Dr Telle Whitney, Anita Borg Institute: Success and Technical Women

Transcript follows & video above.  This is Pt I of the interview.  You can view Part II here.

Could you briefly explain what the Anita Borg Institute does & how it serves women & technology?

Sure, absolutely, the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology is a non-profit organization.  We work with industry & academia to recruit, retain & advance technical women.

Dr Telle Whitney

Because we so need more technical women. I’m hearing in all these conversations everyone is desperate to have more women on board.

I’m a computer scientist.  I have a PhD in computer science & I love technology. But right now there are simply not enough technical folks to meet the needs of this burgeoning industry. And in fact that is why so many corporations support our work is they would very much like to have more women at the table creating technology.

Dr Telle Whitney

That’s so reassuring to know that they actually have a demand for that & there’s not enough!

They do, we have 26 companies who are partners who are very interested in hiring more women & advancing more women.  It’s something that really interests them.

Dr Telle Whitney

Could you give me some figures about the percentages of women in technology compared to men?

If you look at the graduation rates in computer sciences, its about 19% overall.  That’s compared to almost 37% in the mid 80’s.  It has dropped rather dramatically & in fact over the last few years unfortunately the percentage of computer science graduates has dropped.  Although in the last 2 years it has started to creep back up.

Dr Telle Whitney

And do you know why it dropped?

Well I think in the mid 80s there was less image of what a computer scientist was.  I think that anybody who was smart, was good at math was attracted to this field. So you see women like Grace Hopper or my friend & colleague Ellen who was part of some of the early compiler work, joined because companies were looking for smart people.

If you look at the barriers right now for women studying computer science or engineering, certainly the image issue is by far the largest issue that we face. Not only the students themselves, but their parents, their counselors often don’t think of women as being good at math or being good at computer science. The girls themselves often think of computer scientists as geeks sitting in front of a computer terminal & they don’t understand all the cool technology that really makes a difference in the world!

Dr Telle Whitney

And the fun that you can have I’m sure?


Sounds like we have to change the whole image of the industry almost?

There’s some interesting work about changing the image. A group WGBH out of Boston that is looking at the image of computing.

What do you see that needs to change to facilitate more women entering into & staying in technological careers?

Well I think that if you look at women who choose technology. We work a lot with women who stay in technology & we’re offering this wonderful panel called ‘The Imposter Syndrome’ where so many very talented & very successful women talk about how much they feel they are an imposter.  If you think of a young woman who is just starting out on her career, being able to talk with someone & understanding that lack of confidence is something that many of us suffer from. So being able to reach out to role models is certainly one of the things that I feel is really important.  Mentoring is widely quoted as being a very successful practice of changing the culture.  And I think that often peer mentoring is as successful as mentoring by someone who is ahead of you in your career.

Many say that it helps a woman entrepreneur’s position if she is technical when sourcing venture capital.  Do you know any percentages on that compared to non technical women entrepreneurs?

Its interesting, about 5% of venture backed companies are owned by women & that’s technical & non-technical.  Women owned businesses is the huge growing trend, I think 40% of small businesses are owned by women depending on which study you look at.  Only 5% of IT companies are owned by women & I think this is one of the places where you see that there’s a lot less technical women who are starting companies.  Like many businesses I often think its a lack of role models.  If you have these wonderful entrepreneurs & you can see how successful they are, it becomes a real possibility for young women.

It’s almost like viral, it spreads

For most of us if we look around & see people where we can see ourself in them, it becomes much more real that that is a possibility.

Something I’ve found just talking with women in these interviews, it can be incredibly inspiring to hear their stories!  It just fires you up again.  What do you see as the challenges for women entrepreneurs generally in sourcing venture capital?

The hardest part with closing venture capital is understanding what they’re after is making money.  So you need to go in front of them & convince them that you will be able to give them a good return on investment. Since I often see that confidence is an area that women struggle with a bit more than men, going in & telling someone ‘I will make you money!’ can be challenging.  But if you develop your operational experience, so really spend time & understand that you can be successful so now you have a track record.  To be able to tell a compelling story to every venture guy (most are guys) why they’re going to make a lot of money. And if you understand that, then I think you will be successful.

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