Internet2 Gender Diversity Initiative roundtable transcript

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Created: May 26 2015 - 2:17pm

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Lucy Sanders, CEO and founder of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT).

Ana Hunsinger, Internet2vice president for community engagement.

Laurie Burns McRobbie, first lady, Indiana University; adjunct faculty, School of Informatics and Computingat Indiana University; co-chair for the Gender Diversity Initiative at Internet2.

Marla Meehl, networking manager, University Center for Atmospheric Research/ National Center for Atmospheric Research; manager, Front Range GigaPop / Bi-State Optical Network; co-chair for the Gender Diversity Initiative at Internet2.

What’s the motivation for the Internet2 Gender Diversity Initiative?

Hunsinger: I like to characterize Internet2 as both a community but also an expression of its members. So many of our activities and programs that we do are driven and powered by the members. We support a lot of community groups, interest groups, and so on, and that’s how a lot of our things get done.

I’ve known Marla and Laurie for a very long time and we started some casual informal conversations about 'have you noticed there are less and less of us at these I2 meetings?' We had identified that this was a problem at conferences and within our own organizations. We started by asking each other “how comfortable are you in the role that you are in and by the way how many women are there?'

I think this raised a bit of alarm to get us more mobilized within our own community and so at our annual gathering about two years ago in Washington, DC -- Arlington, actually -- we invited Laurie to facilitate a discussion with our community. and we had a standing room only session, where both men and women showed up and we started tackling some things around gender diversity. That initiated this community-driven working group and since then there have been a series of activities and things that we have been able to do to position what we call the Gender Diversity Initiative. It’s a community-driven working group open to anybody in the Internet2 community.

Burns McRobbie:I can add to that I think there are at least three goals for the overall initiative and one of them is classic consciousness-raising. At the point I came in two years ago to do the presentation I did, I was coming from having gotten back in touch with the research that was out there on the numbers, the low numbers (and in fact the decreasing numbers) of women going into computer science and engineering. And the degree to which when you look at STEM degree completion from an academic perspective, you really have to pick apart the numbers because it’s computer science and engineering that are pulling those numbers down.

So some of that, frankly, when I first came across those numbers and started getting in touch with them, it was a bit of a revelation. I had not noticed personally that this was going on and I think that’s probably true for a lot of people. They are used to the communities that they are in and perhaps haven’t seen some of these larger trends that are going on so some of this is making people aware of the problem, and aware of why it's important to fix it, and what the benefits are of creating more diversity in these technical fields for the health of the community but also for the health of the sector.

Sanders: I would like to add in why Internet2? Internet2 cares so much about innovation and Internet2 is the foundation for so much research and innovation that goes on --not just in this country but in the world -- and so we want more women inventing and creating technology because they are going to create different things and have different approaches and it will be all about innovation, and so having Internet2 as a partner is absolutely essential. Because we're in this not just for the numbers, we're in this for innovation.

Meehl: When Ana asked me join this initiative, I was pessimistic that we could solve this. In watching my staff and their children and my friends' children and noticing how many of them are not going into engineering or computer science and yet they have parents who are setting a certain role model, my general feeling is that women are running from the STEM world. I told Ana, yes, I will do this, but I don’t see a lot of hope in the short-term that we’re going to be able to turn this around.

For me it’s been a really great learning experience because, like Laurie, I’ve read a lot of what NCWIT has done. I’ve learned that in some ways it’s worse than I thought and some of the numbers are actually going down in computer science for instance. And so I found it sort of fascinating to read the gamut of what they’re trying to do in the K-12’s, what we are trying to do in the universities, and then what companies are trying to do. And I think it was also a learning experience that companies are having trouble retaining -- not only are we having trouble getting women but we’re also having trouble retaining them. And so it’s been really great for me just to have interactions with people and everybody’s out there looking at it. I really learned a lot more about it and about some of the issues and what’s working and what’s not working.

I don't think I was aware of how much bias there is in the hiring process and the fact that not only are there men who are biased but women who are biased which is really interesting to me. When you read a resume for an nterview or were to blind interview someone, you have a totally different response for men as opposed to women.

So for me it’s been a great learning experience and so now I think we’re just getting to the part of where we can ask what role can IT take to maybe try and come up with some things to do. I think the gender diversity awards are one effort to try to get some women to this meeting -- at least get them in during the early career and encourage them to stay in the field.

Hunsinger: To add to that: I think the role for Internet2 is to facilitate this community discussion and to bring as many resources and creative partnerships like the one that we have for the NCWIT. They are a great resource for our members.

