There was once a time — the mid-1980s, to be precise — when women were earning close to 40% of the country’s undergraduate degrees in computer science. That’s not gender parity, but it seems tremendous compared to where that number sat in 2014, when only about 18% of such degrees went to women. That paltry figure underscores one of the tech industry’s greatest challenges: Boosting the number of women who study, and later pursue careers in, technology.
Of course, there are a number of high-profile women in technology, like IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer. And technology firms are increasingly publishing diversity data about their own workforces, a welcome step towards transparency. But there’s broad agreement across technology firms that more needs to be done to train and recruit female programmers and engineers, along with those of other minority groups. More diversity, after all, tends to result in better business outcomes.
Among those fighting for more gender equality in technology is Dr. Telle Whitney, President and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute. The Institute is best known for its Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, considered the world’s largest gathering of women in tech. TIME spoke with Dr. Whitney to learn more about the fight for gender equality in tech, the Anita Borg Institute and the upcoming Grace Hopper conference, being held this fall in Houston, Texas. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
TIME: What is the Anita Borg Institute, and what do you do there?
Dr. Whitney: The Anita Borg Institute was founded in 1997, although its programs date back to 1987. We are a non-profit organization and we connect, inspire and guide women technologists. We also work with organizations that have large, technical work forces. We truly, passionately believe that women should be at the table creating technology.
Our best known program is the Grace Hopper Celebration. We expect to have 15,000 people, primarily women, in Houston in October of this year. It’s about a third students, and for many women who attend, it’s a life-changing experience. The chance to hear from other women who they admire, the chance to connect, is just an amazing experience.
So it’s mostly a networking opportunity for female technologists?
Certainly people come because of the networking, but it’s a full blown conference. We have ten parallel talks. We have many technical talks. It’s one of the few conferences these days that has such a broad view of technology. This year we have software engineering, artificial intelligence, and there are tracks and speakers on those particular topics.
We also have very focused areas. For example, we hold the technical executive forum which is exclusive, by invitation only, and includes C-level people from many of our partner companies. The chance to come together and learn from each other about how to create cultures where women thrive, but in this environment where it’s just swimming with women, is really an amazing experience.
It seems like technology companies are making more of an effort to increase the diversity amongst their workforce. Companies like Microsoft and Google and Intel have published diversity reports, which show slow progress, but at least it’s a step towards transparency. Taking a historical view, has workplace diversity been more of a conversation recently compared to years past?
Absolutely. We work with all three of the companies you mentioned. Even though I’d like to see more, I applaud in all cases that they are consistently bringing their numbers up. When you have a large company, changing by 1% is a significant increase. That’s part of the reason our conference has grown so much. Many of these companies bring a lot of their women. It becomes a tool in terms of retention of their women. It is a focus.
There’s an interesting debate right now in that, is the problem a pipeline problem, meaning there aren’t enough women technologists coming up out of schools around the country, or is it sexism in the hiring process, or some combination. What do you think?
There are certainly pipeline issues. About 18% of computer science grads are women, although there’s some anecdotal evidence that some universities are making some significant changes in this area right now. But I’ve seen some companies [use that as] a cop-out. They say it’s a pipeline issue and they don’t look at their own internal culture. Women leave at twice the rate as men, so it’s not just about the hiring processes.
[For companies,] the people you’re interviewing are also interviewing you. If it doesn’t feel very welcoming, they will go elsewhere. It’s also important to look at the retention and advancement of women within your organization. Young women come into these companies and they look up. If they don’t see anybody that looks like them in a leadership role, then they can’t help but wonder, “Where do I belong?”
Are there any female business leaders who you particularly look up to?
Yes. I just saw Diane Greene, who is at Google now, but was the founder of VMware. I greatly admire her because she’s both focused on exciting technology, but she’s also a great leader. Also Diane Bryant, who was just promoted at Intel. [Bryant leads Intel’s data center business.] There are quite a number of extraordinary women out there.
When you look at somebody like Marissa Mayer, do you think she was under more pressure to turn Yahoo around, to prove that she could do it as a woman and as a mother and so on?
