We spent a great week in Portland, Oregon, where over 2,900 attendees representing 34 different countries gathered at the Grace Hopper Celebration to honor women in computing. Researchers presented their current work, while special sessions focused on the role of women in today’s technology fields, including computer science, information technology, research and engineering.
Colleagues from various technical groups and Human Resources joined me in the Neustar booth to meet and interview prospective candidates. We met hundreds of great technologists–women of all ages looking to start, grow or expand their respective careers in technology.
I have attended the Grace Hopper Celebration for the past five years and this year I thought that the students I met were the best I’ve ever met. (Several of my colleagues from other companies made the same observation.)The students asked compelling questions about the company, our direction and our plans for innovation, and left us all with a great feeling about the future of computing.
For my part, I sat on a panel with representatives from Facebook, Google, Intuit, Cisco and the Anita Borg Institute to discuss the need for more diversity on technical teams. Entitled “What if There Were More Women in Technology…” my fellow panelists and I focused on making the business case for greater diversity across technical teams. I feel strongly about the issue because it is about more than just meeting a hiring quota; it’s more than just a question of fairness.
There is a strong correlation between diversity on technical teams and the ability for those teams to innovate [PDF]. Research shows that teams that include women make better decisions, build better products, solve problems more efficiently and improve decision-making at all levels of the company. Caroline Simard, a researcher at the Anita Borg Institute (ABI) and a fellow panelist reminded us of the simplicity of the reasons behind this fact. When you have team members who all carbon copies of one another, they can get stuck on the same business problem. But when you introduce diversity into the team, not everyone will approach the problem in the same way. Bringing fresh experiences and knowledge to the table help to solve complex problems. If teams at all levels of the organization were more diverse, we’d all win.
We all agreed that team diversity means people from all backgrounds—not just adding or removing women to the mix. Team members from different cultural and accessibility backgrounds can address product use cases in a way that a homogenous team cannot. Alan Eustace, SVP of Research & Engineering at Google, relayed his experience working on the Google Maps product. He happened to have an engineer on the team who was blind. His feedback and experience allowed the entire development team to consider special use cases for the visually impaired. In so doing, they improved the product.
Fundamentally, we have a shortage of technology workers in some key areas of the United States. Add to that the fact that women are increasingly less interested in careers in technology and you see the challenges we face. Furthermore, as an industry we seem to have an inability to retain the talent we do get.
It is particularly disconcerting to see incredibly skilled women move out of the technical ranks into roles that better suit their desire for a more balanced work life. Many years ago, I managed two departments, one which developed workstation and server hardware and the other which developed the OS and software. The hardware team was almost exclusively male, while the software team had a number of female managers and was led by a woman. Over time, I noticed that the hardware team would frequently have major issues prior to launch of a new product which they would solve through heroic efforts, while the software team just seemed to get things done without much fuss.
Which one is better? I think that sometimes, engineering teams develop a ‘macho’ culture, which is neither attractive to women engineers, nor very productive. This is something we need to improve if we want to retain more women in technical roles.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects—traditionally called STEM fields–are more important than ever, for everyone. If we discourage women from entering careers in these areas, we’re essentially limiting ourselves to half of the potential talent pool. Organizations focused on such issues, like ABI and the Grace Hopper Celebration, show that we’re making progress, but we still have a ways to go. Getting more women involved in technology is something that I strongly believe in and something that I’ll continue to support both personally and through my role as Chief Technology Officer at Neustar.
My experience leading engineering teams and my recognition of the gender diversity issue in engineering, led me to join the board of ABI. With its focus on the recruiting, retention and advancement of women in technology, joining their board is a decision I’m glad I made.
We hope to see you at the Grace Hopper Celebration next year in Baltimore.