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Changing the "Women in Tech" Conversation

We're doing an excellent job of continually illustrating the problems, but I prefer to focus on the solutions.

Anita Borg Institute/2013

Over the past year, the tech industry has embraced the push for more women. It’s exciting to see these conversations happening, and to finally shine a spotlight on the important issues at hand. It appears change is on the horizon.

The change is a long time coming! When I began my engineering career in the computing industry nearly 30 years ago, with a fresh PhD from Caltech, computer science was a relatively new field. I continuously learned in those early years about the need to assert myself and make my work visible. While I never felt discriminated against or harassed, I found that some of my male bosses failed to recognize my strengths and, as a result, I did not enjoy working for them. I now know why.

I was subject to subtle, unconscious biases three decades ago, which continue to drive women away from tech today. Our industry has grown and evolved tremendously in terms of impactful innovation, coupled with tremendous economic, financial, social and global implications and yet, women in tech today face the same issues I faced 30 years ago.

There has been plenty in the press recently discussing the lack of women in tech. The facts are grim. Only 18 percent of computer science graduates are women. Women leave tech companies at twice the rate of men, which makes it difficult for those companies to gain much-needed senior female tech leadership. A recent New York Times article by Claire Cain Miller — “Technology’s Man Problem” — outlines the alienation many women technologists feel in the industry.

Stories like these do an excellent job of continually illustrating the problems, but I prefer to focus on the solutions.

First, women technologists must support and elevate each other in the industry. A network of female role models and mentors helps set an example, and shows young women entering the field the many paths they can choose for their technical career.

For this reason, I co-founded the Grace Hopper Celebration with Anita Borg in 1994. At the time, gathering 500 women technologists in one place seemed like magic, and the room was electric. In 2013, the Grace Hopper Celebration drew a crowd of nearly 5,000 attendees, with inspiring keynotes from leading women technologists such as Google X VP Megan Smith. [Disclosure: Smith is married to Re/code co-editor Kara Swisher.] Over the years we’ve helped connect women through their technical achievements and desire for career growth, but there is always more work to do.

This brings me to the other part of the solution. Companies must hold themselves more accountable. The Anita Borg Institute works with leading organizations that value technology and innovation, to help foster a workplace culture that welcomes, encourages and aids women technologists to succeed as members of their diverse teams. Year over year, we see increased interest and participation in our programs, from management training to detailed measurement of company progress.

It is only when companies begin to measure their progress that they can truly improve the representation and contributions of women in their companies. This is why we are so thrilled to have a record number of organizations participate in our annual Top Company for Women in Computing Award. The award looks at the hard numbers on recruitment, retention and advancement to determine the company that has executed most effectively on their programs and recorded the greatest improvement in these metrics over time.

As part of this initiative, we provide each participating company an analysis of their data as compared to the average of other participants. The value of this report compels organizations to participate because they care about measuring their actual progress. This year’s winner, Bank of America, was chosen out of the 24 participating companies, including Google, eBay and Facebook, for their marked success in placing women in leadership roles across their organization’s technology departments, among other achievements.

I look forward to celebrating Bank of America’s accomplishments with our other participants at the Anita Borg Institute’s Women of Vision Awards Banquet in Santa Clara on Thursday, May 8. On this inspirational night we also honor Maria Klawe, Tal Rabin and Kathrin Winkler — three leading women technologists — for their accomplishments in the areas of leadership, innovation and social impact.

The triumph of the Women of Vision Awards lies in these extraordinary women and organizations, and elevating the women in tech conversation to achievements rather than deficiencies. This is where the women in tech conversation should be headed — let’s take it there together.

Dr. Telle Whitney is the president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute. She held senior technical management positions with Malleable Technologies and Actel Corporation, and co-founded the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference. She was named in 2011 to the Fast Company Most Influential Women in Technology List. In 2012, she received the A. Nico Habermann Award for her role in founding and sustaining NCWIT. Dr. Whitney received her PhD from Caltech and her bachelor’s degree at the University of Utah, both in computer science. Reach her @TelleWhitney.

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