Scientist Works to Give Women A Voice in the Cyberworld
PALO ALTO, Calif. — Dr. Anita Borg sees a world suffering from pronoun problems — namely that the technological revolution sweeping the globe is too often led by “pale males” setting standards in a world where women are in the majority.
Don’t call her a radical feminist. But do call her radical.
Borg, founder and president of the Institute for Women and Technology, has become a quiet force as she works to shatter the “silicon ceiling” and include more women and minorities before the technological divide becomes too large.
“The technology of the future is going to be so pervasive and have such a significant impact on every domain,” says Borg, 51, that it shouldn’t be left to the “technology priesthood” to determine.
“I don’t think it’s just a matter of do-gooder stuff. I think that opening markets to everyone could mean creating things that serve people better and creating things that enable people to prosper and be better customers.”
One question she asks again and again is “What if?”
“What if women were designing a computer-based communication system aimed at connecting your family and other loved ones around the globe? What if an inner-city kid had a hand in designing the car of the future, or a virtual wall that controls the functions of a home?”
Borg is a certified techno-geek — she earned a doctorate in computer science from New York University in 1981, and works in a small Palo Alto office littered with computers and other technological accouterments. She can tell you the ins and outs of fault-tolerant operating systems and describe how she developed tools to predict the performance of microprocessor memory systems.
But as she worries the paper clip in her hands, it’s the human dimension of technology she’s most concerned about — the downside of having very few women and minorities working in technology.
“We really have to think about supporting efforts to recruit people at a whole lot of different places, and we have to think about the full diversity of experience that people have,” Borg says.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the industry will need at least 1.3 million more information technology workers by 2006. The number of people seeking computing degrees has risen sharply, but the number of women and minorities in technology has remained static or worsened.
The number of computer science degrees granted to women is at about 27 percent, the U.S. Department of Education says.
Only 18.8 percent of Ph.D. candidates in computer science and computer engineering in 1997-1998 were women, a figure similar to those seeking undergraduate degrees, according to the Washington-based nonprofit Computer Research Association. The numbers were even worse when looking at the number of degrees awarded to minorities, including African Americans and Hispanics.
Borg took action in 1987, creating Systers List, one of the world’s oldest global electronic networks of women in computer science. It connects more than 2,500 women in 38 countries. She also co-founded the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, a prestigious conference for women in computer science.
And last August, President Clinton appointed Borg to the federal Commission on the Advancement of Women, Minorities and Disabled in Science, Engineering and Technology. Its one-year mission is to come up with a report that offers a solution to bridging the technological divide.
Scientists and researchers agree that the reasons for poor enrollment of women and minorities include a lack of computers in homes and schools, a lack of role models and the perception that technology careers are solitary and detached from the social benefits of everyday life.
“There’s also the nerd stereotype —a very White male kind of image,” says Teri Gurer, co-chairwoman of the Association of Computing Machinery’s Committee on Women in Computing. “Because of that, someone who doesn’t fit that image may not feel like they would fit in this field.”
Corporations have begun to respond, donating millions of dollars in time and equipment to education. Some also have taken note of a recent Forrester Research study that noted there is a huge untapped market for products designed specifically with women and families in mind.
But Borg says there’s still a long way to go in a world where people looking for “Dr. Borg” often confuse her as a secretary.
She has toured the world with her message of inclusion, and she keeps a corkboard on her wall decorated with pictures of women and children she has met in Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jordan, Turkey and South Africa. The board is there, she says, “so that every day, every single day, I remember that the world is not Silicon Valley, that there are places where so many people have so much to offer if just given a chance.”
Borg’s organization has worked to give women and minorities that chance by holding gatherings of engineers and everyday folk at universities across the country to brainstorm about how to make their lives easier.
Borg’s free time also reflects her adventurer spirit. She pilots a small plane, mountain bikes the hills of Palo Alto and recently sailed to the Caribbean. A recent birthday present of a Porsche Boxster has her taking to the roads to relieve some stress.
Borg today stops to consider what she calls her mission, removing her glasses and glancing at the pictures on the wall.
Of course it’s climbing a mountain,” she says. “But you can set up climbing a mountain so that you get an opportunity to enjoy the view on the way up.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com