This article is published in the March 2011 issue.

NCWIT Offers Community, Resources, and Results

By J. McGrath Cohoon

How does your organization contribute to building a better future for and through computing? Are you having a broad positive impact? NCWIT can help with that.

NCWIT, the National Center for Women & Information Technology, was founded in 2004 as a non-profit coalition of organizations that develops and amplifies efforts to diversify computing. NCWIT’s leadership team consists of the co-founders—Lucy Sanders, Robert Schnabel, and Telle Whitney—along with elected leaders and support staff from each of the NCWIT Alliances. Together, they oversee strategic and operational decisions and guide the implementation of NCWIT’s mission. That mission is to create community, resources, and awareness that strengthen the computing workforce and advance technology innovation through women’s full participation. Reaching this goal is crucial for many reasons, including our nation’s economic success, security, and progress toward a just and equitable society.

NCWIT convenes and provisions a growing coalition of over 200 prominent corporations, academic institutions, government agencies, and non-profits organized into Alliances. Annual NCWIT summits bring these groups together; NCWIT research-based materials identify and explain effective interventions for promoting diversity; and NCWIT campaigns, publications, and awards spread awareness of gender issues in Information Technology. In collaboration with and through its member organizations, NCWIT serves as a learning community that works toward reforms across the full education and career spectrum, helping to keep the IT industry strong and healthy. Evidence suggests that NCWIT is making progress.

Alliances Focus on Reform They Can Influence

Member organizations form Alliances and work together on conditions that affect girls and women in computing. These Alliances are communities of academic, workforce, K-12, and entrepreneurial institutions that employ evidence-based practices in their reform efforts. The Academic Alliance (AA), for example, includes 151 higher education institutions focused on computing education and organizational culture. Currently, the members are working together on four projects: 1) a toolkit for designing research experiences for undergraduate women, 2) sharing their own experiences with practices that improve the gender balance in computing, 3) recruiting and engaging new members, and 4) offering a webinar series. All of these projects incorporate relevant research findings and assessment methods from sociology, psychology, communication, and other disciplines that study the relationship between gender and technology, pedagogy that engages diverse students, or organizational change. NCWIT supports these Academic Alliance efforts with its Seed Fund (sponsored by Microsoft Research), its new Student Chapter Fund (sponsored by Return Path), and through an NSF-funded Extension Services program.

The NCWIT Extension Services for Undergraduate Programs (ES-UP) provides trained consultants and program evaluators who serve AA members. The consultants first seek to understand conditions and issues specific to their client departments, and then make research-based recommendations for improving women’s recruitment and retention. Consultants support faculty in strategically planning and evaluating the reforms their departments undertake, collect data to document progress, and assist with disseminating word of client accomplishments. Like all NCWIT resources, this valuable service is free to AA members thanks to funding from NCWIT sponsors.

Members of the NCWIT Academic Alliance have evidence of measurable progress toward the goal of gender balance in their undergraduate programs. The external evaluator for NCWIT, Dr. Elizabeth Litzler of the University of Washington’s Center for Workforce Development, investigated progress in women’s representation for these programs. Dr. Litzler found that the majority of NCWIT AA members improved women’s share of enrollment by an average of three or four percent during a time when the national average enrollment of women in computing declined. Her findings demonstrate a positive relationship between active NCWIT membership and improved percent of women in undergraduate computing programs. Further, more improvements were shown in departments that were more heavily influenced by NCWIT practices, had higher levels of involvement in NCWIT, and participated in the Pacesetters program (described in more detail below).

