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Broadening participation

Cultivating Cultural Diversity in Information Technology

IT faculty and U.S. census data

Current IT faculty data from the CRA Taulbee Report, U.S. population data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Credit: CRA Taulbee Report, U.S. Census Bureau

The field of information technology has had a major impact on society.a A panel of eight judges from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania recently identified 20 top innovations from the past 30 years; half were tied to the field of IT (examples include the Internet, mobile phones, email, microprocessors, office software, and Internet-based social networking).2 Given the significant impact of computing on society, it is important that all cultures, especially underrepresented cultures, are fully engaged in the field to ensure that everyone benefits from the advances in computing. The lack of cultural diversity is especially evident with respect to the following ethnic groups—African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans—as well as people with disabilities. CMD-IT was developed to focus on ethnic minorities and people with disabilities for which the link across these different communities is that of understanding a particular culture.

The demographics of the field's faculty shape the demographics of the student population.6 African Americans comprise 1.3% of the faculty in IT, but make up 12% of the U.S. population; Hispanics comprise 1.7% of the faculty in IT, but make up 15%, of the U.S. population.1,7,b By 2020, ethnic minorities are projected to constitute almost 32% of the U.S. population.7 People with disabilities comprise 18% of the U.S. population aged five years and older, but the percentage of such people in the IT field is far lower.7 A diverse student population requires a diverse faculty for many reasons, including incorporation of diverse perspectives in development of student programs and curricula that are engaging to students from all groups.

Culture is manifested in practices that emerge from prolonged participation within specific communities.5 According to Mintzes and Wanderse: "Our perceptions of objects and events in the natural world are strongly dependent on our store of prior knowledge we view the world through a pair of 'conceptual goggles'."3 These goggles are heavily influenced by culture. The process for seeing the value of diverse perspectives and diverse cultures begins early, usually through learning about multiple cultures in the school system where many social perspectives are formed. Teachers who understand the historical origins and present circumstances of different social groups help students to understand these issues as well. Understanding must go beyond what Moll and Gonzalez call "tangible surface markers," such as dance, food, language, folklore, and ethnic heritage festivals. Understanding takes into account the everyday lived experiences of diverse cultures represented by students and their families.4 Teachers should enter their students' households and communities as "learners," seeking to understand the ways in which people make sense of their everyday lives. Teachers of multiple cultures should have direct experience in the communities they discuss.

Higher education and the professional workplace have a number of organizations that serve the important role of providing support mechanisms and programs to increase the participation of particular cultures in science and engineering, including IT. These organizations include the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), the National Society of Black Engineering (NSBE), the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). We announce a new, complementary effort in which groups, companies, and organizations focused on underrepresented cultures in IT have a forum to develop synergistic activities and leverage from each other—the Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities in IT (CMD-IT), launched in March 2010.

CMD-IT was created by five people experienced with enhancing diversity within the IT field: Ron Eglash (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), Ann Gates (University of Texas in El Paso), Richard Ladner (University of Washington), Bryant York (Portland State University), and the author. CMD-IT facilitates synergistic activities among industry, established organizations, and local projects related to ethnic minorities and people with disabilities in IT. The organization grew out of an NSF-sponsored meeting on Diversity in IT held at Texas A&M University in April 2008. That meeting identified the following goal for CMD-IT: To ensure that underrepresented groups are fully engaged in information technologies, and to promote innovation that enriches, enhances, and enables these communities such that more equitable and sustainable contributions are possible by all communities. That goal is made operational through the following objectives:

  • Provide a united voice, spoken by many, that identifies the major issues facing African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, and people with disabilities in the IT field.
  • Provide a resource for information and statistics related to programs, organizations, and alliances focused on African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, and people with disabilities in the IT field.
  • Provide leadership initiatives that promote leadership among students, faculty, and professionals from the underrepresented groups.
  • Facilitate national-scale projects that involve collaborations between established programs and organizations, with measurable goals focused on engagement and enrichment.

Success with these objectives will facilitate national awareness of cultural issues pertaining to IT and promote effective sharing of best practices and ideas for increasing cultural diversity in IT. The intent of the objectives is already manifested in a project supported by the Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) Program in NSF's Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) Directorate. This project, "Incorporating Cultural Tools for Math and Computing Concepts into Boys and Girls Clubs," is gaining prominence in the U.S. by leveraging regional and national organizations for volunteers required to scale two successful, local projects to the national level. This project enlists the Boys and Girls Clubs of America to extend to national scale two local efforts—Culturally Situated Design Tools (CSDTs) and African American Distributed Multiple Learning Styles Systems City Stroll (AADMLSS-City Stroll). These two efforts use alternative approaches to educational material involving math and computing to provide a better fit to different cultural orientations and perceptions. This national effort in the U.S. intends to develop an institutional pipeline for K-12 students to enter undergraduate programs in IT, and extend new math education tools to include computing. The project includes an evaluation component to help determine the circumstances under which these tools are most useful. Early commitments to facilitate this effort have been obtained from the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), the National Technical Association (NTA), and the STARS Alliance.

Currently, CMD-IT is establishing communities of practice, which consists of representatives from industry, organizations, and projects focused on cultural diversity in IT. Furhter, CMD-IT is developing national-scale projects and initiatives, and establishing partnerships and providing resources for improved understanding of different cultures. Readers are encouraged to learn more about CMD-IT at

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1. CRA Taulbee Report,

2. Korkki, P. Internet, mobile phones named most important inventions. New York Times, (Mar. 7, 2009).

3. Mintzes, J. and Wanderse, J.H. Reform and innovation in science teaching: A human constructive view. In J.J. Mintzes, J.H. Wandersee, and J.D. Novak, Eds., Teaching Science for Understanding: A Human Constructivist View, Academic Press San Diego, CA, 1997.

4. Moll, L.C. and Gonzalez, N. Teachers as social scientists: Learning about culture from household research. In P.M. Hall, Ed., Race, Ethnicity, and Multiculturalism: Policy and Practice, Routledge, 1997.

5. Rogof, B. The Culture of Human Development. Oxford University Press, New York, 2003.

6. Umbach, P.D. The contribution of faculty of color to undergraduate education. Research in Higher Education 47, (2006).

7. U.S. Census Bureau;

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Valerie E. Taylor ( is the holder of the Royce E. Wisenbaker Professorship and Department Head of the Department of Computer Science at Texas A&M University.

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a. The term "information technology" includes computing, computer science, computer engineering, and other specific subspecialties.

b. The data from the CRA Taulbee Survey focuses on computer science and computer engineering, but the numbers are representative of the broader IT field.


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UF1Figure. Ethnicity of Current IT Faculty

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2010 ACM, Inc.


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