Lakshmi Iyer’s summer program is reversing the trend of declining female engagement in IT.
It never bothered Lakshmi Iyer that she was one of only a few females in her graduate engineering program. Years later, however, as an associate professor in the Bryan School, she decided that the severe shortage of women in IT is a problem she wants to solve.
Her idea came to life after a 2005 review of the department programs had uncovered a serious issue: the number of females in Information Systems, a STEM major, had dropped from about 40-45 percent to 18-20 percent—all within the previous five years.
Lakshmi began to ask herself what she could do to turn the numbers back around. “I wanted to study this more. When I started looking at data, I noticed it wasn’t just us; it was a national trend.”
Lakshmi read a lot about women in computing. Then she looked at the pipeline. “If fewer undergraduate females were entering STEM majors, what could we learn by looking at the high school environment?” she asked.
The data from Guilford County Schools was dismal. “Some computing classes had less than 5-10 percent of female students. In other cases, computing classes were not even available.” Add to this, the misperception that IT jobs were going away due to outsourcing or automation—and that IT was a “non-social” profession.
“Studies have shown the women are creative, and if you think about the new developments in the IT field, they are all very creative. You have to have different skill sets, and women bring those skill sets as well as the ability to relate well to solving social problems. We need women in the IT field.”
Lakshmi Iyer, Founder and Director of Women in Information Technology
Lakshmi started the Women in IT Initiative to increase awareness about IT education and careers for girls and women. Her next step was to create IT is for Girls. The program first began as a free, half-day session for high school girls, who engaged in hands-on sessions in web design and mobile application development. It concluded with a lunch featuring talks from women who work in different fields in IT—finance, healthcare, apparel. “I wanted them to see that just because you are in IT doesn’t mean you have to work only for an IT company.”
The American Association of University Women, an organization dedicated to advancing equity for women, took notice. The Greensboro chapter had a specific goal to advance Technology aspect of STEM education. Lakshmi received a competitive community action grant from AAUW National, which allowed her to expand her half-day program into a weeklong summer camp.
Now students could experience not just web design and mobile application development, but also data visualization, robotics, computer and Internet security, and more. After two days of sessions, they spent Wednesday through Friday mornings working to find a solution to a problem. In the afternoons, they visited area firms to see how computing is used in the workforce.
On one field trip, students learned how to put together a computer in just a couple of hours. “They learned they don’t have to be afraid of a computer anymore,” Lakshmi says.
On Fridays, when parents came to camp to watch their daughters present their projects, they remarked to Lakshmi about the change in conversations at the dinner table. “Their daughters were talking about all things computing, with excitement,” she says.
The program was a huge success, but Lakshmi wanted to reach girls even earlier—in middle school. She selected high school peer mentors as session leaders and added gaming, video editing and the Internet of Thing to the curriculum. She also added a social awareness aspect, which now challenges students to solve a social problem such as bullying, recycling and sustainability. IT is for Girls continues each summer, with increasing numbers of girls, year after year. What started as a program for about 35 now serves about 70 girls each summer—a significant progress toward the ultimate goal: more women in IT.
“The women professionals who judge our projects are amazed at what these girls can do in one week,” Lakshmi says. There are many “jaw-dropping moments” in the audience, she adds. And many girls who now realize the excitement and potential that IT holds, for them and for the future.
“The best part was getting to see the truly creative solutions to social problems that girls in my session came up with during our short time together. Knowing I helped a little bit in being fuel for these girls’ careers in the IT field is a great feeling. Dr. Iyer is a role model and inspiration because of her constant, undying work ethic, can-do attitude, and true commitment to community involvement in the cause of IT for Girls.”
Sahana Giridharan, Program Leader for IT for Girls and rising sophomore at Early College at Guilford