UCI News

Tech equity

Campus advocacy group seeks to promote, support women in IT

by Matt Coker, UCI | February 28, 2022
Tech equity
“Lack of leadership opportunities can prompt women to leave their careers too soon, feeling unappreciated or unrecognized in the workplace,” says Shohreh Bozorgmehri, founder of Women in Technology at UCI and chair of the advocacy group’s inaugural board of advisors. “It’s important that women have access to a solid network of allies, sponsors or mentors to feel valued and thrive.” Steve Zylius / UCI

March is Women’s History Month, and the fact that you’re reading these words on a phone, tablet or computer screen is partly due to the work of information technology professionals.

However, as recently as October, a study by the nonprofit AnitaB.org found that half of the women in the computing field were still feeling the effects of being a minority. In spite of that, more than 60 percent reported that they were seeing some signs of improvement. Credit for that on campus can go to Women in Technology at UCI, an advocacy group founded a year and a half ago by Shohreh Bozorgmehri, director of the Student and Academic Services Division of UCI’s Office of Information Technology.

“Women in Technology at UCI was created from the aspiration to bring awareness to the challenges and unique experiences of women and minorities working in tech on campus,” explains Bozorgmehri, who chairs WiT’s inaugural board of advisors. “Technology is integral to all aspects of the business of higher education, but right now only less than a third of tech professionals are identified as women. By working to develop a more gender-diverse and equitable workplace, we maximize the benefits of diverse perspectives and creative ideas that advance our institution’s mission.”

WiT held an “Allyship That Makes an Impact” webinar in February 2021 that drew 331 attendees for a discussion of how allies can support women and minorities in technology. These conversations inspired the development of the Better Allies Book Club, sponsored by UCI’s Office of Information Technology to support the creation of an inclusive workplace through everyday actions.

In March 2021, WiT launched Applause, an annual peer recognition program spotlighting women who are building a culture of inclusion, equity and empowerment in their IT workplace. The organization has also sponsored career coaching for high-potential women.

Bozorgmehri credits the success of WiT to its advisors.

Debra Richardson, UCI professor emerita of informatics and founding dean of the Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences, is “a strong advocate who gives tremendous prior experience and knowledge that empower the WiT organization to thrive and further improve,” Bozorgmehri says. “She provides support, evidence and action to WiT to help accelerate our initiatives and reach our goals.”And Jennifer Wong-Ma, UCI associate professor of teaching in the Department of Computer Science, faculty advisor to the campus’s Women in Information and Computer Sciences group (as is Richardson) and co-chair of the Computer Science and Engineering Steering Committee, “is interested in understanding and promoting the role of women and the underrepresented in STEM so that there is equity amongst all,” Bozorgmehri says.

WiT’s board of advisors also includes the following members:

  • Julie Youm, associate dean of education compliance and quality and director of educational technology in UCI’s School of Medicine, hopes to see the field of technology continue to diversify responsibly. She is devoted to increasing awareness and action around achieving equity for women and the underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines.
  • April Sather, assistant chief information security officer at UCI’s Office of Information Technology, is working to create a community that encourages women to practice self-advocacy and prioritize building strong networks throughout their careers – and beyond.
  • Jennifer Lane, director of computing at UCI’s School of Social Ecology, wants to get more women into STEM fields, encourage them to stay in STEM fields and achieve equity for them across UCI.
  • Angela Han, manager of Student Affairs IT at UCI, hopes to increase conversations about women’s experiences in STEM and connect with other women and their allies.
  • Max Garrick, assistant director of executive application support at UCI’s Office of Information Technology, helps raise awareness of gender inequity and create an inclusive, supportive IT environment for women and underrepresented minorities.
  • Jason Valdry, assistant dean of UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts, is interested in teaching men how to be allies of women in technology and become advocates for diversity of thought through diversity of gender.

“All of our work would not be possible without the devotion of volunteers who were willing to help further create an inclusive IT workplace for women and minorities,” Bozorgmehri adds. “The biggest lesson is to continue strengthening the incredible collaboration of the strong UCI community that’s supporting us. The WiT advisory board, executive sponsors and strategic partners are the key pillars that are providing invaluable contributions for our organization’s success and growth.”

She notes that WiT and The Paul Merage School of Business Executive Education team have launched a certificate program called Leadership, Equality, Allies, Presence to prepare women in technology to not only find their voices and take seats at the leadership table but leverage their unique skills to create and shape these tables.

Identifying the female IT leaders of tomorrow is aided by WiT’s Applause initiative, which encourages members of UCI’s tech community to recognize colleagues who embody the advocacy group’s “Advance. Inspire. Empower. Act.” motto in the workplace.

“Applause celebrates the impact and accomplishments of individuals fostering an inclusive culture at UCI through their words, values, actions and attitudes,” says Bozorgmehri, whose newest honorees will be named during Women’s History Month. “We hope spotlighting role models will inspire more people to follow in their footsteps and galvanize UCI’s tech community toward greater equity for women and community consciousness.”

It takes strong campus collaborations and recognition to contend with an industry that lacks female representation and sees too many dejected women ending their careers early, Bozorgmehri says.

“A key challenge women face is losing ground in representation at every level as they progress into leadership positions, making it more challenging to find role models or develop strong relationships with other women colleagues in order to advance and grow,” she says. “Lack of leadership opportunities can prompt women to leave their careers too soon, feeling unappreciated or unrecognized in the workplace. It’s important that women have access to a solid network of allies, sponsors or mentors to feel valued and thrive.”

It’s a problem that has only gotten worse during a pandemic in which many women have experienced burnout and resigned. The solution involves changing the attitudes of tech hiring managers.

“To drive meaningful change, we should emphasize all aspects of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging,” Bozorgmehri says. “Through reimagining the hiring and advancement practices, we can create a culture that values and recognizes the contributions of minority groups that often remain overlooked. Whether it’s through mentoring or sponsoring, there are still a lot of improvements that can be made to ensure the tech industry not only hires diverse and inclusive talent but successfully retains them.

“We should also continue challenging bias head-on and practicing a culture of ‘allyship’ to support minority groups. It’s important to acknowledge that anyone could make a difference by becoming an ally to women and minorities.”

If you want to learn more about supporting this or other activities at UCI, please visit the Brilliant Future website at https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu. Publicly launched on Oct. 4, 2019, the Brilliant Future campaign aims to raise awareness and support for UCI. By engaging 75,000 alumni and garnering $2 billion in philanthropic investment, UCI seeks to reach new heights of excellence in student success, health and wellness, research and more.