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Georgia College hosts USG Women in IT meeting

Women from across the USG discuss ways to build on the initiative to increase the diversity
in the field.

A conversation that started among Chief Information Officers (CIO’s) in the University System of Georgia (USG) a few years back has turned into a ground-breaking collaborative initiative to expand the role of women in information technology (IT), and Georgia College is on the forefront of this movement.

The goal is to provide more opportunities for women within USG institutions and create a more diverse workforce.

The first USG Women in IT event took place at Georgia College in July 2017, with more than 100 attendees, both men and women, from institutions across the state.

“We explored different topics and perspectives as they relate to how we drive opportunity for improvement across the board,” said Dr. Bobby Laurine, vice chancellor and CIO for USG. “I think the first step is kick-starting the discussion on defining a way to move forward for us to invest in our staff and our state to make a difference.”

Data shows that in 2015, women made up 25 percent of the workforce of computing jobs, according to the National Bureau of Labor. That’s been on the decline since 1991 when the numbers were at their highest rate recorded—36 percent.

“If you look at the value proposition for the economic development in the state of Georgia, there are plenty of jobs coming available as we close in on 2020— cyber security, health care , IT, the financial side of the house. I see a focus on this as an opportunity to not only support the USG, but also Georgia from an overall economic development standpoint,” said Laurine.

So why are there fewer women working in IT, and how can the USG help to address the problem of diversity? Georgia College’s CIO Dr. Bob Orr and former Georgia Southern CIO Dr. Steve Burrell have spearheaded the effort to address those and other questions.

Dr. Bobby Laurine

“Bob Orr and I were looking around the system, and we were seeing a lot of people who looked like us—middle-aged, white guys,” said Burrell. “The research supported what we were seeing – a shortage of women in the IT field and a leaky pipeline to leadership roles.  We asked ourselves what we could do about fostering diversity and noting that our women colleagues in USG were high-performing exemplars. We felt like there was a real need and gaps in our strategic dialogue among CIOs, and we wanted to start a conversation within the USG on how to address it.”

The pair, alongside other colleagues on the USG CIO Advisory Council, made a commitment to focus on this issue.

“It’s sort of the starting point for enabling the system to add value to our customer base,” said Laurine. “If you look at it from the 30,000-foot level, we are in the business of higher education. I would say men and women collaborating together can provide better value across the board, so that’s what this is about.”

The event itself brought together speakers from the USG and beyond to discuss ideas like overcoming unconscious biases. The initiative focuses on personal and professional development, including mentoring, external connections, seminars and trainings, as well as increased communication to enhance careers for those entering the technology profession and leadership development.

Melissa Woo, senior vice president for information technology and CIO for Stony Brook University, says that people seeing themselves in the field is key, and with few role models that “look like them,” that can sometimes be a challenge.

Dr. Melissa Woo

“Having role models present, be that through the gender, race or ethnicity that they happen to be, is incredibly important,” said Woo, who presented the keynote address. “We heard it from a member of the audience where she said she never thought about a CIO position before because she doesn’t see black women in that role. Some of it is having the role models, but we have to start somewhere. There just aren’t enough of them right now.”

Burrell echoes that sentiment noting he hopes this initiative allows for a candid conversation regarding diversity in the field.

“The angle I’m really trying to take on this is to build awareness that women’s issues aren’t issues for women. They’re for men. That’s the issue. More men need to be discussing women’s issues and our unconscious biases in a safe, frank and honest way with each other,” said Burrell.

With technology developments and the transition of services, the timing is right to proactively increase the number of women in IT in general and in leadership roles.  

At Georgia College, Cindy Bowen, director of operations, led the efforts for the USG Women in IT event.

“While Georgia College took the lead hosting the kickoff, it is a collaborative ‘systemwide effort.’ Volunteers from other institutions as well as direct support from the USG CIO and ITS staff helped in the planning,” said Bowen.

The group focused on strategies to sustain the effort for years to come including a track session at annual conferences, email newsletters and networking events.

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