Eastman, area teachers look to spark more women in IT through Sit With Me

Thursday at Eastman Chemical Company, a single “Red Chair” sparked an important conversation with a central question: What can we do to increase the number of women who choose careers in information technology and computing?

Eastman partnered with area K-12 educators, the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), and five universities – East Tennessee State, Virginia Tech, Appalachian State, Radford, and Missouri Science and Technology -- for Sit With Me, a half-day community outreach event designed to be one answer to that question.

Executive leaders and IT professionals from Eastman; Lucy Sanders, the CEO of NCWIT; and the more than 80 K-12 teachers participated in a panel discussion pivoting on data that shows women are underrepresented in IT careers. Women held 57 percent of the U.S. professional occupations in 2014, but only 26 percent of the professional computing jobs. In 2013, only 18 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients in computer and information science were women. In 1985, that number was 37 percent.

The signature facet of Sit With Me revolved around the iconic Red Chair, which is used at nationwide Sit With Me events capture conversations and thoughts about how to encourage more women to seek technical careers. Women and men at events throughout the nation have sat in the Red Chair – Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, actor Meryl Streep and NBA great Shaquille O’Neal are just three – to record their thoughts on barriers that prevent more women from being in IT, potential solutions to removing barriers, as well as inspirational personal accounts.

Many of the teachers and Eastman IT team members occupied the Red Chair at the event and offered their thoughts. Others included panelists from the discussion: Eastman leaders that included Perry Stuckey, senior vice president for human resources at Eastman; David Golden, senior vice president and chief legal officer; Cari Parker, vice president for corporate technology; Lucy Sanders, CEO of NCWIT; and Barbara Ryder, chair of the computer science department at Virginia Tech.

Eastman is committed to building an engaging and dynamic work environment with a mindset of equality and inclusion. A diverse and inclusive workforce is important to business growth and fosters creativity, innovation and camaraderie across the global company. Keith Sturgill, chief information officer for Eastman, was also a panelist and another Red Chair occupant. He said misconceptions of the scope of information technology are one reason fewer women choose IT as a career. Today, information technology is broader and more pervasive in business than it has ever been. Gone are the days when the IT professional spends many hours of each day in front of a computer turning out computer code, as IT professionals are now involved in every aspect of Eastman’s business.

Sturgill said the declining percentage of women in IT represents a disturbing trend for the entire profession, and Eastman will do its part to help change it. Eastman joined NCWIT, a non-profit alliance that is chartered by the National Science Foundation, to support Eastman’s diversity initiatives.

“We’re a global chemical company, a Fortune 350 company, and we are constantly competing with other companies to hire the best and brightest people in the world to fill positions in information technology,” Sturgill said. “We need to change the trend because women represent half or more of our available talent pool, and there’s little doubt that than many women who could be excellent IT professionals don’t consider it for a career. We are making a concerted effort to turn the tide, and Sit With Me is a part of that effort, a step forward in what will be a multi-faced campaign.”

Sarah Bastian, an Eastman cybersecurity expert and organizer of Sit With Me, will help lead that Eastman IT outreach initiative. It will include other events, as well as networking between Eastman IT professionals and area science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teachers and guest lectures by Eastman professionals in the classroom.

She pointed toward another component of Sit With Me intended to bring more women to IT. Various departments within the Eastman IT organization staffed informational booths that teachers were able to explore and gather information that they can take back to their students.

“We want students to see that we have exciting jobs in IT, and that it’s not just writing code in a basement,” Bastian said. “We’re engaging teachers to look for girls who are good in math and science, and show them the possibilities of a career in IT. We’re not saying, ‘push all your girls to IT’ – we’re just trying to help educate them on the options that are out there and guide the ones who are interested.

“Women were pioneers in this field, women like Grace Hopper and others, and that’s why it’s so sad,” Bastian added, referring to the late American computer scientist and Navy rear admiral who wrote COBOL, one of the most important programming languages in history. “But this can change – we can change it. If we’ve been pioneers in this industry once, we can do it again.”

Artwork from Sit With Me: Eastman can supply high-resolution photographs from the Sit With Me event. Click here to submit your request. Visit NCWIT or Sit With Me to download logos

About Eastman Headquartered in Kingsport, Tennessee, Eastman is a global specialty chemical company that produces a broad range of products found in items people use every day. Eastman employs approximately 15,000 people around the world and serves customers in approximately 100 countries. Its 2014 revenues were approximately $9.5 billion. For more information, visit www.eastman.com. Media contact: Brad Lifford Eastman Chemical Company Corporate Communications 423-229-6543, 423-707-4384 (mobile) blifford@eastman.com

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