By Jennifer Martinez - 08/24/12 04:45 PM EDT
Only two of the 18 people sworn in Thursday for participation in a prestigious White House tech fellowship program are women, prompting concerns about gender imbalance.
“For those who haven't noticed, only 2 WH innovation fellows are women. Where's the problem? Did enough apply? No lack of talent" tweeted Sarah Granger, founder of the Center for Technology, Media and Society, a nonprofit organization.
For years, the tech industry has had to grapple with questions about the lack of women in high-profile positions, as well as how to recruit and retain more women into these top jobs.
The White House was forced to tackle the same issue on Thursday after observers on Twitter seized on the imbalanced male-to-female ratio in the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, an initiative where citizens with private-sector tech backgrounds are enlisted to work on agency-sponsored federal IT projects over the next six months.
“11 percent [female representation] for something as visible and inspiring as this program, you'd think they could have done better,” Sifry told The Hill in an interview. “I'm sure there are plenty of qualified women who didn't get slots. I don't really know why this happened, but it seems worth pointing out."
However, Sifry also noted that there are several women working in the administration that are spearheading innovative programs within the federal government, citing Bev Godwin and Sheila Campbell at the General Service Administration's Office of Citizen Services and Innovation Technologies as examples. He argued that tech isn't the only industry that suffers from gender imbalance, but says it's still a problem that needs to be addressed.
"There are glass ceilings all over this country," Sifry said. "It isn't just in tech necessarily and progress is being made, but there's still a need for more."
The Obama administration has taken steps to address the gender gap in science, tech, engineering and math-focused degree programs and jobs — known as STEM. Many of the administration's efforts to boost the number of students in STEM fields, such as the "Race to the Top" competition, have also included initiatives aimed at encouraging more females to study math and science and enter technical jobs.
When faced with questions about the gender ratio of the fellows program during a White House-sponsored Twitter chat on Thursday, White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park tweeted in response: "Diversity in tech is a challenge & priority- need 2 get the word out further about opportunities like [Presidential Innovation Fellows]."
A White House spokesman didn’t shed much light on the selection process in a statement to The Hill, but emphasized that each of the fellows is equipped with the experience and skill set needed for each of the IT projects.
“The 18 leading private-sector innovators that make up the first class of Presidential Innovation Fellows are from a diverse set of backgrounds with an overwhelming collection of talents and expertise specifically suited to the tasks at hand," said White House spokesman Phil Larson. "The Obama Administration has taken unprecedented steps to attract, retain, and support women and girls as they navigate careers in science and technology, and is dedicated to increasing the participation of women and girls — as well as other underrepresented groups — in those fields.”
The first class of 18 fellows will be paired up with government tech leaders to work on five separate IT projects sponsored by relevant agencies. For example, some will work on a project that's dedicated to developing online tools that let people securely access their health information. Another team of fellows is working on designing an online marketplace that will make it easier for the government to purchase IT services from small tech companies.
The federal agencies heading up each of the projects decided which applicants would be accepted into the program. The selection process was extremely competitive: nearly 700 people applied to be a fellow.
The White House did not comment on the number of female applicants to the program.
The two women selected for the fellows program will be working on open-data-focused initiatives. Kara DeFrias of San Diego, Calif., is on the team for the MyGov project, which will create a prototype of an online system where people can access information and services across the federal government. DeFrias is a user experience strategist for Intuit's TurboTax software.
Marina Martin, a Web developer from Seattle, was chosen for another team tasked with designing programs that will make government data more accessible online. According to her LinkedIn profile, Martin is based at the Department of Education and working on projects aimed at making education-related data available to people in a more streamlined way.
Granger said the White House did a good job of advertising the program widely, but should expand its recruitment efforts to more organizations focused on women in tech when choosing the future fellows.
“I was disappointed because I had hoped the White House would be able to put together a more gender diverse first class of fellows, but I can't say I was surprised,” she said in an email. “Significant gender imbalance in technology tends to be the norm rather than the exception.”