At a recent IT industry event, Kenitra Horsley, the deputy chief information officer and director of enterprise systems at Queens University of Charlotte, a seasoned IT expert with more than 20 years of experience in IT management, was asked how she got a technology leadership role.
Horsley, a black woman, says she felt “blatantly disrespected” for someone questioning how she earned her role as an IT leader in higher education.
At a separate event, she was complimented for being smart. Horsley acknowledges that comment was intended as a compliment yet she believed showed an unconscious bias and that it was perceived as out of the ordinary for a black female to have the knowledge and skills needed to hold such a high-ranking IT position.
“To them, I was an anomaly or somehow different from other women,” Horsley says.
The deputy IT chief at the Charlotte, N.C., university highlights a long-running issue in not just IT, but the overall tech industry— the lack of diversity, particularly the short number of African American and Hispanic technologists in leadership roles.
According to the 2014 Diversity in High Tech Report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the percentage of black employees in high-tech industries is 7.4%, while over 13% of the U.S. population is black.
However, the percentage of black executives and managers in the tech industry is even lower, at just 1.92% and 4.12%, respectively. Hispanics account for 3.11% of executives and 4.91% of managers, and Asian Americans make up 10.5% and 12.98%, respectively.
That leaves whites owning 83.31% of executive positions and 76.53% of managerial positions.
According to Horsley, part of the issue is the lack of formal mentoring for BIPOC IT workers from supervisors who look like them.
“So, when there isn’t diversity in the organization, there’s less of a chance for a younger diverse employee to find someone to help them grow and navigate the environment,” she says.
The Next Leaders Fellowship’s goals
However, Horsley, along with a consortium of higher education institutions, is hoping to change that with the Next Leaders Fellowship, a new initiative of two nonprofit professional associations designed to advance career opportunities for minorities in senior leadership IT departments in higher education.
Horsley is one of 12 professionals selected for the program’s inaugural cohort that will work with accomplished senior IT leaders across a range of institutions and organizations to develop the skills and experiences required in higher education IT.
Michael Cato, senior vice president and chief information officer at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, the lead sponsor for the program, says the Next Leaders Fellowship (NLF) is designed to create a community that positions people of color in higher education IT to pursue senior level roles.
“For this initial class of 12 people, we want to put together an experience that allows us to build a community between and among them, supported by a group of mentors,” Cato says.
According to Cato, an IT specialist with more than 20 years of experience, including stints at several other universities, there has not been enough work to build representative teams earlier in their careers.
“When it comes time to promote people to that senior-level or mid-level manager position, they haven’t had the experiences that we are looking for,” Cato says.
It’s not that people of color are intentionally being kept out, Cato says, but rather that they aren’t getting the same opportunity, sponsorship and resources to move up to those leadership roles.
Cato says he had the good fortune of having mentors throughout his career that looked like him, although most did not. That combination, he says, was crucial.
“That’s a big part of it—believing that I could do it and being willing to take the risk without knowing whether I’d be successful or not,” Cato says. “Then having that success and proving that I can take on something additional builds on itself. If you don’t get those initial opportunities, you might not believe in yourself.”
The impact of diversity in IT
The benefit of a more diverse team is simple: more inclusive environments are better at solving complex problems, says the Bowdoin College IT chief. Essentially, more ways of looking at a difficult issue is better than just one, and a wider array of novel approaches can bring innovative solutions to the table.
“My argument is that our job is solving complex problems,” Cato says. “That’s what we do for a living.”
However, the solution is not just hiring more diverse entry-level IT workers.
“If you don’t actually have a culture that celebrates those kinds of differences, hears new ideas and considers them and then adopts them, all you’re going to do is make everybody mad,” Cato says.
Ezra Plemons, instructional technologist for digital media at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and one of the 12 inaugural cohorts of the NLF, says the issue sounds easy to solve on paper. Demand for jobs and opportunities is there, and diversity and inclusion initiatives are being trumpeted across sectors. Plemons cites a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) signed by more than 600 IT leaders in higher education.
“But, despite this, I sometimes think there’s a disconnect between the cultural identity of IT in higher ed and the workers it intends to foster,” Plemons says.
He calls IT dynamic, adaptable and innovative on one hand, while the job also calls for stability, security and risk aversion. As such, IT can be slow to change.
Plemons says organizations must root out unconscious biases and procedural barriers, including looking elsewhere for experience – not just computer science degrees. He wants to learn through the NLF how to solve this disconnect.
“I want young talented people to see the IT that I do — one that needs, sees, and values their creativity, their lived experiences and their authentic selves,” Plemons says. “And to try and create that culture from within — to mentor new hires and help develop a network that allows upward and lateral mobility for them in their careers as they progress and celebrates their success.”
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