The Blog

'Passion, Adventure and Heroic Engineering'... and Talent Inclusion

There are hundreds of historic and current examples of women and minorities doing groundbreaking work in technology but so many of these stories are not well known and in some cases the stories have been all but lost.
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Cross-posted with Grace Hopper/Anita Borg News - from Grace Hopper Keynote October 2013. Watch the video here.

I have been able to attend many technology conferences around the world over the years, including some of the largest like Google I/O, Microsoft's Developer Conference, Apple's WorldWide Developers Conference, Oracle World, Le Web and more. What these valuable and exciting industry events sadly share is that the target attendee group of technical professionals, primarily computer scientists, is deeply gender imbalanced - gathering typically 80-90 percent technical men and 10-20 percent technical women.

Here at the Grace Hopper Celebration, the annual gathering of Women in Computing, now 4,600 attendees strong, the opposite is true. Attendees are talented technical women computer scientists who range from undergraduate to PhD students and university faculty to technical professional women from Twitter, Google, Facebook, Dropbox, Microsoft, Square, Salesforce, CA Technologies, IBM, Amazon, and more -- including senior executives from those companies who join Hopper's collaborative Technical Executive Forum. Founded in 1994 by the Anita Borg Institute and growing every year, the Grace Hopper Celebration is bringing needed network connections, skill building and visibility for women computer scientists who work at all levels of our industry.

My keynote at Grace Hopper was entitled "Passion, Adventure, and Heroic Engineering." I focused on the deep impact of technology and science innovation work and its critical importance for the 21st Century. We have so many jobs open, our work is high impact -- at times heroic, and we have great people to work with in the tech industry. I spoke about working towards significant impact on solving problems -- moonshot thinking -- aiming for 10x improvements not 10 percent, about some of our projects at Google[x], about the importance of finding your passion in work, and about how the planet is networked at a level now where we are entering an extraordinary age of creative collaboration.

Talent Inclusion

In addition to the overall points around technology impact, I also focused on the need for diversity in these innovation teams. This is not only about fairness, but it also makes business sense -- the data is clear that diverse teams simply create better products and companies; to make great things we need mixed points of view and skill sets. We know that diversity can sometimes be more uncomfortable because things are less familiar -- but it gets the best results. So many studies show this today -- from recent McKinsey and Catalyst research, to findings about higher citings for patents authored together by both men and women.

"Debugging" tech industry gender imbalance...

Though diverse computer scientists such as the women of ENIAC, Ada Lovelace, and others have always been part of our industry, today we still often only see about 10-20 percent technical women in these fields. It's critical to remember that none of us created the gender imbalanced situation we have inherited, but we can work together to learn, debug (to borrow from a word Grace Hopper coined herself) and to fix things.

In addition to some great advice out there, including Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, with insights around hiring and advancement, growing the pie, sponsorship, etc. -- specifically for the advancement of Technical Women, there are two additional critical areas for the technology industry to work on: (1) visibility of the technical women already in our industry and (2) working together on overcoming unconscious bias in our merit based industry tech teams; progress in both areas is crucial. My focus in this blog post is the first, visibility.

Address the Lack of Visibility of Existing Technical Women:

Past, Present, and Future (in Children's Media)

Being at Grace Hopper changes perspectives about what's possible. Once you see thousands of technical women in our field, you realize the talent is here and we can improve our industry. This illustrates one of the big issues we face as an industry, for most of history and still today: technical women remain largely invisible and behind the scenes despite important and often elite contributions.

In the Steve Jobs movie, we barely meet Joanna Hoffman and we don't meet Susan Kare, both were a core part of the original Macintosh product development team. Their contributions literally changed the face of the Mac and our industry. In the Turing films, we don't meet the many mathematical women who made up half of the code-breakers at Bletchley Park during WWII. The list goes on -- in historic and contemporary movies about our industry, the women are so typically written as love interests, technical women rarely appear as core contributors, sci-fi movies paint the same gender imbalanced future, and few movies overall meet the Bechdel Test,

