Women of Vision Inspire Tech Millennials

iStock_000006684238XSmallBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

Last month nearly 1,000 people attended The Anita Borg Institute’s (ABI) 2013 Women of Vision (WOV) awards banquet held in Santa Clara, CA on May 9. Several hundred female college students also attended the event free of charge, sponsored by tech company representatives.

The event honored Intel as the Top Company for Technical Women award winner, as well as three visionary individuals: Genevieve Bell, Director of Interaction and Experience Research for Intel Labs, Intel; Vicki Hanson, Professor of Inclusive Technologies at the University of Dundee and Research Staff Member Emeritus from IBM Research; and Maja Matarić, professor and Chan Soon-Shiong Chair in Computer Science, Neuroscience, and Pediatrics at Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California.

Intel was recognized for having achieved momentum on almost every Top Company metric, including recruitment, retention, and advancement of technical women at all levels—both in management and individual contributor pathways. Programs like the Command Presence Workshop, which helps women increase their visibility and effectiveness in the organization, and the Women Principal Engineers and Fellows Forum, which brings together senior individual contributors each year, are examples of the company’s commitment to fostering diversity through specific initiatives to attract, develop, and promote women.

Intel also boasts one of the lowest voluntary turnover rates among women in the industry, holding at 2 percent over the last three years. That’s in part because the company continuously experiments with new, innovative programs and practices aimed at leveraging the full benefits of a diverse technical workforce.

The night’s keynote speaker was Diane M. Bryant, senior vice president and general manager of the Datacenter and Connected Systems Group (DCSG) for Intel Corporation. Bryant told the packed house that despite many gains for women in the tech industry, “there’s still a lot of work to be done,” citing a “horrible decline” in the number of engineering degrees awarded to women. This number peaked in the 1980s with women earning 30 percent or more of the degrees, but which has since plummeted to just 12 percent.

Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer also spoke, emphasizing that increasing representation of women drives diverse business perspectives that help to create better products. Schroepfer said that in celebrating the achievements of these three amazing women, “we acknowledge something even more important: the need to have more women driving the development of technology that shapes our future.”

Bell, the WOV award winner for leadership, is an anthropologist and researcher. She leads a team of social scientists, interaction designers, human factors engineers, and computer scientists to research new computing experiences centered around people’s needs and desires, which shapes and then helps to create new technologies and products.

Bell told the audience of her technology peers and students that if you set your mind to it, you can make big changes in the industry. She shared that her mother taught her, “If you see a better world, you’re morally obligated to create it.”

A Culture of Inclusion

Hanson’s WOV award was for social impact, based on her pioneering work on issues of inclusion for older and disabled people throughout her career. Hanson’s research examines the changing nature of technologies, and the motivations and barriers to their use by populations in danger of digital exclusion, focusing on issues related to aging, cognition, and language.

Some of her work has been in the area of helping to design website interfaces that are more usable for people with disabilities. “Every company tests websites with the early adopters,” Hanson told The Glass Hammer. “They don’t test them with people with disabilities and older adults. There are different design issues and different motivations for these populations.”

Matarić won the WOV award for innovation, based on her research to develop robot-assisted therapies for children with autism as well as for stroke and traumatic brain injury survivors, and individuals with dementia. Matarić advised women to avoid trying to separate work from life, saying that women’s anxiety about work-life balance is part of the problem. “You should not think about separating life and work,” said Matarić. “It’s a false choice. It will drive you nuts.”

As at previous WOV award dinners, the dose of inspiration was palpable: at the end of the evening, students clustered in groups chattering excitedly about their own programs and future plans. As Bell told The Glass Hammer: “If you set your mind to it, you can actually change something.”