Telle Whitney, the CEO and president of Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, says, “It’s our time to lead!”
By Samantha Parent Walravens (Journalist & Author, Torn & Geek Girl Rising)
At this year’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Houston, I had the opportunity to sit down with Telle Whitney, the CEO and President of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.
A computer scientist by training, Whitney cofounded the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing with Anita Borg in 1994. This year’s event welcomed a record 12,000 attendees — a 50 percent jump from last year — and included women from academia, government and tech industries.
Samantha Parent Walravens: Tell me why you decided to name the Grace Hopper conference a “celebration” of women in tech?
Telle Whitney: We founded the Grace Hopper Celebration in 1994. At the time, there was a lot of angst about the issues of women in technology, and we purposefully wanted it to be a celebration — celebrating the work women are doing in the computing area.
SPW: That was 21 years ago. How has the conference changed since then?
TW: When we started the conference, we had about 500 women attending. Today, we have 12,000 women from 66 countries and 1000 different organizations. The topic of women in technology has become front of mind. The conference has become a cornerstone of the work that women in tech are doing today.
SPW: What has changed for women in computing and technology since 1994?
TW: In terms of how women in tech are doing, things have been stagnant for a while. At the undergraduate level, about 18 percent of students graduating with a computer science degree are women, and women make up about 23 percent of the tech workforce.
According to the last NSF (National Science Foundation) statistics, which are from 2012, there are indications that the numbers are increasing. Harvey Mudd College increased the percentage of women graduating from its computing program from 12 percent to approximately 40 percent in five years. Stanford just came out [with reports] that computer science is the number one major for women. There are quite a number of bright spots.
The Anita Borg Institute is partnering with Harvey Mudd on a program called BRAID (Building Recruiting And Inclusion for Diversity) to work with computer science departments at 15 universities across the U.S. to increase the percentage of their undergraduate majors that are female and students of color.
It will takes some of the lessons we’ve learned from Harvey Mudd to other institutions, some of which are public schools, some of which are large schools, and really scan their practices. We know how to change the universities; it’s just a matter of which ones make this a priority.
Similarly at companies, I believe that what you measure, you will change. The fact that companies came out with diversity numbers and published them is really exciting. What they then do with this information is really what this is all about.
There are some companies that are doing a lot more than others. For example, Blake Irving, the CEO of GoDaddy, spoke last night about what his company is doing to increase diversity. GoDaddy had a pretty bad reputation in terms of branding, but he is really doing a turnaround. He came out with not only his diversity numbers, but he showed his compensation numbers to the audience. The more you see that kind of transparency, the more you have the possibility for change.
SPW: Who is attending Grace Hopper this year?
TW: Nearly 35 percent of our attendees are students, 5 percent are faculty members, and the rest are from industry.
We have many tech companies represented. Google has 1,000 people here. Microsoft has 900. We sold out in eight days. Many companies would have brought more people if they could have, but we didn’t have the space. We also have about 800 men, about 4 percent of the attendees.
SPW: Do you plan to expand next year?
TW: We do. We expect to target about 15,000 attendees for next year. We’re also launching something called ABI.Local, which is creating communities that will host GHCs (Grace Hopper Celebrations) in their local areas. Having these groups is a really an important part of our future. We are launching communities in Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, DC, Boston and Austin.
We also have strong interest internationally. We’re talking to a group in Africa that would like to hold a conference in 2017, and we’ve had interest from Singapore, as well as London. We already hold a Grace Hopper Celebration in India every year. We see a lot of the scaling happening in a systematic way at the local level.
SPW: Why do women come to Grace Hopper? What do they hope to get from it?
TW: The number one reason women come is for the connection. That’s been true since the beginning. As an attendee, you have the chance to connect with people who are in different fields, who are a little bit ahead of you. That’s really important.
Women also come for professional development. There’s a lot of leadership training, and there’s also a diverse set of technology presentations to see.
I’ll give you two examples. We have a student who serves on our board of trustees. She just started her PhD at Brown. She came here as an undergraduate freshman and was just trying to figure out what she wanted to do. She wasn’t even sure she was going to study computing. She found her technical area by coming here and it really changed her life. She took what she learned about what other women were doing and created affinity groups at DePaul, where she did her undergraduate degree. The conference has really been a backbone for the work that she’s done over these years.
Another woman who’s been at one of the high tech companies for 10 months came up to me at a booth just a couple of hours ago. She’s an engineer, and she was in tears because she felt that coming to the conference, she had found her people. She didn’t know this community existed. She told me, “This has changed my life.”
That’s one of the great parts of my job. These folks don’t all know each other. These are really independent stories of women who have the opportunity to come and connect with other women in tech. This really makes a difference in their lives. It makes them feel like they are not alone.
SPW: How can women who are here this week take the “spirit” of Grace Hopper back with them to their schools and workplaces?
TW: There are two ways. Many of them take ideas that they heard at the conference and use them to implement programs. They can also join local communities. That’s why we see ABI.Local as so important, so women can continue to have a place to go and share.
Many women join Systers, which is an online community of technical women. The Systers community is seeding these ABI.locals. They are very intertwined, which is great.
SPW: The theme of this year’s conference is Our Time to Lead. Why did you choose this theme?
TW: Many women in tech feel like they are making progress. They’re contributing, but they aren’t necessarily recognized for the great work that they do.
“Our Time to Lead” is an assertion that really there’s a lot of momentum building. You can see it with the size of the conference. It really is Our Time to Lead. I think that it’s really helped to mobilize a lot of people here.
One of the most important things that folks who attend the Grace Hopper Celebration get is leadership training. We had three different leadership workshops yesterday and part of the results of those is a set of tools that you can use. We don’t try and invent it all ourselves. This is a platform, so a lot of people that provide content are experts in their own right. Many of the leadership folks actually have blogs where you can go and get further tips after the conference. Once again, it’s making connections with people who are experts in their area.
SPW: A focus of our upcoming book, Geek Girl Rising, is the grassroots movement of women working to change the face of technology — by starting their own businesses, investing in each other’s businesses and expanding the pipeline. Our book really looks at the various battlefronts where this activity has been happening. Is the Grace Hopper conference a catalyst for this kind of grassroots effort?
TW: Sure. I think that coming together and making connections is always part of people’s learning. It’s important to have both top down and grassroots’ efforts towards change.
Grassroots comes in two flavors. Grassroots movements can exist within a larger organization, but they can also exist in the entrepreneurial and VC world. These are somewhat separate realms, and we see fewer entrepreneurs here.
SPW: Thank you, Telle. You are an inspiration to us all.
Photo of Telle Whitney via Flickr by ITU Pictures.
About the guest blogger: Samantha Parent Walravens is the author/editor of the New York Times-accclaimed book, TORN: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood, and is writing her next book, GEEK GIRL RISING: Unleashing the Power of Women in Tech. Follow her on Twitter at @geekgirlrising.