The Workforce Alliance (WA) comprises a community of about 30 industry leaders and major employers of computing professionals, including Microsoft, Avaya, Pfizer, Bank of America, Merck, Google, EMC, Intel, Qualcomm, Apple, Cisco, Medco, Zynga, Thomson Reuters, Boehringer Ingelheim, and IBM. NCWIT creates research-based resources for these organizations to improve hiring and promotion practices and retention of women at all levels. For example, NCWIT recently created a series of resources called “Supervising in a Box” that supports efforts to reduce employee turnover, capitalize on diverse innovative thinking, and strengthen earnings. Another recent resource, “Women and IT—the Facts” is a concise report covering the business case for inclusion, barriers technical women face in corporations, and practices for mitigating these barriers. Currently, the WA is working on issues related to retention of mid-career women, updating its popular report on patenting, “Who Invents IT,” and interviewing men who have positively influenced the careers of technical women.

The K-12 and Entrepreneurial Alliances focus on other important portions of the computing career path. With its vast reach into national organizations (e.g., Girl Scouts of the USA, 4-H, International Society for Technology in Education, Computer Science Teachers Association, and many others), the K-12 Alliance seeks to improve the image of computing and the teaching of foundational computing skills. This year the K-12 Alliance is launching a new national campaign (sponsored by Merck) to give K-12 professional school counselors information about IT educational pathways and careers. At the career level, the Entrepreneurial Alliance creates a platform for member collaboration on engaging more women in starting IT businesses. The Entrepreneurial Alliance honors women who start IT companies with its annual Symons Innovator Award, and has a regular podcast audio interview series with women technology entrepreneurs. This interview series is an excellent source for entrepreneurial educational programs, and also serves to inspire young women to consider an entrepreneurial career.

NCWIT’s Social Science Advisory Board (SSAB) serves as a valuable resource for all the NCWIT Alliances. Leading social scientists with expertise in policy, anthropology, gender studies, technology education, and organizational change consult on NCWIT projects and assessment of interventions. They also briefly advise members one-on-one. In addition to the guidance its members provide to the Alliances, the SSAB disseminates theories and research relevant to girls, women, and information technology.

Pacesetters Publicly Set Goals

In 2009, NCWIT launched Pacesetters, a set of Academic and Workforce Alliance members committed to accelerating recruitment and retention of women in their organizations. Pacesetters publicly declared their individual goals for “net new women,” women who would not otherwise have started or remained on the path to a computing career. A senior leader and an activist from each Pacesetter organization work together to build teams, develop and fund reform programs, and share their results as they work toward their net new women goals. With successive cohorts of Pacesetters’ contributions, the national representation of women in IT will move toward gender balance. NCWIT supports and facilitates progress by hosting annual meetings, providing expertise on research-based effective interventions and on evaluation, and publicizing member successes.

Become a Member of NCWIT

NCWIT welcomes new member institutions and organizations committed to reform. Each member organization identifies at least one representative who will attend the annual meeting and act as a conduit for information and resources, bringing them back to colleagues, implementing the practices that are suitable for their environment, and reporting results back to their Alliance members. In return, members get all the community, resource, dissemination, and networking benefits NCWIT has to offer.

The next NCWIT member meeting will be in New York City in May 2011. As with previous meetings in Portland, Oregon, Mountain View, California, Irvine, California, and Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, NCWIT will bring its members together with exciting and knowledgeable speakers to learn about research and practices that can improve diverse engagement in the study and professions of computing. Past speakers have included Maria Klawe, Ray Ozzie, Jessica Jackley, Brian Nosek, Rick Rashid, Mark Udall, Shelley Correll, Freada Kapor-Kline, Michael Lomax, Joyce Roche, Bernice Sandler, Marie Wilson, Carolyn Buck-Luce, Chris Scalet, Jeff Kiesling and Padmasree Warrior.

This year promises to be equally informative and stimulating. Scott Page will speak about the relationship between diversity and innovation; Joshua Aronson will identify ways of mitigating stereotype threat; Wendy Faulkner will explain how organizational change can happen; and David Pogue will answer questions about turning tech consumers into innovators—to name just a few of the interesting presenters.

To learn more about NCWIT membership and how it can help you build a better future for and through computing, visit, or contact an Alliance manager through


J. McGrath Cohoon is a Senior Research Scientist at NCWIT and an Associate Professor of Science, Technology & Society at the University of Virginia.