Interview with Dr. Telle Whitney 3/16/17
This morning I was fortunate enough to spend 2 hours with some really amazing women in technology. The Chicago local chapter of the Anita Borg Institute held a brunch titled “WiT (Women in Tech) Leaders Shaping Our Future.” We heard from 10 amazing, successful women. All were incredibly impressive and inspiring.
Afterwards, I got to interview Dr. Telle Whitney, the President and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute and Co-Founder of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. I asked her about co-founding the GHC and her advice to young technologists. An excerpt from our conversation is below. I know she will inspire you!
Q: What was your inspiration to co-found the Grace Hopper Celebration?
Dr. Whitney: Remember, I was in Computer Science. I had fairly recently graduated from Cal Tech. There really were not a lot of women around. So, one of my strategies was to (although I didn’t work with many women) to have friends that were women in technology and so I had developed a set of friends, and in particular my friend Anita Borg. She and I just talked and we were really excited of featuring women computer scientists and (not to talk about the problem of lack of women,) but through inspiration to show what women were doing. It was a time when there was a lot of momentum around this. It was some of the National Science Foundation gatherings where this idea was first created. This was a project of the Computing Research Association, the CRA, their committee on the status of women and so there was just momentum coming together about this idea of featuring inspirational women and thus the GHC was formed.
Q: I love that it is named “Celebration”. It is empowering and women can really be themselves when they attend.
Dr. Whitney: That’s one of the key pieces, that it was a celebration. Even from that very first conference there was recognition of incredible women who participated — as well as being able to talk about some of the more controversial issues that were facing us at the time. There was a new movie that was coming out for example that talked about women in technology and it was controversial within the larger community and we featured that movie and a discussion. It was a documentary about women computer scientists, produced by the Association for Computing Machinery. This is one example: The Turing Award is really the Nobel Prize of the computing discipline and there haven’t been very many women, in fact it was quite a few years after our first GHC when they had the first woman who won the Turing Award. But all of the women to date who have won the Turing Award, were speaking at that first GHC. Fran Allen, who did her early work in compilers, Barbara Liskov, who has done some incredible work on languages at MIT, and Shafi Goldwasser who has done work on security and cryptography. And everybody who asked said yes!
Q: How has the GHC changed over the years?
Dr. Whitney: The first few conferences were held every 3 years. There was one in ’94, one in ’97 and then 2000. It was about the same size. It was 500–600 people. From the very earliest days there was always a scholarship program, so we brought a lot of students through that. In 2000 we moved it to every other year. Until then it had been completely volunteer driven. And so, after 2000 it became the Anita Borg Institute, and so over time we were able to give it more staff attention and it became more fully developed as a conference with that support. I think that what has changed, certainly the scale has changed. Though it grew steadily for about 10–15 years, the size scaled dramatically over the last 5 years. Whereas we’ve always had this huge student population and we’ve always had a good connection with faculty, the number of industry women that now attend the conference has really scaled dramatically, as organizations see participation in the GHC as a key part of their strategy for retention and advancement of women. I think the other thing has changed is that it has become increasingly part of larger programs at larger organizations, both in academia and industry. They have a program that they’re managing within their own organization and GHC becomes part of one of the tools in their toolbox that they use.
Q: Do you prefer to have companies send more of their younger employees in order to learn from their peers and the programs offered versus sending more established women technologists as a reward-based program?
Dr. Whitney: Because we have such a large number of speakers that factors into it. That’s one of the ways they’re able to support more of their women attending and also as part of their own development efforts. Our demographics are that the largest percentage is between 20 and 35, so they tend to be younger. If you look at the social mission overall. We certainly have work to do to get women to choose CS as a profession but the issue that concerns me much more is the retention. Many women drop out after they go into technology so the retention is a challenge. They drop out somewhere between 5 to 10 years into their career. So I do think that is the time. That is the “sweet spot” to help with the retention during that time that I think is particularly important.
Q: What do you think needs to change or what opportunities do you see to get women through that sweet spot? Whether or not they can come to the conference, is there any advice you have to get them through that, and maintain their momentum?
Dr. Whitney: As a woman who works in technology or computing, I think it’s important to stay with your dream. Take that position where there’s a possibility that you may not have 100% of the job qualifications, and only have 60%, but to still to go for it. I do think it is important to take risks, and ask for what you want. What I am more interested in is creating cultures where women thrive. There are companies who are really taking a hard look at their own cultures. The Top Companies is a way to measure where you are, so you know. By using data, you can know where you are losing women. The best companies actually use that as a diagnostic tool to figure out where they are losing women. And this will vary a lot from company to company. Then put targeted programs where you’re losing women. It’s easy to just create programs because it feels like they are doing something. But the best companies that are making a difference are making targeted changes.
Q: What would you like to see the Chicago chapter, specifically, accomplish this year or next in support of your overall mission?
Dr. Whitney: Well, first and foremost that you create a community of women that are coming together regularly. The events that Chicago is hosting need to meet the needs of the local community. Understand that to make this work, you need to bring value that addresses real concerns. I’d love to see ABI.Chicago host a GHC1. I think that these smaller conferences are a way to mobilize community and allow people to speak. There’s a lot of interesting content out there and I’d love to be able to feature that. The promise is most importantly to mobilize the community and look for impact within the local community.
Q: What advice would you give to a young person to give them the confidence if they’re interested in technology or any STEM field to believe in themselves and to go for it and be fearless?
Dr. Whitney: For young people, there’s often this voice inside of them saying, “Oh no, I’m not good enough; I can’t do this; This isn’t me; They’re going to find me out.” The most important advice *is* to go for it. Listen to that voice, and say, “OK, but I’m going to go for it anyway.”