Verizon, Cornell Tech, and CUNY Form NY Women in Tech Initiative

Bringing together public and private support, a tech education program has taken shape in New York to encourage more women to get trained to pursue careers in the industry.

Verizon Communications, alongside Cornell Tech and the City University of New York, recently announced the Women in Technology and Entrepreneurship in New York Initiative (WiTNY)—which aims to boost access to computer science for women in undergraduate and graduate school.

“We’re focused on the New York market because it is one of the fastest-growing tech markets in the country,” says Judith Spitz, Verizon’s executive in residence at Cornell Tech, who leads the initiative. The partnership, which includes other major corporations, is what is needed to make more progress in gender diversity in tech organizations, she says. “The fundamental problem is there aren’t enough women in the pipeline.”

In addition to Verizon, others such as Accenture, Citi Foundation, Grand Central Tech, IBM, and AppNexus are also supporting the initiative.

This collaboration, much like other public and private efforts that have surfaced in recent years, seeks to reverse the trend of fewer women earning computer science degrees in the U.S., even though more women are attending college. In addition to increasing diversity among the tech disciplines, this could also help abate an overall national shortage of professionals with technology skills.

“While there are many efforts focused on the K-12 space, which are absolutely terrific, there are four long years between when these young women graduate high school and generally enter the workforce,” Spitz says.

As plans for the program developed, the initiative consulted with computer scientist Maria Klawe, president of Claremont, CA-based Harvey Mudd College, who is known for understanding what is needed at the undergraduate level to recruit more women into computer science.

Given the multitude of campuses that make up CUNY, Spitz says some adaptation may be necessary to emulate programs that worked at Harvey Mudd—which could lead to similar efforts beyond New York. “We’d like to take those ideas and share them so this kind of approach and model of a public-private partnership can be replicated in other cities around the nation,” she says.

WiTNY’s mission is to cast a wide net, Spitz says, to get more women to choose to major in technology disciplines. The initiative includes a free summer program for young women who have graduated high school and will attend CUNY to encourage their interest in tech careers. The summer session will include an introductory class in product design, development, and coding. WiTNY also plans to place 25 to 30 tech interns this summer at the participating companies, Spitz says.

Undergraduate women at CUNY will have access to new computer science curriculum, offered in partnership with Cornell Tech, especially for students with no or little exposure to such knowledge. Meanwhile, women will be able to apply for fellowships to pursue their masters or doctorates in computer science and related disciplines at Cornell Tech. Spitz says the various incentives could help develop a critical mass of young women in technology classes, so they do not feel alone.

In order to gauge the results of this effort, the initiative is also collaborating with the National Center for Women & Information Technology, Spitz says, which keeps metrics on U.S. computer science degree recipients and demographics of the technology workforce. The idea is to track over time the percentage of women who are applying to major computer science and related disciplines. “We’re looking at tracking attrition rates so that we understand if we are making progress,” she says. Graduation rates will also be tracked. “Of course, you have to wait several years to measure that.”

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