Yes. I’ve known Marissa for years. She was a great leader at Google. There is certainly some undue attention on her as a woman leader at Yahoo. She had a very challenging job there. Even now, a lot of the focus as she’s wrapping up her current role is on her as a woman leader. Some of the press that covers Marissa, you just wouldn’t see . . . I do think that she takes a lot of extra coverage because she’s a woman.
Having said that, she ultimately has to be judged on how she’s done at the company.
It feels like the media coverage of her was much more harsh right up until the sale, and then there was a lot of retrospective takes that said, “Well, she inherited a really tough position, and just getting this exit is a pretty good outcome in the end.”
I hope that’s true. I wish her the best and hope that she finds a position where she can really make a contribution. She’s a really smart person, and can contribute a lot to technology.
I’m also interested in gender bias among investors. Do you work with venture capitalists and others to help them realize, “Hey, there are a bunch of female founders out there who are doing really interesting, cool stuff that you should be looking at?”
Some of our newest partners are venture firms like Sequoia Capital, which is really looking at how to work with a lot of our companies and bring in more women. The VC world is, in many ways, way behind some of the larger companies because most of the venture capitalists are men, and they’re strictly out to make money. That is really what they’re about.
Women who come into their offices for funding just are not funded at the same rate as men. The last I heard was about 7% of the VC-funded companies have a woman founder or executive. These companies are also created by small numbers of people who are quite young, and often they have biases that exclude women from working there. At least, women don’t feel like they’re welcome. There’s been a lot of that in the news over the last many years. Snapchat and GitHub come to mind. There are these inappropriate behaviors that are happening because the people who founded these companies just have no advice for how to respond to their workforce.
There’s an argument that if you’re a VC firm, and you don’t have a diverse staff, then you’re going to miss out on opportunities because not every company out there is looking to target white males as a customer base.
Right. In fact, we see companies that are growing, start coming to us. Sometimes they’re around a hundred people. All of a sudden they look around and they realize they’re in trouble. Their customer base is not all white men. I’ve talked to Facebook about this, because their customer base is incredibly diverse. It becomes increasingly important to make sure that their workforce is diverse. It’s something that they’re grappling with even today. But it’s much easier to fix when you’re small.
Is there a company out there that you look at and you say, “Oh yeah, they’re doing it right.”?
It’s not so black and white. We’ve talked about some of the ones that I admire the most. Intel has really made a huge commitment. They really are trying to make a difference and really trying to figure this out. IBM has worked on this for years, and has done a great job of having not only women executives, but underrepresented minorities, and they’re diverse in a way that very few other companies are. Google is deeply committed. I’d like to see more of their senior executives be women, but they have taken it seriously and made some huge changes.
Why is it that we saw such a tremendous drop-off in female technologists around the mid-80’s?
The data suggests that in 1987, 37% of computer science grads were women. My first programming course was taught by a woman. There were women graduates. On my first job, there was a very senior woman programmer, so in the early days, companies were reaching out. They were so desperate for help, and they were looking for anybody who was good.
Then gaming consoles were launched, and computers were more frequently in the home. It was typically boys that were using those. It did become characterized as more of something that boys do.
But there were also other things that were happening. For example, many of the [college] computer science departments became part of the engineering schools around that time. Engineering had typically not had that many women, so it became that there was more of a bias of computer science as engineering.
It’s also a little depressing in the sense that you would think that computer scientists and programmers and engineers would respect the code above all else, rather than the necessarily the gender of the person who wrote that code.
In many ways they do. But this is why unconscious bias has become such a hot topic. We have these biases. I can’t tell you how many young women tell me that their high school counselor told them that they shouldn’t take math. I’m talking about in the last five years, or 10 years.
It is heartbreaking. Many of these counselors and high school teachers just don’t have a lot of experience in this area. They are just giving their students bad advice.
If you were talking to a parent of a young girl who showed interest in technology, what would your advice be in terms of nourishing and nurturing that talent?
What’s important for young people, and especially young girls, to understand, is the potential of technology. Understand that technology is at the heart of most of the big changes that we see over the next 50 years. By developing those skills and participating in that world, you can really make a difference. That’s the first thing I would say.
The second thing is, places vary a great deal. So if you’re evaluating where to go to college, if you’re evaluating where to work, understand the culture. Right now, there’s huge variance in places to go. You just need to pay attention to that.