I think we decided to take some baby steps. We know this is not a problem we can solve alone and have decided to take on a series of activities that could perhaps make a difference. For instance, last year at our key technical event we created a scholarship process by which people in our community nominate females who may have some financial need. In addition to the scholarship, we committed as a community of women to come to these meetings and to mentor these nominees within this group of individuals and the leadership of Internet2 also agreed to spend some time with them and get them connected to the community. The idea here is to create a way they can continue to stay engaged with Internet2.

I’m very pleased to say that we have made a very proactive effort to meet certain goals. For example to ensure that we have women on the program, the staff in the community made a very good effort to make sure that there would not be a single session without a female on the program. We didn’t fully get there, but for the first time it was a program that had the most women in it and that was fantastic to see.

We also committed that at every event we will make an effort to have more women on the program, whether a keynote speech or leading the sessions and hopefully create some type of effect that helps bring in more women like us.

What are the obstacles to diversity in the tech world? Who’s blocking this desire we all have to include and retain women?

Sanders: It’s not so much a who’s blocking it as it is we are all blocking it. There is a very strong societal bias about who does tech. One of my dreams before Jay Leno retired was for him to do a 'Jay walking' where he went up to people on the street and asked them who does tech? No one, if they were honest, would think about women first. And that includes women, so I think there is a societal bias about who does tech.

Once you get your head around that, it’s not so much a who -- it’s a what? Society is biased about things -- about this work, about men as nurses, about men as kindergarten teachers -- but when we have a bias as a society it really causes weird dynamics in the classroom, it causes weird dynamics in corporations, and it causes numbers to drop which in turn even more skews the culture.

So that’s really ”who’s” blocking it—it’s all of us basically.

And once people can get their head around that, then you can work to fix it, right? You can understand the classroom as a culture, you could understand how you teach in an environment where there are underrepresented groups within that environment, you could understand what it’s like to lead a technology team so that everybody can contribute.

Burns McRobbie: There is a lot of research that talks about the fact that diverse workteams produce better results in terms of the products that come out (services and tools and so forth) and also for the company's bottom line. In any kind of collaborative undertaking the more voices you have and more perspectives you have, the more likely you are to come up with a solution that is going to be responsive to the fact that there’s a diverse consumer base and user base out there for those solutions.

Tech has this image problem that has it very much identified as being a male occupation. It’s also a certain extreme version of that kind of “lone male geek” who has no social skills, and doesn’t take showers, who nobody really wants to hang out with, and who sees the computer as an end in itself. Research shows that women are drawn to technology because they want to use it to solve problems and use it to connect to the world. A lot of men are like that too, but the image is that it’s men who want to program 24/7. And those kind of practices and work habits don’t appeal as much to women, especially women who are getting on in their lives who want to have children and families and some work/life balance.

So you wind up with very homogeneous teams and frankly they are the easiest to manage and the easiest to be in. The easiest group to work in and manage is a group of people who are all alike. Diversity takes time. It takes effort to manage diverse workteams, but it pays off. So part of this is helping people see it is worth the effort and that it is not a level playing field because it kind of looks like it is. It’s a meritocracy right? We want to be a meritocracy because it can be very objective and measured and so forth, so part of the work is getting people past this unconscious bias about what the workplace is really like or what the classroom is like. It’s the same thing in the first year experience for women coming into computer science. Very often, it’s not the kind of environment that is as appealing to them as perhaps a biology classroom is, so girls often self select out of tech into something else.

Sanders: Some people don't stop to think about this. We have a patenting study where we look at gendered IT patenting rates over the last 30 years. The bottom line is about 88% of all IT patents come from male-only invention teams, 2% from female-only invention teams, and 10% from mixed-gender invention teams. When you start to look at numbers like that, you realize that most of the technology we use today was invented by one homogenous group.

Think about that. Oh my gosh! Is that really true? That half the population has not really participated in the invention of technology? And the answer is, yeah it’s really true.

And so I think the upside for that is huge. When you start to think about that creativity and that kind of thinking at the table—not instead of men, but alongside them—that’s fairly startling when you stop to think about it.

Meehl: 50% of the population is women and if you eliminate 50% of your brainpower and your innovation it can’t be a good thing, statistically. You have to think that’s not going to be good, but we’ve been doing it for long time.

We’re still in some ways battling this equal rights thing—for a long time women weren’t voting. That meant every decision that was being made at the government level was being made by men. That’s who was deciding what to vote for. It has always been shocking to me how long it took for it to be accepted that women could even vote. And we’re still kind of battling that I think, so we’re losing a huge amount of our potential by not including that 50% of the population.

