Tech dismally failed a 25-year problem to reach gender equality by means of 2020

In 1995, pioneering computer scientist Anita Borg challenged the tech community to a moonshot: equal representation of women in tech by 2020. Twenty-five years later, we’re still far from that goal. In 2018, fewer than 30% of the employees in tech’s biggest companies and 20% of faculty in university computer science departments were women.

On Women’s Equality Day in 2020, it’s appropriate to revisit Borg’s moonshot challenge. Today, awareness of the gender diversity problem in tech has increased, and professional development programs have improved women’s skills and opportunities. But special programs and “fixing women” by improving their skills have not been enough. By and large, the tech field doesn’t need to fix women, it needs to fix itself.

As former head of a national supercomputer center and a data scientist, I know that cultural change is hard but not impossible. It requires organizations to prioritize and promote material, not symbolic, change. It requires sustained effort and shifts of power to include more diverse players. Intentional strategies to promote openness, ensure equity, diversify leadership and measure success can work. I’ve seen it happen.

Swimming upstream

I loved math as a kid. I loved finding elegant solutions to abstract problems. I loved learning that Mobius strips have only one side and that there is more than one size of infinity. I was a math major in college and eventually found a home in computer science in graduate school.

But as a professional, I’ve seen that tech is skewed by currents that carry men to success and hold women back. In academic computer science departments, women are usually a small minority.

In most organizations I have dealt with, women rarely occupy the top job. From 2001 to 2009, I led a National Science Foundation supercomputer center. Ten years after moving on from that job, I’m still the only woman to have occupied that position.

Several years into my term, I discovered that I was paid one-third less than others with similar positions. Successfully lobbying for pay equity with my peers took almost a year and a sincere threat to step down from a job I loved. In the work world, money implies value, and no one wants to be paid less than their peers.

Changing culture takes persistence

Culture impacts outcomes. During my term as a supercomputer center head, each center needed to procure the biggest, baddest machine in order to get the bragging rights – and resources – necessary to continue. Supercomputer culture in those days was hyper-competitive and focused on dominance of Supercomputing’s Top500 ranking.

A climate-controlled room containing banks of computer processors

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