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Gov IT Leaders Talk Unconscious Bias, Child Care and Equity

In the packed upstairs room at Clyde’s in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, federal IT leaders gathered to discuss the state of IT modernization through the lens of workforce gender diversity, a critical component to recruiting and retaining top talent.

During the “Trailblazing Women in Government IT” event hosted by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management (AFFIRM), a panel of women leaders from several federal agencies spoke about what their organizations are doing to retain top talent through championing a diverse workforce — creating more opportunities for talented women in general, including women of color and women who are raising children.

“It’s our [the leadership’s] role to dispel unconscious bias,” said Melissa Bruce, Executive Director of the Business Management Office for the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) at the Homeland Security Department (DHS).

At OCIO, they did so by rolling out unconscious bias training for managers, which encouraged leadership to be aware of their implicit bias through probing the automatic archetypes that arise when thinking about certain roles.

“We were going through the different characteristics and demographics people think of when they hear of a CIO, down to the 6-foot-tall, white male,” Bruce said. “It was a very eye-opening thing, because we all do it, and we don’t realize that we’re doing it.”

Best practices to encourage a diverse workforce starts with the leadership, said Stacie Alboum, Deputy Director of the Center for Information Technology (CIT) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Alboum remarked on the support and commitment that women in leadership positions receive at her organization, which helps change the science and technology spheres for the better.

One of the ways the agency supports women — in particular, moms, as well as dads — is through its onsite child care services, which Alboum cited as one of the greatest benefits for parents in the federal government, and particularly for her at NIH. Most federal employees will now be granted 12-week paid parental leave after the passage of the 2020 defense bill, but child care services can continue to support employees with children after leave.

“The flexibility, the convenience and peace of mind it offers me is priceless,” Alboum said. “I wouldn’t be able to do my job in the way that I do if I didn’t have that.”

Without equity in the workplace, however, diversity can be short-lived or hollow. Agencies that may be succeeding in efforts to hire a diverse workforce racially and gender-wise must retain or create an equitable environment for their whole workforce to be well-included and pursue growth opportunities fairly.

“We need to be committed to not just advancing women, but more broadly, diversity and inclusion. Because that invites unique perspectives and experiences that are going to ignite innovation in all of our activities,” Alboum said.

At the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the agency tries to uphold equity through transparency, said Sylvia Burns, Acting CIO and Chief Privacy Officer. For example, open positions are posted online, transparently, and promoted to all employees instead of individuals.

“Letting everybody have the opportunity to participate — that’s huge,” Burns said.

Additionally, the agency’s Office of Minority and Women Inclusion (OMWI) ensures the fair inclusion of women and people of color in management, employment and business activities. This week, the office released an internal diversity strategy for the agency to use, and it has been tracking statistics on women and minority representation in the FDIC workforce since 2012.

“Get a diverse team of [people] thinking when you’re trying to solve complicated problems,” said Suzette Kent, Federal CIO, who spoke at the event’s keynote. “And don’t be afraid of those [teams]. Those were some of the best experiences I’ve personally had in my career.”

The commitment others had for recruiting top, diverse talent is part of what empowered leaders like Bruce, Alboum, Burns and Kent to occupy their leadership positions. But these efforts to improve diversity and reach equity at agencies should not be confused as efforts to fulfill quotas.

“We’re not in these positions because we’re women,” Alboum said. “We’re in these positions because we’re talented.”

Photo credit: WOCinTechChat.com

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