#19 Telle Whitney, President & CEO, Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology
Something is missing from this series of interviews with software designers behind the code. Where’
While this omission has not been intentional, it’
In the U.
To help figure out the computer science gender gap, I spoke with Telle Whitney, who heads the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. Whitney earned a PhD in computer science from the California Institute of Technology and spent 20 years in the semiconductor and telecommunications industries. Then, the illness and untimely death her friend, Anita Borg, became an unexpected turn in Whitney’
re a model of what your organization wants to achieve. How did you get there?
Although I had been very good in math and science in high school, I started out in theater at the University of Utah. That direction didn’
t work out, and I almost dropped out of school. But in my second year, I took one of those tests designed to assess your professional interests--and computer programming was off the chart. That surprised me because I knew nothing about programming. I took a COBOL class, and I fell in love. It took me five years to graduate, and I scrambled the whole time. Even so, my grade point average shot up to straight As.
- Did you find computer science to be a man’
Actually, my first teacher was a woman, and there were graduate students that were women. It was in the mid-80s and the field had not become so engineering-ized, so there were women around. In 1985, 37% of the undergraduate computer science degrees were earned by women, according to the National Science Foundation. That number has dropped precipitously since then.
Many people have asked that question. I think that, back then, the image of what a computer scientist “looks like” had not yet been formed. If you were good at math, you might have been drawn to this brand new science, no matter what your gender.
t the University of Utah famous for its graphics?
Correct. One of my professors, Rich Riesenfeld, introduced me to Ivan Sutherland, one of the pioneers in the field. Ivan was starting a department at Cal Tech with Carver Mead, which is how I ended up going there in 1979. He left after a year, and I began to work with Carver, who came from the semiconductor industry. There was a revolution going on in VLSI [very-large-scale integration] technology: this was the first time entire systems were being put on a chip, and he revolutionized the design methodology. Cal Tech back then was about 13 percent women .
- Did you feel at home?
Cal Tech was filled with great thinkers who were changing the world. Richard Feynman was there. But as a woman, it was sometimes very awkward. Most of these men didn’
t have a lot of experience being around women. And like many young women at that age, I was trying so hard to fit in that I didn’ t acknowledge there was any kind of an issue.
After I graduated in 1985 and moved to Silicon Valley, I was desperate to meet technical women. One of the first was Anita Borg, who was a researcher at Digital Equipment Corporation’
s Western Regional Laboratory. We started the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference together in the early 90s, and in 1997, Anita founded what was then called the Institute for Women in Technology. Two years later, she was diagnosed with brain cancer, so I took over on what was supposed to be a temporary basis to help find a new president. Anita died in 2003, and so I went from working in the semiconductor business to becoming the full-time president of a non-profit. It was not what I anticipated in my career, but sometimes life hands you the unexpected. I have the best job in the world.
- So why do you think so few women enter computer science?
Anita and I often talked about the importance of the career pipeline, and even now, that’
s one of the biggest issues we grapple with. For a lot of young women, computing and engineering are not cool. Women who are quite capable of studying computer science are choosing with their feet. Even though eight of the ten fastest growing industries have an IT component and you can get a job with an undergraduate degree that pays quite well, women are not choosing the profession. Some buy into the myth that all the jobs are being outsourced, or that you have to sit in front of a computer all day long. For many women, the computer industry has an image problem.
- Are women more susceptible to the myths than men?
Yes, in part because there are fewer women role models. They see women in other fields of science, like anthropologist Jane Goodall. On TV, they see a lot of women doctors and lawyers, but few technologists. And too many women who have chosen technology as a career decide that they want to do something else. They don’
t feel this is a culture they can thrive in or be their true selves. That’ s one of the things we are working on: changing the culture of technology. The best companies, as they become global, are finding ways to welcome people with very different backgrounds, and that includes women.
- At the risk of gender stereotyping, do women bring something different to the profession than their male counterparts?
