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I Have Seen the Future…

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Logo of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

The Anita Borg Institute's vision is "a future where the people who imagine and build technology mirror the people and societies they build it for."

Credit: Anita Borg Institute

Last week’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) was the world’s largest conference of women in computing; in attendance were more than 8,000 women and 483 men (myself included). It would have been even larger (and more female) had attendance at the 20-year-old not been capped at that level (which was 70% higher than the year before).

The major topic at the event, of course, was the dearth of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) careers, and how that may be remedied. Since last year’s iteration of the Celebration, a number of leading technology companies reported how many women were in their technical workforces, and the numbers weren’t good: Apple (which employs a total of 98,000 worldwide) and Google (just over 52,000 employees globally) report that 30% of their workforces are female, while Microsoft says 29% of its workforce of 128,000 are women. Drilling down further, Google reports women hold just 17% of technical positions at the company, a similar level to that seen at Microsoft, but trailing Apple’s 20%.

Telle Whitney, co-founder of GHC and president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute, an organization "on a quest to accelerate the pace of global innovation by working to ensure that the creators of technology mirror the people and societies who use it," acknowledged the current poor representation of women in technology careers, but suggested, "let’s all aspire to change the ratio and make technology for everyone, everywhere." If that can be accomplished, Whitney said, "Computing might become a true meritocracy." 

Clearly, it is not perceived as such; in fact, one session on the second day of the conference was even called "What Do You Mean It Isn’t A Meritocracy?" The session description offers, "Everyone everywhere has privilege. We can use our privilege to help create a more inclusive society and change societal patterns of oppression." Other sessions, like "Winning at the Game of Office Politics," underscored the notion that women are at a disadvantage in traditionally male-dominated corporate and academic hierarchies, and need some coaching at minimum, and preferably some assistance from internal allies and mentors, to ascend to appropriate (and appropriately compensated) ranks within these organizations. 

It was in this context that the comments of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, the conference’s first male keynote speaker, rang so falsely. Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, had just laid the groundwork for a question to Nadella by saying she’d "screwed" herself by accepting offers that had been made to her, including her current position, without even a pretense of negotiation, and that many women share her hesitancy to negotiate for salary increases or promotions; she asked Nadella what advice he would offer those women. Nadella, who had just minutes before had noted that "women have a lower tolerance for (B.S.)," responded: 

It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along. And that, I think, might be one of the additional superpowers that quite frankly women who don’t ask for a raise have. Because that’s good karma. It’ll come back, because somebody’s going to know that’s the kind of person that I want to trust. That’s the kind of person that I want to really give more responsibility to.

Klawe immediately told Nadella he was totally wrong on this, and as the day wore on, so many other others agreed with her that he had to apologize: 

Without a doubt I wholeheartedly support programs at Microsoft and in the industry that bring more women into technology and close the pay gap. I believe men and women should get equal pay for equal work...if you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask.

Even with the apology, the situation dragged through a full day’s news cycle; I saw it on all the morning news shows before going back to the conference the next day, where Whitney commented that at least Nadella had had the guts to show up and "have an open dialog with us. We should only be so lucky to have other CEOs " participate at GHC in as open and honest a fashion as Nadella, even with the unconscious bias he demonstrated. 

Despite the controversy, the women with whom I interacted at the conference were unfailingly friendly, courteous, enthusiastic, and dedicated. I spoke with students, educators, and professionals, and all were eager to learn to help themselves and their fellow women. When I was asked why I was there, it was with genuine curiosity, rather than a sneer for someone who didn’t belong. 

As eBay Research Labs director of Human Computer Interaction Elizabeth Churchill noted in her session on "Foundations for Designing Human Centered Systems," "Multidisciplinarity is key to creative thinking," so incorporating a previously overlooked portion of the population into the creation, design, and operation of technical processes and products can only benefit the outcome, and us all. 

Churchill also observed that "Good things evolve over time." Hopefully, one of those things will be an increasingly level playing field. 

Lawrence M. Fisher is Senior Editor/News for ACM magazines.


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