That’s not to say that all women should go into IT. Obviously we need them in all fields. Many women do go into medicine so it’s not by definition that it’s a science and math problem — there’s something about our environment. There are lots of women lawyers, so it’s not a brainpower problem, and it’s not a hard work problem. For some reason the tech culture is really prohibitive. I think that’s a lot of what we’re trying to do is to make sure that we understand the scope of the problem and see if we could do something in our own organizations and Internet 2.

And one of our hopes in this whole session here at the Global Summit is to educate people. I think there is an awareness deficit. I think we assume people notice this and are aware of it and I think a lot of people are not.

And our hope is to make our colleagues see that we do have a problem, that there are these biases and that all of us can make efforts all the way along.

It happens in parenthod as well: we have the little things that we say. I happened to have parents who were very unbiased. There was never any overt 'You can't do this,' or 'You can't be good at math, you're a girl,' or any of that kind of comment. I had a father in elementary education who was pushing me all the way along, saying 'Yes, you can do this,' but I think there are a lot of parents who do consciously or unconsciously say, 'Maybe that's a little too hard for you.'

All of us need to be aware from the very beginning that we do influence people’s decisions ,especially as parents and teachers and colleagues and mentors, and peers and things that we say can influence how someone perceives whether they can or cannot do something.

What gains will come from increasing diversity? What does the future look like?

Burns McRobbie: It’s important to get past the sense of feeling pessimistic which we’ve all felt at sometime. Sort of defeated. But I think the other key in addition to making people aware that there are these biases and problems is that there actually are solutions out there. There are things that at least can be tried and that’s where the real hope is and where the real excitement is. The Internet2 community has an enormous amount of power because of its reach. It also makes it so difficult to figure out how to use that because it’s so dispersed and distributed. That’s a lot of what the work is now: figuring out what’s going to be the most effective given the nature of the community. That's why having a partnership with NCWIT has been so fruitful.

Sanders: There is reason to be optimistic. The K-16 pipeline is on the move. There is a wide range of opportunities — from a new computer science AP curriculum for high schools, all the way through lots of encouragement programs. Code.org is out working with school districts and states to try to get more computing into the public school system so that all high school students have access to it. We now have an encouragement program for girls starting at middle school and going all the way through college. I want to be optimistic about over the next few years in terms of the pipeline.

To us, the biggest thing that we would like to improve now is the corporate climate. Corporate culture, believe it or not, is a harder thing and I’m a corporate person, by the way, so this is a hard thing for me to admit. I thought corporations would move faster. The K-18 space is not an easy space to be in.

The computing community has moved really vigorously and very aggressively in that space, including the National Science Foundation and College Board. A number of educators across the country like at Indiana University are working very hard, but in the corporate space we need to find a way to leverage and scale our approach -- Internet2 can help us with that in many ways. Right now we work with companies one by one by one, and you can imagine how much time that’s going to take, so we have to keep finding those leverage points to grow the corporate space.

Tell me about the Red Chair: Sit with me initiative

Sanders: NCWIT has 600 member organizations and is growing very quickly across the United States. We are also a very listening organization. So NCWIT and Internet2 have simpatico habits and we heard our member organizations say they wanted a way to have this conversation to start the dialogue about the importance of women’s contribution to tech. And not just “We’re going to support you” (pat pat) —More the strength of the importance of women’s contributions to innovations.

So we raised a little money and we hired a concept company from Brooklyn and they came back with this red chair. It’s a beautiful red chair. It’s handmade, it’s a piece of art, it’s sustainable, and it’s recyclable. It’s based on Rosa Parks not giving up her seat on the bus, “sitting to take a stand”or “sitting for the future of innovation,” “sitting for the strength of women’s contributions,” etc. so we thought “Okay”.

So we rolled it out at one of our meetings, made a little microsite, a little swag and we did some things with it. We didn’t want to make it too prescriptive because we wanted our members to do what they wanted to do with it and that suited them in their approach within their context.

But of course whenever you roll anything out, as engineers you are always a little bit hesitant. 'Oh my gosh. what will they think of this beautiful red chair,' right? 'What will they think of this?' So we rolled it out at our summit and we had photographers and videographers and the line was out the door. They loved it and that was about three years ago. And we thought that people might be interested in it for maybe a year but in fact it’s still going strong.

Hunsinger: We learned about this “Red chair: Sit with me program” through our partnership with NCWIT. And we decided to bring the red chair to one of our meetings. I opened one of the sessions and I put the red chair in the middle of the stage, started my remarks and made a personal appeal, and it was fantastic to see the audience. But then I sat on the red chair and I explained what it was. For the rest of the meeting I gave our community an opportunity to go and sit by the red chair and also take pictures so it was so wonderful as a marketing thing but it was very positive to then highlight the commitment that Internet2 was making towards increasing the participation of more women in our events.