I think so. In general, women communicate better. They tend to have good people skills. And even though software development is now largely a group effort, those skills are sometimes ignored. We worked with one company that awards “fellowships” to employees who have made exceptional technical contributions. The committee who makes those awards first turned down one woman because in her application, she talked about the “we,” not the “I”
--that is, she stressed the accomplishments of her team. So the committee chair rewrote her application, not changing the content at all, but turning the third-person into first-person, and she became a fellow.
When I told this story to a company that that has many women in senior positions, they laughed at the very idea of a “fellows” track. They thought that focusing on an isolated contribution rather than team accomplishment and leadership is not necessarily the right approach. But there’
s another side to this. We advise companies not to reflexively move a woman to a management position just because she has the requisite people skills. It’ s also important that she earn her technical credibility, as well. Technical accomplishment, as much as team leadership, will earn you a lot of respect and career advancement over the course of your career. So it’ s important to award both.
- You mentioned the importance of the pipeline. How do you encourage women college students to earn computer science degrees?
We regularly track graduation rates. About the time I came here, those rates fell dramatically for women in computer sciences, as well as overall for the number of people choosing computer sciences. This was around the time of the “dot-com bust,” and many parents, college counselors and students believed that there weren’
t any jobs. Since then, the rate has been inching up. At our last conference, about 800 of the 1800 participants were students. Women see other technical women who are working in the field, and with these role models comes inspiration and the sense that you’ re not alone. In any endeavor, it can get very discouraging where there is only one of you.
One of the our board members, Maria Klawe, was dean of engineering at Princeton University before becoming president of Harvey Mudd College in Southern California. Over the past two years, Harvey Mudd has raised its percentage of women in computer science from under 20 percent to 40 percent. She cites three contributing factors. First, the school brings the women freshman students―not just those in computer science, but all of them―to the Grace Hopper Conference, so they can meet women in the field. Second, the school’
s entry level computer science class is focused not just on the theory of computer science, but its applications. And thirdly, students spend a summer involved in undergraduate research.
- What about in Japan?
From what I observe, the Japanese government is investing heavily in this area because, culturally, it’
s not that common for Japanese women to go into computer science. I’ m going to Japan later this year to speak at Tsuda College in Tokyo. That connection came about because, like Harvey Mudd, Tsudo has been participating in the Grace Hopper conference. Their faculty has visited the Anita Bork Institute several times over the last few years to try and understand the best practices for attracting and retaining more women.
- And elsewhere in the world?
Our “Change Agent” awards honor women from developing countries who are working to attract women to the field. This year’
s winners are Ana Regina Cavalcanti da Rocha from Brazil, Tayana Etienne from Haiti and Gayatri Buragohain from India. The first two are professors; Gayatri is the founder of India’ s feminist Approach to Technology. India has become a point of focus for us. Many of the multinational companies we work with have offices in Bangalore, and so we are holding a conference there this December. This is a pilot project, organized by about 90 technical women from the country. We’ re expecting about 500 people.
- What would suggest to my readers to make their own workplaces more welcoming to women?
There are many things that male workers can do, but one of the best centers around confidence. I’
m talking not about the lack of ability, but the belief in oneself: women tend to struggle over this more than men. So in a workplace that is predominantly male, make sure that female workers feel both welcome and a part of the team. Also, mentoring may be especially important for some women: make sure they have access to people who can help them.
- Are women hammering on the door of IT departments trying to get in? Or are companies reaching out to women for reasons of their own?
We are seeing a lot of the latter. Our own organization is funded by several well known companies, including major support from Google, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft. These companies are looking at projections for the number of developers that they’
ll need, and they are, frankly, desperate for talent.
- If 51 percent of your potential talent pool is untapped, that’
s a no-brainer.
s a no-brainer--but it runs both ways. Companies don’ t always realize the opportunity, but neither do many women. That’ s the message I’ d love to get out.