I never met Anita, but her contagious passion in making a difference for technical women made a lasting impact on me. As a staff member of the Anita Borg Institute from 2006 to 2012, I experienced an incredible journey of growth from research to action. I came to the organization as a social scientist interested in bridging theory and practice to increase gender equality.
I jumped at the opportunity to give technical women a voice backed by data – how were they experiencing the workplace, what barriers were specific to them, and what did they want to change? What could organizations do to retain advance technical women? The result was the Climbing the Technical Ladder study the Institute conducted with the Stanford Clayman Institute for Gender Research. When it came out, lots of technical women dropped copies on their managers’ and colleagues’ desks. I had very high hopes that company cultures would immediately implement changes to be more inclusive for technical women – after all, when a doctor diagnoses you with an illness, don’t you take the medicine she prescribes right away?
The reality is more complicated – it’s hard to build an inclusive culture without a critical mass of technical women, and as long as you don’t have an inclusive culture you can’t attract and retain technical women. Paradoxically, I am both exhilarated and frustrated by the progress that has been made since I started working on behalf of women in STEM. In 2006, many people in Silicon Valley asked me why I did this work since “hasn’t that problem been fixed a long time ago?” I don’t hear that anymore. Due to the work of so many like-minded organizations and individuals, many of whom knew Anita, the level of awareness on the paucity of technical women, the stereotypes that are discouraging them from the field, and the sometimes inhospitable cultures they face once they enter the field, has dramatically increased. I am incredibly happy that I had a small part to play in increasing this awareness. But as Maria Klawe mentioned in her own quilt story, “that’s not good enough,” and there is still a long road to equity for technical women (and for women in STEM in general). A recent article in Science showed that at our current pace, we had 100 more years to go before we reach equity for women in science and engineering in academia (nobody has run the model for industry, but I doubt it fares much better, considering the paucity of women at the top of technical career paths). I don’t have that much time, do you?
We need to leverage the current high level of awareness to get people energized on a massive scale to keep pushing for change. Anita had the right sense of urgency around this issue – her bold “50/50 by 2020” speech called for a radically different pace than the one we are achieving now.
I challenge you to be a change agent for technical women: leverage research to increase awareness among your male and female colleagues, managers and leaders with rigorous data. Talk about ways they can change the data – personally and in their companies, at a micro and a macro scale.
Take concrete steps, and encourage others to do the same; many are easy: encourage a young girl to get involved in science and math; give to organizations that support technical women; mentor and sponsor technical women; pay attention to the representation of women in the company or academic institution; have a conversation with one person about the dearth of technical women; include technical women on interview teams and as job candidates; and/or encourage a young woman entrepreneur. The list is endless.
Large-scale societal change is daunting, but it is not hard to take one action – this one action is multiplied by the power of all the other actions being taken around the world to increase the representation of women in technology, and pretty soon, you have made equality a reality. You have made Anita’s vision a reality.