Just do IT (Information Technology)

A voracious and lucrative industry slowly opens its doors to minorities.

Trish Millines Dziko retired from the high-tech industry in 1996 when, not yet 40, she joined the ranks of the Microsoft millionaires sprinkled across the Puget Sound region.

The daughter of an African-American woman who supported herself working as a maid for wealthy families in New Jersey, Ms. Millines Dziko could be held up as an equal-opportunity success story for information technology, or IT.

Indeed, to hear some of the nation's top high-tech CEOs address the issue, ethnicity is disregarded in favor of talent and enthusiasm.

Yet for all the talk of job opportunity - 10 million people are employed in IT - most of the nation's ethnic-minority groups continue to be severely underrepresented.

Some South Asian cultures have made competing in IT a priority. And South Asians have a foothold in America's IT industry.

Still, along with women of all ethnicities, Latinos, African-Americans, and native Americans constitute a disproportionately small percentage of the high-tech workforce.

The situation has provoked a surprisingly strong and growing response on the part of many community organizations, universities, and high-tech corporations. Lotus, Covad, QUALCOMM, MCI WorldCom, Cisco, and AT&T are among the many companies that have recently pledged substantial support toward the goal of diversifying the IT workforce.

Last September, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also announced the formation of the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, a 20-year plan to provide financial assistance to high-achieving minority students in severe financial need.

In February, the Clinton administration announced an ambitious budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year aimed at technology access.

To promote that proposal, President Clinton recently took a brief "New Markets" tour throughout rural America to strengthen public-private partnerships in IT, with the intention of making "digital opportunity" a reality for a broader cross-section of Americans.

Toni Torres, vice president of Academic Affairs for the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) in New York, says she is encouraged by the new momentum surrounding the effort to attain more adequate representation of minorities in information technology.

The organization has been promoting minority representation and achievement in the sciences and technology for more than 25 years.

But many of those working toward diversity in IT acknowledge that an altruistic embrace of multiculturalism is likely just a small part of corporate motivation.

"It's a simple matter of economics," explains Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) in Arlington, Va. "The IT industry is desperately short of skilled IT workers."

"To get enough people with the IT skills to be part of the workforce, the solution has to be in getting more women and people from those minority groups into the IT industry. We can't solve our problem with white males alone," says Mr. Miller, who points to an ITAA survey which estimates employers will create demand in the US for 1.6 million new IT positions this year.

The ITAA says roughly half those positions will go unfilled.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has also been tracking the dramatic growth of computer-related jobs: Between 1998 and 2008, the number of computer engineers alone is expected to grow 108 percent.

A report from the National Science and Technology Council reinforces concerns that heavy dependency on white-male IT workers is problematic: That group, as a fraction of the entire US population, is expected to decrease over the next 50 years, while the numbers of women, Latinos, and other groups are growing.

Ms. Torres emphasizes that broadening the makeup of the IT industry depends at least partly on whether young, fast-paced IT companies - often focused on the here and now - can commit to expanded training, recruitment, and hiring strategies.

That, she says, may prove to be a big challenge.

"Newer IT companies are fighting for survival.... Their resources go into product development and getting people who can walk in, get the job done, and move on to the next project," she says.

Just how underrepresented are ethnic minority groups in the IT industry? According to a 1998 survey by the ITAA, African- Americans accounted for just 5 percent of all computer programmers. Latinos represented another 4 percent, and native Americans totaled less than 1 percent.

At high-ranking managerial levels, the schism is greater. Only 3 percent of the chief information officers in the nation are African- American.

Last year, the San Jose Mercury News reported that even in California's ethnically diverse Silicon Valley, only 0.6 percent of IT chairpersons and CEOs were African-American, while 89 percent were white.

By comparison, the latest figures from the Population Estimates Program of the US Census Bureau indicate that blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and native Americans collectively account for roughly 28 percent of the total US population.

Lack of early access to technology and to computers is a root cause of the disparity, experts say. A 1999 Commerce Department report found that 47 percent of white households have computers, while only 23 percent and 26 percent of African-American and Latino households, respectively, own computers.

Even when computers are available in schools, some critics point out that youths of color are not adequately trained in their use, or, as some studies have shown, are assigned rote activities rather than creative and challenging ones.

"Just because the computers are there, doesn't mean that they're used powerfully," Torres points out.

After leaving Microsoft, Millines Dziko co-founded the Seattle-based Technology Access Foundation (TAF) to address that particular concern. Since 1996, she and her colleagues at TAF have worked with more than a dozen community-based agencies to provide hands-on computer training to hundreds of economically disadvantaged youths, 70 percent of whom are girls, and most of whom are African American.

TAF also operates a successful Technical Teens Internship program, which has placed the young adults at companies including Microsoft, RealNetworks, and ShopNow.com.

The ITAA's new Digital Opportunity Initiative aspires toward similar goals, using a Web-based IT internship program to match talented minorities to interested IT companies.

Getting adequate numbers of existing, qualified minorities into high-tech firms has long been another aspect of the problem. In particular, recruitment from traditionally black, Hispanic, and native American colleges by high-tech companies has been spotty, at best.

While efforts are now under way to improve outreach to these colleges, the St. Paul, Minn.-based multicultural Web community, DVstreet.com, has joined with the large employment site JopOptions.com to provide employers access to a resource for finding minority candidates.

Recruiters for high-tech companies are beginning to realize the untapped potential of qualified minorities for IT jobs, but some of them still seem to have difficulty thinking of people of color as being technologically adept, says Rick Aguilar, chairman of Diversity Villages, which runs DVStreet.com.

"There's still some stereotyping involved," he says.

Another problem seems to be that the IT industry sometimes suffers from a kind of "image" problem. A perception exists, say experts working in diversity efforts, that the IT industry is both impenetrable and unfriendly to nonwhites, and populated by uncool, pocket-protector-wearing nerds.

The "uncool" image of high-tech will soon get a very visible makeover, with the creation of a major campaign by the Menlo Park, Calif.-based Kaiser Family Foundation that aims to inspire youth to realize the potential of the Internet and pursue technical interests.

But the issue of whether the information-technology industry is an attractive and welcoming place for all minorities is a much more complicated matter, says Millines Dziko, who also serves as TAF's executive director.

Many IT companies don't realize, she says, how the predominantly white, 20-something, single, and male-focused workplace culture can feel alienating to minorities, to women, and even to parents with young children.

"In the high-tech field, they have beer bashes and paintball parties. If you have kids, you can't bring them to the activities because they are not family-friendly. There are a lot of different things that the [IT] culture does not embrace," she says.

To address these issues, and to foster acceptance of different cultural approaches to socializing and communicating within the workplace, TAF has brought on a consulting company to provide diversity training to IT employers.

"Some of the employers came in feeling a bit nervous," says Millines Dziko. But by the end of the training, many of their initial concerns were allayed.

"Our employers really liked it," she enthuses. "At the end, they were saying, 'I can do this.' "

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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