Brad Feld

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National Center for Women & Information Technology – Letter to Harvard President Larry Summers

Feb 08, 2005

I recently agreed to be chairman of the National Center for Women & Information Technology – an organization run by Lucy Sanders (ex-CTO Avaya Labs) – whose mission is to ensure that women are fully represented in the influential world of information technology.  Lucy and NCWIT are the real deal – in its first year we’ve raised over $4.5 million from the National Science Foundation, Avaya, Microsoft, Google, and a number of other technology companies.  Lucy has an ambitious multi-decade vision which – when you sit and listen – makes you say “wow – that’s perfect – yes – absolutely” and other unambiguous affirmative phrases.

Several weeks ago, Larry Summers – the President of Harvard University – generated a predictable controversy when he suggested “that innate differences between the genders could help explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers.”  I cracked up when I heard this for the first time since I figured he was simply being sarcastic and poking fun at his crosstown rival (my alma matter) due to the recent appointment of a woman (Dr. Susan Hockfield) as President of MIT.  But it was clear that he was deadly serious, and after an uproar, several apologies from Summers, and a lot of public discussion, the topic of the level of participation of women in IT has real visibility.

We had a NCWIT board meeting the week of Summers’ remarks.  At the meeting, we decided that the right approach was not to castigate Summers, nor join the “backlash”, but rather to invite Summers to get involved and help us better understand and address the issue (I suggested we ask him to join the NCWIT board).  To that end, Lucy wrote an op-ed the other day that follows.

As CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, I’d like to thank Harvard’s President, Larry Summers. His recent remarks – that innate gender differences might explain the dearth of women in science and engineering – call attention to a critical issue even as they misconstrue it.

Innovation is inherently a creative and highly personal process: from Penicillin to iPods, the most influential innovations of our time reflect the perspectives and experience of their creators. Employing gender diversity in the innovation process yields different products and better ideas, contributing to stronger U.S. economic performance.

While women’s contributions have neared parity in biological sciences and math, women’s position in the information technology (IT) professions has slipped significantly. Women now earn only 28 percent of computer science degrees (down from 37 percent in 1984) and represent only one-quarter of professional workers in IT occupations.

This problem comes at a critical juncture for America: As IT globalizes, many of its products and services become commodities and even high-value IT jobs move off-shore. What will differentiate U.S. performance? Women can, and must play an important role in fostering new IT innovations if the US is to remain competitive.

The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) is a growing coalition of over 40 respected corporations, academic institutions and non-profits working aggressively to understand and solve this problem. NCWIT intends to increase the participation of girls and women in information technology and, through their contributions, to help the U.S. remain at the forefront of IT innovation. From K-12 education to corporate careers, we know that certain approaches work to engage and educate this over-looked talent pool of creative women. We need to put these approaches into action. We are a community of change-agents committed to investing in research and education, determining best practices for progress, and implementing these solutions across the country.

There’s no doubt that women are creative innovators. Debating whether their cognitive abilities match those of their male counterparts is a waste of time; it is in fact our differences that make women’s contributions so essential to our economy and society, no less in IT than anywhere else.

Read it carefully.  It describes the core of what NCWIT is trying to accomplish, why it matters, and how the differences between men and women can impact the innovation process.  Lucy – this is fun!