Women in IT: Cisco’s Gender Diversity Initiative

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Although women constitute more than half of the population, they make up only 35 percent of the IT workforce in the United States. Additionally, according to the Computing Research Association, less than a fifth of undergraduates in college computer science program are female. To address this discrepancy, the Cisco Networking Academy launched its gender diversity initiative, which shows young women the educational and career prospects available to them in information technology.

“It’s not necessarily focused on Cisco Academy programs, but rather opening up their minds to thinking about computer science or engineering as an academic career, think about career opportunities that might be out there for them and give them some role models,” said Gene Longo, senior manager of Cisco Networking Academy’s U.S. operations.


This push to educate women in IT opportunities includes summits hosted by the Cisco Networking Academy for high-school-age girls, who interact with prominent women in the information technology industry. The organization also provides topical materials to guidance counselors, school administrators and even parents. “The more we look into it, the more we find the parents aren’t even aware of what the options are, so they haven’t even considered them,” Longo said.


There are several reasons for the mismatch between girls’ and boys’ interests in the IT field, Longo said. “It’s a lot of different factors. First and foremost, what we’re seeing is the gap really starts to happen in middle school. The gap doesn’t seem to be as big in elementary school; girls seem to be as engaged—if not more engaged—than boys. For some reason, girls seem to fall back at the middle-school level.”


The divergence intensifies as boys and girls get older. “The boys tend to gravitate to it because it’s technical, and it’s kind of cool to build things,” Longo said. “Girls are really focused on their GPA and going on to college, and unless they see it fitting into their whole academic program, they may shy away from taking IT (courses) as an elective.”


Part of the challenge of getting girls interested in IT is showing them how the subject matter is relevant to their lives and interests. In order to make this connection, the program encourages girls to find a community-based project in which they could apply what they’ve learned at one of the Cisco-sponsored events, Longo said. “We find that when you can incorporate social issues into it, the girls get a little more interested,” he said.


Demonstrating the importance of IT to young women is crucial to their professional development because of the fact that information technology underpins nearly every other industry, and its presence is not likely to be diminished in the future. “It should be looked at more as a component of their overall academic career,” Longo said. “It’s not just engineering and science. There are a lot of business programs and MBA programs that are incorporating IT as part of a career path. That’s why we really have to do a lot more outreach.”


For more information, see http://cisco.netacad.net.

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