I made a personal commitment in my role that I would like to have a red chair at every event for the next year so we have a red chair here by the way that you can go take a picture of and sit down and take a stand with.

It gave me sort of an opportunity to inaugurate the red chair at Internet2, and to make some statements, because at the time I was the only female on the executive team of Internet2. One of the reasons I want to bring the red chair back onstage this year is that we now have a new chief innovation officer from IBM, a female also. So I would love to say have Florence sit in the red chair. So it was also a commitment for Internet2, the organization to also increase our own diversity and bring them in as well.

Burns McRobbie: One of the things I’ve been most involved with recently is something called the Center for Excellence for Women in Technology (CEWiT) at Indiana University. It’s a network of networks, not unlike a lot of things we are used to, and we have a student alliance, a faculty alliance, a staff alliance, and now an alumnae alliance is getting started. The student organization is called Women Empowering Success in Technology (WESiT), the student organization named themselves after the red chair campaign. So they really have adopted that and they’ve done a number of videos for various purposes that have already revolved around the red chair. We have a conference every year now with a big event in the fall to celebrate the anniversary of the launch of the center.

The red chair really has become a symbol at Indiana University as well for the same idea. It is very visible, very tangible, fun and really gets people’s attention. Originally I thought it would be hard to understand, but it’s not hard for people to make the leap to say “I get it” “I get why this is important.”

Sanders: Some people have made it an award program, so for diversity and inclusion they give people red chairs and put them in offices. Stanford had a stealth program where they just walked across the campus with the red chair and started talking to people. We’ve taken it inside an empty United jet, we walked around Denver International Airport with the red chair and we would stop in the middle of the concourse and sit on it and engage people in conversation.

So you can do whatever you want with it. That’s what’s kind of fun about it, I think.

Meehl: I think the red chair does get back to raising awareness.

One of the reasons I am pessimistic is because I blame a lot of this on women and blame is the wrong word to use. Women, if we become passive, and in some cases I think we have become complacent and passive that somehow the men are going to do all this IT and solve all our problems, then we are giving up our ability to influence and innovate and change.

So when I say I’m pessimistic in many ways it is because I see women choosing not to go into science and computer science for whatever reason they decide, but in some sense you’re just saying that I’m just going to do what women have done for years and I’m going to be in a comfortable space.

There’s a conference in Colorado called the Rocky Mountains Celebration for Women in Computing and I presented on a panel and I was surprised at the questions that women came up with: “Oh I’m going to be put down in meetings,” “Oh, how do I make my ideas heard?” And I’m thinking where is this lack of confidence coming from? Just go in there and if you have a good idea and you know what you’re doing. If you are competent and you know what you’re doing in my experience — I haven’t had negative experience with men -- but if I go in unprepared or if I haven’t got what I need to do, they’re going to treat me the same way a guy would if they came in unprepared.

I guess I have certain frustrations with women themselves for letting this happen in some sense and not pushing into the universities. If there was 50% women, the environment would have to change.

Hunsinger: Marla, you are a tough cookie. But even if one is a tough cookie it’s hard. I’ve talked to Lucy about for example just sitting at the executive table. The people I sit with are not bad people but there's this whole thing around bias.

For example we all interrupt, but there are studies that show men tend to interrupt more than women and what’s the natural thing that we do? We just step back and stop because it affects our confidence or maybe because we just like to listen and let them talk, but I personally have decided that I need to do certain things to help myself.

For example, it took me a very long time to say “please don’t interrupt me, I have not finished my thought.” By virtue of doing that, I’ve not been interrupted that much. I never thought that those were things that you could arm women but I also think that my colleagues have become more educated by me saying, 'You know, I don’t like being interrupted.'

So I think it’s also us that we need to experience it or have someone tell us to step up.

Meehl: At some point you do have to push back and the more that we push back, the more people will become educated, the more women will be in our environment and it will change the culture.

My brother was a principal in the Boulder Valley school district for 30 years with a lot of women, so in some cases he experienced the reverse bias. “What’s this guy doing teaching elementary Ed?”

So IT is not the only place our culture needs to fix some things but that happens to be the world we are in. That’s why I said this is a great learning experience for me. I have seen a lot more of the female side and what are these barriers that are in place for women and that we do need to fix a lot of things societally.

Sanders: Most of these things are not innate, so the researchers again would say some of this is socialization, some of this is professional development. I would argue that men also need to say “don’t interrupt me, I haven’t finished my thought.”

So a lot of this is not innate to women or innate to men. I think it gives us pause when we think about that because we have to understand that when women like Ana learn how to protect themselves in a meeting that there’s a certain amount of professional development in that plus she’s outnumbered so she’s acting actually maybe sensibly: When you’re outnumbered to make sure that your voice is heard.