In my keynote, I spoke about the lack of visibility of technical women who have made important and some cases lead contributions to technology advancement for all of history. I highlighted many -- from the namesake of the Grace Hopper conference, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, who developed the first compiler and conceptualized the whole idea of machine-independent programming languages (Grace with David Letterman); to the code-breakers, more than half women, at Bletchley Park who broke the ENIGMA Codes during WWII -- the team is credited with shortening WWII by 2 years and saving 11 million lives (wonderful Jean Valentine (92), Veteran Code Breaker video); to the original WWII UPenn "computers" -- 80 women mathematicians brought together to calculate ballistic trajectories during WWII, six of whom were recruited to become our nation's first digital programmers for the ENIAC project; to NASA's Katherine Johnson who calculated the trajectories for Alan Shepard, John Glenn and the Apollo Mission, and co-authored over 26 technical papers at NASA, but due to discriminatory policy in the day, her name only appears on one.

There are hundreds of historic and current examples of women and minorities doing groundbreaking work in technology but so many of these stories are not well known and in some cases the stories have been all but lost.

And for the future... the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, through studies done with the USC Annenberg School, found that 3:1 ratio of male to female characters in children's TV and importantly for our industry -- 80 percent of the jobs held by characters in kids TV/film were held by male characters -- the 4600 technical women at Grace Hopper don't exist in children's media, we need to help Hollywood and other media creation hubs fix this damaging bug.

Bringing Needed Visibility to Technical Women Today + Surfacing Lost History: Recent Google Work

At Google, we want to do our part with our other industry colleagues to make technical women more visible. Here is some of our work so far...

  • Technical Googlers: To highlight our own talented women at Google, we've created Makers@Google videos together with, highlighting the experiences of top technical women leaders at Googlers who build Search, Ads, YouTube, Android, and other products. We also run many programs to support the talented technical and non-technical women in our company as well as do outreach and support for those who might join us some day.

  • Industry-wide visibility of technical women past and present: We created the Women Techmakers live online video interview series -- of technical women and men interviewing tech women all over the world, and launched a Women Techmakers G+ Community Page. We've been promoting and in some cases creating short videos and blog posts about important technical women in history, including Anita Borg, and recently hosted an event at Bletchley Park for the "Heroines of Computing." And we work closely via Google for Entrepreneurs programs with great partners globally on better inclusion of all talent.

  • Google IO and other events: We've started paying more attention to our gender representation attending and speaking at conferences and our speakers at Google events like Google I/O. We have required speaker training about Unconscious Bias especially Ambient Bias. We also added a super session to Google I/O this year called "7 Techmakers and a Microphone" to hear amazing TED-stype lightning talks from technical women and were completely oversubscribed with hundreds of women and men joining the session live and on stream.

  • Media awareness and other funding: The Google Giving team gave a $1.2M Grant to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to help leverage digital technology advances to enhance the tools used to measure gender imbalance in children's media (enable real time, measure speaking time, etc). At the 2013 CGI Annual Meeting, the Google Giving team also launched the WeTech (Women Enhancing Technology) Fund for Women and Girls in Computer Science across Africa. Beginning in early 2014, the Fund will award seed grants to organizations and individuals taking impressive steps to support and encourage women and girls in computer science in communities across the African continent.

  • Youth STEM engagement: At the same time we're making tech role models more visible. We're working with partners in education to add hands-on STEM/STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) curriculum to schools and to encourage more girls and underrepresented minority youth to get excited about professions in technology. One of the keys to finding and attracting young people to technical professions is to quickly connect them to industry to dispel stereotypes and to show them how impactful these products and jobs are -- that they can be part of heroic engineering and science. There is great breakthrough work by our university colleagues in this area that is bring better balance in the student populations in CS, especially the computer science departments at Harvey Mudd College and University of Maryland. We also support new K-12 outreach organizations like, GirlsWhoCode, BlackGirlsCode, FIRST Robotics and our own Google Science Fair.

  • Google Doodles and other opportunities: We are also paying more attention to historic bias as we celebrate birthdays with Google doodles - highlighting amazing contributions of women like Rosalinn Franklin and computing's visionary founder Ada Lovelace.

We hope these efforts will help inspire everyone -- especially more amazing women and minorities to join us in the world of technology. There's never been a better time. Today we have so much access to information, to collaboration opportunities for working with each other and people all over the world, and most importantly we have the ability to together solve some of the greatest challenges our world faces -- so many of those solutions will be from scientific discoveries and technological innovations. Please join us!