'Hidden Figures' set in '60s, but diversity in tech still rare today
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One of the most encouraging things to happen recently is the critical and commercial success of the Oscar-nominated film "Hidden Figures," which this week won Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Its success is the perfect catalyst to discuss America's unconscious bias and how it continues to undermine our economic and innovation potential in the digital age.

"Hidden Figures" is the true story of persistent, resilient and brilliant African-American women who, despite numerous societal barriers, exercised their mathematical and mechanical skills as part of the NASA team that engineered astronaut John Glenn's first orbit around the Earth.

It vividly depicts the bias, both conscious and unconscious, that threatened to undermine America's ability to prevail in the perilous Cold War race with the Soviet Union to dominate space exploration.

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Today, America's challenge is similar, but far subtler. America may not be trying to beat the Soviets to the moon, but our country faces a struggle that requires the fullest contribution of the very best American minds, regardless of gender or skin color.

 

The core message we need to emphasize today is that America must shed a toxic culture that discourages great technological innovators based on their gender or color.

Why do I stress diversity in tech? Haven't women achieved parity in college and even in science professions like medicine?

The fact is, America suffers from a chronic, self-imposed national shortage of computer scientists and information technology (IT) skilled labor everywhere — even in the Rust Belt. Projections for demand and supply estimate that by 2024, there will be 660,000 job vacancies beyond what American computer science graduates will be able to fill.

To span the gap, the US must expand and extend the pipeline for computer and IT workers into largely untapped sectors of the population: women and underrepresented minorities. Unfortunately, the gains we envisioned happening in the movie have evaporated. In the 1980s, women were awarded nearly 40 percent of computer science degrees, but today they are graduating with only 18 percent.

Simply put, we have refused to look inward for computer science talent. Instead, companies have largely relied on H-1B visas. The issue is most dire in defense and cybersecurity, where neither the government nor federal contractors are permitted to issue security clearances to non-citizens on temporary visas.

To jump-start the American economy, we must confront the underlying reasons why women and minorities are being discouraged from technology professions. As "Hidden Figures" showed us, one of the main culprits is unconscious bias, and in our digital age, unconscious bias has found its way into the computer programs and algorithms we rely on daily without thinking.

One instance is a word-embedding algorithm, used in many applications, that managed to pick up and apply the rigid gender stereotypes that permeate society. For example, it was found to associate "man" with "computer programmer," but "woman" with "homemaker." As MIT Technology Review noted, "If the phrase 'computer programmer' is more closely associated with men than women, then a search for the term 'computer programmer CVs' might rank men more highly than women."

But how will this affect America's innovation leadership?

The United States has relied on and must still rely on remaining in the technological vanguard. We need the best of the best, and the fact of the matter is that diverse groups solve complex problems better and faster than homogenous groups.

The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) reports that businesses experience greater sales revenue, more customers, greater market share and higher relative profits when women and other underrepresented groups occupy meaningful and innovative roles.

Diversity in tech also positively affects the quality of the software and hardware that America relies on, leading to more widely applicable technologies that can positively affect more people's lives. Tech patents with the highest rates of citation are those produced by mixed-gender teams.

If President Trump wants to fulfill his campaign job promises, the smart place to start is by educating and training Americans for the computer science and IT jobs of today and tomorrow.

To face the shortage of domestic skilled workers and fill demand for computing talent, we need to open our eyes to women and underrepresented minorities, America's overlooked resources.

Technology drives our economy and underpins our security. Bringing diversity into the equation turbo-charges the tech sector. It's not only the right thing to do; it's the smart thing.

Paula Stern is former chairwoman of the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) and founder and chairwoman of The Stern Group Inc., which serves national and multinational organizations on business, political and tech policy issues that affect their competitiveness in a global economy.


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