By Cathie Ericson
Lucy Sanders’, founder of NCWIT, interest in STEM fields started early. Her father was an early adopter, and her high school math teacher encouraged her by teaching her computer programming skills. Then she saw that her sister, who had earned one of the early computer science degrees, was enjoying enormous success and decided that was the path for her.
Thus began a 25-year career at Bell Labs, where Sanders worked in R&D executive positions at subsequent spin-offs AT&T/Lucent and Avaya Bell Labs. Her successful career included being awarded the Bell Labs Fellow Award, the highest technical accomplishment bestowed at the company.
“Back then there was nothing gendered about it,” she marvels, noting that it wasn’t until the late 1980s that technology began to be considered as a “man’s world.”
After an initial “retirement” as she calls it, at age 47, she returned to the University of Colorado where she had earned her graduate degree; she anticipated working on K-12 outreach programs. But a new venture was born when she received a grant from the National Science Foundation, which had requested proposals to start a national effort to get more girls and women into computing. That was the genesis of National Center for Women & Information Technology, a consortium of more than 575 corporations, universities and non-profits working to increase the participation of girls and women in computing.
“Pay attention to the opportunities that are put in front of you,” Sanders says. “You have to seize the chance to take something unstructured and figure out how to do it.”
Pursuing “Meaningful Participation”
When Sanders talks to companies about the dearth of women in tech, she makes sure to focus on the fact that the goal is more women in meaningful participation, in that they should have their fair share of lead design and creative roles.
“It matters what they are doing,” she says. “Women should be in roles where they are designing the tech of the future, not only supporting the people who are. “As a technology innovator, my personal passion is to make sure that new technology is informed by the dreams and passions of women,” she says, adding that it would make technology as a whole better.
Transparency can be an obstacle in knowing the real numbers about women in technology careers. She cites a lack of research and data from corporations about their tech numbers and practices, but she adds, “We know enough to be concerned. We know that women aren’t in the lead creative roles or near parity in the technology workforce, and that they have twice the attrition rate of men by mid-career.”
A Self-Defined Exit Strategy
Sanders’ goal for NCWIT is to literally put the organization out of business. “We formed the organization with a sunset clause in 20 years (10 years from now). We exist to put ourselves out of business by solving the issue.”
As with most non-profits, Sanders says the key challenge is money. They have developed programs that they know work, but the challenge is to scale them. Because they offer lots of their resources for free to make them more readily available, they are always searching for additional corporate and individual sponsors.
She says that the real change will come when corporations treat this situation as a business issue. “Once they start evaluating the parity problem seriously, like they do revenue numbers, then the problem will take care of itself,” she says.
Already she has seen burgeoning interest at the high school level for computer science. “Once girls and women know the possibilities, they will pursue it and we will see their aptitude and interest shine forward,” she says. “The notion that high schoolers weren’t choosing this path because they didn’t like it is false. They just didn’t know what the opportunities were.”
Advice for Women
Sanders’ current career is built entirely on her passion for sharing the news with women that “technology innovation is the most wildly creative thing in the world.” While she acknowledges that for her, it was a lucky choice, she says she can’t imagine anything that could be more compelling. “You get to create something from nothing, something that will truly change things.” She cites the ubiquity of computer science – it can be relevant to any sector or discipline.
She also dispels the notion that computer work is solitary since you are working in teams constantly.
Regardless of what field they pursue, women who seek to rise in their careers should be aware of what Sanders calls “executive behavior.” She says that she didn’t have a strong understanding of this set of expectations about the demeanor of leaders, and learning so was critical for her career. She mentions “unspoken rules,” such as only presenting to an executive board for 15 minutes and learning to handle disappointment in an executive way.
“There is certain executive behevaior that is expected, almost a cadence for how things go at the upper echelons,” she says. “Women who are just starting their careers would be wise to find ways that they can be around leaders in meetings and other occasions, to learn to analyze and respect these norms for when it’s your turn to interact at that executive level.”
Outside of Work
Though Sanders’ “day job” is philanthropic, she still takes time to work with many of her member non-profit groups. She loves to travel, garden and run, and this summer her two sons got married a week apart.
But mostly she spends time sharing her passion with the girls who are the beneficiaries of her work, as well as the 575 member organizations. “We are all going the same place. Not at the same speed, but we all are working to the same goal. Seeing the end result of women working alongside men in designing technology is what gets me up every morning.”