computer science. She pointed to Northeastern’s ALIGN program which has been successfully pioneered at our Seattle campus, as one way to significantly tap into the women and URM population and help meet the needs of our tech companies. She is personally committed to taking this program to scale as quickly as possible, and encouraged all present to send Northeastern individuals who may want to take advantage of ALIGN career opportunity.
  • “How do we make Seattle a place that not only attracts diverse talent but also nurtures it?” There is a need to focus as much, if not more, on retaining those women and minorities who are recruited. It is clear the retention is not easy, and a variety of specific suggestions were made on how to mentor, provide role models, and affirm their presence.
  • Top leadership needs to play a key role in each company to understand, engage and have a sustained, visible, and ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion. If leadership makes it a sustained priority, the company will follow.
  • Several noted the loss of middle school girls, whose interest in STEM declines a lot by Grade 9. That is where a range of programs to keep girls involved in STEM – like Northeastern’s GAMES Initiative need to be employed. The National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP) which has 6 million girl members, is a key leader in drawing girls into STEM.
  • “We’ve embraced color blindness as if it’s a positive, but really it’s closing your eyes to the benefits of diversity.” – Dean Garfield noted that some well-intended concepts, such as a company being “colorblind”, can turn out to be problematic, given the retention challenges. He stressed the need to not be shy about discussing and confronting diversity issues. For example, American-Asians make up 7% of the population, but 30% of the tech workforce, he stated. What can we learn from their experience?
  • Driving change is never easy, and the diversity goal must be a serious commitment. The panelists applauded the hosting of this discussion at Northeastern, noting that the issue of diversity in tech now has a momentum and urgency it has never had before

Following the discussion, 20 regional stakeholders from WTIA, tech companies and community leaders met for an additional hour, joined by Dean Brodley and Telle Whitney. We reviewed steps taken in last 7 months in the partnership between the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) and the Northwest Technology Equity Initiative (NWTEI), what we can do better, and what new ideas and strategies the panel discussion surfaced that we can take on. I will keep you posted on how this diversity in tech network continues to grow, and invite you to join our regional effort.

– Dean Washburn

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