The Feministing Five: Dr. Telle Whitney

Dr. Telle Whitney

Dr. Telle Whitney

If you happen to be in Phoenix, Arizona in early October, and you see many women engineers, programmers, or students talking about their latest creations, you can thank Dr. Telle Whitney, President and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute. Founded in 1987 as a digital community for women in computing, the Anita Borg Institute supports women technologists in over 50 companies. One of its keystone events is the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing which will be held this year from October 8th to 10th.

Sexism in large corporations as well as small start ups has faced understandable scrutiny about their company culture as well as their hiring practices. We were thrilled to speak with Dr. Whitney to learn more about how the Anita Borg Institute continues to push for more inclusion within this industry.

Now without further ado, the Feministing Five with Dr. Telle Whitney!

Suzanna Bobadilla: Thank you so much for speaking with us. Now that more and more tech companies are publishing data showing that their workforces are incredibly gender and racially unbalanced, there has been a renewed push to increase opportunities for women and girls in the STEM fields. But as the Anita Borg Institute demonstrates, the fight for greater inclusion and empowerment has been going on for several years.

Could you share with us some exciting details about what the Institute is looking forward to this year, especially in regards to the Grace Hopper Conference? 

Dr. Telle Whitney: The Anita Borg Institute is a non-profit organization. We work with two primary audiences – women in computing and organizations that have a strong technical workforce. We provide connection, inspiration, and guidance — both for women, who we want to have the career of their dreams, but also for organizations where they can create cultures where women thrive.

One of the ways we support our community is through a conference that is called the Grace Hopper Celebration, which serves women in computing. This year we closed registration beyond students and faculty because we maxed out at 8,000 people. We are expecting an extraordinary showing. We have some great technical speakers — our keynote is the Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft and he is our first male keynote speaker. We also have the head of DARPA as well as Shafi Goldwasser, the winner of the Alan Turing Award. The Turing Award is the Nobel Prize of the computing community and we have had every woman who has won that award speak at Grace Hopper.

What we find at Grace Hopper is that while we always have these fantastic speakers, one of the most important aspects is that women want to hear from someone who is just a little ahead of them, so we have usually 35-40% students (last year we had about 1,900 students). They want to hear from early faculty or young industry, in addition to the very senior leaders like Sheryl Sandberg, who has spoken quite a few times at the conference.

At Grace Hopper, you have the chance to meet with other people who are very similar in their careers. You can exchange stories and figure out how to progress — but you can also hear from those who are just a little ahead of you.

SB: More tech companies are releasing their demographic data, and it is extremely apparent that the industry needs more gender diversity. As the Anita Borg Institute charts out in a brilliant infographic, many women leave tech because of substantial structural issues. I was wondering if you might be able to provide suggestions on how women can inquire about company culture as they enter STEM careers.

TW: There is some interesting phenomena happening especially in start-ups, partly because you need so few employees to start that the culture can get set by just a few people. Often it is a pretty macho kind of place — I keep hearing this from our young students that they are turned off by what they hear from the start-ups they are talking to. What I would look for would be the interview team. We work mostly with computer scientists and engineers, so see if anyone on your interview team is a woman. I would ask the leadership about their views about a diverse workforce because the best companies have very committed leaders to having a diverse workforce and that could be a man or a woman.

SB: There is a been a great increase of getting girls into engineering, including through fantastic organizations like Black Girls Code and Hack the Hood. But there seems to less energy about introducing tech to those who have already started their professional career. Do you have suggestions on how women in particular can navigate a potential shift? 

TW: In the field that I work in — we work with computer scientists — many people hire for the skill set and not for the degree. There are many disciplines where you can take a few classes and learn a lot about programming, coding, or algorithms no matter what your career is. For example, if you are an artist, if you understand digital design, that will absolutely help you. I would encourage people who are considering it to expand their skill set. There are a lot of online resources — the Khan Academy is one great one. You could also go to a hackathon. We offer hackathons that are women only, and participating in something like that can help you learn more. There is also the Open Source community, where  you can start participating and coding in online projects. What you are looking to do is to meet people in the community and to expand your skills.

SB: What do you think is coming up on the horizon for women and tech? 

TW: Right now there is a lot of attention on this as a topic so I am completely committed to building the momentum. I’m excited about quite a few companies who, by releasing their numbers, are making a commitment to change — what you measure, you will change.  I expect to see all the companies who have released their numbers how to figure out how to be more inclusive.

Right now there is markedly increased interest in the academic departments — in the computer science departments — and many of them are seeing an increased interest of women in the field. In the past, there has been such a small percentage of women students, it can turn off future students. But now with this increased percentage, I am excited about that set of people coming out to the workforce and demanding a more inclusive environment.

SB: With more and more media attention about women in tech, feminist and hacker communities are starting to come into regular contact. But with all the other social issues happening in the world, why should feminists care about what’s happening the tech industry? 

TW: Technology is ubiquitous. Technology and innovation is driving the economy of all of our lives. It has set much of the innovation in our lives. So having women at the table creating technology is critical to the future for the world. The solution to any big problem, like environment change, depends in large part on technology.

Suzy 1 

 Suzanna Bobadilla encourages you to build something today! 

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One Comment

  1. Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    A correction: The Turing Award winner who will be speaking at Grace Hopper is Shafi Goldwasser and not Cathy Goldwater as it appears in the interview above.

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