[Published originally in the January 2006 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 18/No. 1]
Expanding the Pipeline
From the Inside, Out
The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology’s TechLeaders tackles issue of the under-representation of Women in CS by supporting and training those already there.
By Cindy Goral and Dianthe Harris
It is no mystery; women in CS are a rarity. It is an issue taken up repeatedly in this publication and it is a growing concern across the country throughout academia, industry and government.
The reasons for the relatively small numbers of women are speculated about and well documented. The potential impacts of this under-representation and lack of diversity run the gamut, but are summed up as:
The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology’s TechLeaders initiative is tackling the issue from the inside out with the aim of having significant concentric impact on the field of computing and technology by supporting, developing and providing networks and communities for women technical leaders. The TechLeaders program promotes and enhances leadership skills in technical women of all levels, provides a forum to teach and share skills and ideas, and develops content for our community. It is unique in addressing the issue of the under-representation of women by creating and building a community of technical women leaders who are involved in shaping other technical women leaders. By supporting, developing and networking existing technical women leaders, TechLeaders, along with other Anita Borg Institute programs, uniquely addresses the critical issue of Women and Technology.
The goals of TechLeaders are to:
Women make up approximately 17 percent of the undergraduates in CS nationwide. As women move forward in their careers the numbers drop even lower. From feedback we have received in our TechLeaders workshops, women indicate that they often feel isolated, that they are not as effective as they wish to be, that when they speak they feel unheard, that they don’t have anything in common with their peers, and that they have to change and adapt to their existing environments and cultures. They often lack mentors and role models (according to a 2003 Catalyst study, only 11 percent of corporate officers at the top 500 technology companies were female).
Women in technical leadership positions often express the familiar patterns of isolation compounded by new challenges and responsibilities. And increasingly companies understand that this winnowing away of women in technical leadership roles can have a deleterious effect on their own organization’s ability to hire, train and retain a diverse and dynamic workforce. Promoting, supporting and retaining female technical leaders has become a priority for many organizations that recognize their value, not only as leaders but as role models, mentors, and advisors to the next generation of women in computing.
The TechLeaders workshop curriculum is designed to teach new skills, while developing new connections and strengthening old ones. The ability to understand the role of women in leadership offers a greater self-awareness of the strengths and challenges women face, and encourages new ideas on the next steps needed to improve leadership and expand their networks.
The TechLeaders program brings women together who can learn from both experts in key topics and from each other, allowing them to become more effective leaders within their organizations. And while other programs cater to academia or industry alone, TechLeaders brings these women together where they learn effective practices from each other and share their differing perspectives and challenges.
A key component of the program is the coalescing of a community of technical women leaders involved in shaping other technical women leaders. This “learning from each other” approach makes TechLeaders a unique vehicle for changing the face of technical leadership. These workshops have been life-changing events, empowering women by allowing them to broaden their choices. By providing technical women with tools that allow them to change their systems, follow their passion and become more effective, the program creates new technical women leaders from within the existing technical community while inspiring a new cadre of tomorrow’s leaders as well.
The TechLeaders initiative addresses a clear need. During the Senior Women’s Summit at the 2002 Grace Hopper Celebration a group of leading technical women expressed a strong desire for leadership training and support. In direct response to this request, a pilot TechLeaders workshop was held In January 2004 in cooperation with the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics at UCLA. Since that time the one- and two-day workshops have sold out, and plans are underway to expand the number and scope of the workshops.
Each TechLeaders Workshop has a theme identified as a key leadership issue that senior technical leaders face in the community, with peer-learning and networking a strong component. Depending on the theme, each workshop includes material from an expert in that area to augment the learning process. Confidentiality is emphasized, which allows conversations to be open and honest. Topics have included Leadership for Cultural Change, Skills and the Art of Leadership, Effective Technical Leadership Styles, Developing and Running Effective Organizations and Institutions, Developing and Turning Your Vision into Action, and Combining Theatre and Voice with Leadership.
The most recent TechLeaders Workshop, “Getting from Good to Great,” was held November 4-5, 2005, at Microsoft. Fifty-seven women leaders in mathematics, computer science, and technology gathered, with 48 percent coming from academia and 44 percent from industry. The participants, including executives, professors, researchers, and deans, met to talk with peers about the challenges they face and the knowledge they have gained from these experience in their careers. The facilitator and her team brought significant coaching experience that greatly enhanced and structured the conversations of the interactive sessions.
The women who attended this workshop and those who have attended past TechLeaders workshops want to change the culture for women. They want to promote more diversity in the workplace and bring more women into technical roles. These women are concerned about developing their roles as leaders and getting a better understanding of how women lead differently than men, as well as how being female affects technical leadership. They are aware that their contributions as leaders are different from those of men and, because of this, they may not be recognized as valid because their techniques differ. Sharing their experiences in supportive groups offers the women different ways of maintaining visibility and shows them how this can be the first step to cultural change.
Learning to effect cultural change is no small task. The TechLeaders workshop is extraordinary because it stresses solutions that are based on interdisciplinary research that cuts across organizational boundaries. Women who participate in TechLeaders find new ways to connect with their work environment without being assimilated by it. Initially focused on the top level of technical women, TechLeaders will increase its offerings to provide services and communities to technical women at all levels of their careers. The next event, to be held at Google in March 2006, will bring together aspiring technical leaders poised to break through to the next level.
The severe under-representation of 51 percent of the population has serious and far-reaching implications—from economic to humanitarian. The work of the Anita Borg Institute is critical to increasing the impact (both in numbers and influence) of women on technology and increasing the positive effects of technology on the world. The Anita Borg Institute is unique in the way that it helps foster female role models and networks for technical women. Exposing women to the full range of significant interactions among women serves to bolster self-esteem and independence. Our experience shows giving women the opportunity to discuss purely technical issues among themselves helps women to discover their voice.
Developing and leading the technical women leaders from the inside out and of today and tomorrow is not new for the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. Our goal is to support and develop women in the high-tech community by offering programs to help women advance their careers and offer networking opportunities with their peers.
The under-representation of women in CS must be addressed in a multi-faceted way. Technical women leaders are making a difference by forming communities, learning from experts and each other, and sharing effective practices between academic, industry, government, and nonprofit sectors. They are changing and influencing their organizations, and mentoring and being role models to other technical women.
For more information about the Anita Borg Institute’s TechLeaders program, see: www.anitaborg.org/leadership.html.
1. “Computing, We
Have a Problem,” Jim Foley, Computing Research News, Vol. 17/No. 3, May
Cindy Goral is VP of Programs and Operations and Dianthe Harris
is Office Manager at the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (www.anitaborg.org).
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