Where are the women in tech? At least 1200 will be in San Diego

In about two weeks, more than 1200 women plus a handful of men will meet in San Diego for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. It is organized by the Anita Borg Institute, the leading advocate for women in technology leadership roles, and the Association of Computing Machinery.
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor

In about two weeks, more than 1200 women plus a handful of men will meet in San Diego for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. It is organized by the Anita Borg Institute, the leading advocate for women in technology leadership roles, and the Association of Computing Machinery.

I recently I met with Telle Whitney, the energetic and passionate head of the Anita Borg Institute,  housed within HP Labs in the heart of Silicon Valley. Also at the meeting was Alan Eustace. VP of engineering at Google. Both Mr Eustace and Ms Whitney had once worked with Anita Borg, one of the world's top women computer scientists.

The topic of why are there so few women in computer engineering and technology research is one that has been around for many years. Have we made any progress?

"Some days it feels like we haven't moved much,  but other days it really does feel that we have made a lot of progress. We just have to remember that culture changes slowly," said Ms. Whitney.

The forthcoming Grace Hopper celebration and conference, is a highpoint at the Anita Borg Institute, and this year it becomes an annual even--from being held once every two years.

"It is very exciting to see women connecting with each other," said Ms Whitney. "Suddenly, they are not in the minority anymore, they are with hundreds of other women. That makes a big difference."

Ms Whitney said that when she worked in tech research she sometimes felt isolated as a woman. And that isolation sometimes leads to women leaving their company, or their profession, to go and do other things. The Anita Borg Institute wants to reverse that trend and raise the numbers of women in tech research.

Alan Eustace will be one of the 80 or so men in the minority at the "Hoppers." The reason he is going is because this is the place to find the brightest women engineers and researchers.

"At Google, we want to recruit the smartest people, and that means we cannot ignore 50 per cent of the population."

Other big sponsors include IBM, Yahoo, Cisco, Intel, Microsoft, IBM, and HP. All will be seeking to recruit women and increase the diversity of their workforce.

So,  is this a "jobs fair" I asked? They laughed and said no, but there is intense competition to recruit the top women candidates.

"These are very difficult people to recruit because they have many options," said Mr Eustace. "Universities want them, other corporations want them, and we want them."

But with so few women in science and engineering, if Google and the others snap up the best and the brightest, won't that mean that Universities will lose out? Teachers are often cited as being the most influential on women's choice of careers.

"I think people generally know if they want to teach,  or to work in the commercial sector. It doesn't have anything to do with us," said Mr Eustace. "We would be eating the seed corn if we were to pull women away from teaching."

To tempt the women at the Hopper celebration to the recruitment tables of the tech giants--goodie bags have been prepared.

Microsoft's goodie bag includes lipstick, while Google's contains chapstick [does this indicate something about the two companies...?]

Mr Eustace said he is looking forward to the conference. "When you see so many women in one place, so excited, and so enjoying being there, it is an amazing thing. I get goosebumps."

Men are welcome at the conference, and within the Anita Borg Institute. It's an attitude that makes sense, since they can help put things right.

But tracking changes in company employment data is difficult. Company human resource departments will not release employment data to protect themselves from legal actions.

For example, when I asked about the number of women engineers at Google, or the percentage of women to men engineers, Mr Eustace declined to answer. Yet he is a board member of the institute and a passionate supporter of this cause. Without such metrics, the work of the institute cannot be assessed.

"We've asked the HR departments at many large companies and they won't give us the information," said Ms Whitney. "We have plans to produce an aggregate number, which would not identify an individual company, but would still provide useful trend data."

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[Thanks to Jane Evans-Ryan from MCA Communications and Eric Mason, communications director at the Anita Borg Institute, for setting this up meeting.]

Additional information about Anita Borg:

Anita Borg was a winner of the prestigious Heinz Award. This is from the Heinz Award web site:

Anita Borg, who received the eighth annual Heinz Award in the category of Technology, the Economy and Employment, died April 6, 2003. Her tireless and inspirational role in attracting women to the computer industry paved the way for countless numbers of women of all ages to embrace technology instead of fearing or ignoring it. We will miss her vision and tenacious spirit.

Anita Borg didn’t find her way to a computer keyboard until she was in her mid-20s — and even then it was the result of boredom with a dead-end job and pure happenstance. Still, she turned out to be a natural.

After receiving a Ph.D. in computer science from New York University in 1981, she embarked on what was to become a brilliant research career for some of the new industry’s commercial giants.

During the 1970s and early ’80s, the situation for women in technology was grim. There were only a handful of female professors and graduate students, and few undergraduates were entering the ranks. And, as bad as the academic situation was, industry was much worse.

Dr. Borg’s brilliant success in breaking through the “silicon ceiling” was an exception that proved the rule.

One day, attending a major industry seminar, she looked around and realized that there were only a handful of women in the room. She pulled that small group together and started Systers, an e-mail list and information-sharing network that now provides mentors, support, encouragement, contacts and ideas via the Internet to more than 2,500 women in 38 states and foreign countries.

In 1994, Dr. Borg co-convened the first Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Named in honor of a World War II computer pioneer, that first conference was attended by almost every notable woman in the field from all over the world — admittedly a small group.The fourth Grace Hopper Celebration will be held in October in Vancouver, with several hundred women attending.
Dr. Borg feels that, by presenting the major purpose of computer technology as solving straightforward technical challenges, we have lost the interest of many brilliant technical minds — often female — because their interest lies more in solving real problems than in creating technology for technology’s sake.
In 1997, Dr. Borg left the industry to found and lead the Institute for Women and Technology (IWT). In addition to assuming responsibility for a number of existing programs — including Systers and the Grace Hopper Celebrations — IWT is an experimental research and development organization focused on increasing the impact of women on technology, as well as enhancing the positive impact of technology on women around the world.

Link to The Heinz Awards


Anita Borg profile on Wikipedia

Subject: Article about Systers, a women only organization founded by Anita Borg ...


Women Who Inspire Us, Anita Borg - from GirlGeeks.com


The Google 2007 Anita Borg Scholarship

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