Our conversation with the organizers of the Internet2 Gender Diversity Initiative continues in this final installment of a two-part series. Look here for the first half of the roundtable. For a full transcript of this conversation, look here.
For more of our ongoing conversation about gender equity in computer science, see our 28 January article 'Why aren't there more women in HPC?' and the 4 March response 'Pursuing diversity in every facet of HPC.'
Lucy Sanders, CEO and founder of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT).
Ana Hunsinger, Internet2vice president for community engagement.
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.
Tell us about the NCWIT 'Red Chair: Sit with me' initiative.
Sanders: NCWIT has more than 600 member organizations and is growing very quickly across the US. Our members said they wanted a way to start the dialogue about the importance of women's contributions to innovations. So we hired a concept company from Brooklyn and they came back with this beautiful, handmade red chair modeled after Rosa Parks not giving up her seat on the bus: 'Sitting to take a stand.'
We rolled the Red chair: Sit With Me project out at our Summit and every one loved it - the line was out the door. We thought people might be interested in it for maybe a year, but three years later, it's still going strong.
We didn't want to make it too prescriptive because we wanted our members to do whatever suited their context. Some people have made it into an award program for diversity and inclusion, giving red chairs to put in offices. Stanford University had a stealth program where they walked across the campus with the red chair and started talking to people. So you can do whatever you want with it. That's what's kind of fun about it, I think.
Hunsinger: We decided to bring the red chair to one of our meetings, so I opened one of the sessions and put the red chair in the middle of the stage. I started my remarks, explained what it was, and the audience reaction was fantastic.
For the rest of the meeting we gave our community the opportunity to go and sit on the red chair and take pictures. It was wonderful as a marketing tool but it was also very positive to highlight the commitment Internet2 was making towards increasing the significant participation of more women in our events.
At the time I was the only woman on the executive team of Internet2, so I made a personal commitment to have a red chair at every event for the next year. One of the reasons I wanted to bring the red chair back onstage this year is because we now have Florence Hudson, Internet2's new chief innovation officer. who was previously at IBM for more than 30 years.
Burns McRobbie: One of the things I've been most involved with recently is something called the Center of Excellence for Women in Technology (CEWiT) at Indiana University. We have student, faculty, staff, and now alumnae alliances. The student organization is called Women Empowering Success In Technology (WESiT), named after the red chair campaign, and they've done a number of videos that have revolved around the red chair.
The red chair 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.
What are some changes women can make to improve their inclusion and contribution in the computer sciences?
Meehl: I am pessimistic because I see women choosing not to go into computer science. In some cases, I think women have become complacent and passive and think that somehow the men are going to do all this IT and solve all our problems. If we become passive, then we are giving up our ability to influence and innovate and change; we're just saying that we're going to do what women have done for years and stay in a comfortable space.
I was at a conference in Colorado called the Rocky Mountain Celebration for Women in Computing and I was surprised at the questions women came up with: 'I'm going to be put down in meetings … how do I make my ideas heard?' And I'm thinking: Where is this lack of confidence coming from? If you have a good idea and you know what you're doing, just go in there and speak up.
So blame is the wrong word, but I guess I have certain frustrations with women for letting this happen and not pushing into the universities. If there were 50% women, the environment would have to change.
Hunsinger: Marla, you are a tough cookie. But even for a tough cookie, it's hard to be a woman in tech today.
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.
I decided that I needed to do things to help myself, for example, saying '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 with. I also think that my colleagues are becoming more educated as a result of me saying 'you know I don't like being interrupted.'
Sanders: Researchers would say some of Ana's example of empowerment is a matter of socialization, and some a matter of professional development. I would argue that men also need to say 'don't interrupt me, I haven't finished my thought.'
Most of these gendered conventions are not innate. I think that should give us pause because we have to understand that when women learn how to protect themselves in a meeting, there's a certain amount of professional development in that. Plus, she's outnumbered so she's actually acting sensibly, because when you're outnumbered you have to make sure your voice is heard.