Tsu-Jae King Liu

Tsu-Jae King Liu, EECS chair and convener of the Women in Technology Leadership Roundtable held Nov. 6, 2015. (Photo by Noah Berger)

Roundtable tackles issues facing women in tech

The lack of women in technology-related positions might seem like an overwhelming challenge to take on. After all, the numbers are disappointing: at Google, women make up 17 percent of tech positions, compared to 15 percent at Facebook, 15 percent at Yahoo and 10 percent at Twitter. 

But that didn’t stop a dozen or so motivated women engineers, data scientists and senior tech managers from taking steps to tackle the problem in a summit held at Berkeley earlier this fall.

The Women in Technology Leadership Roundtable — convened by Berkeley’s Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences (EECS)  with the support of the dean's office — tasked the participants with dissecting the problem by identifying some of the factors that are contributing to the gender imbalance and discussing how these affect individuals and companies. The group channeled those observations into a brainstorming session on actions the group could take to begin remedying the issue.

While many initiatives have attempted to highlight the issues facing women in technology, this effort was unique both in its focus on removing barriers for women in tech regardless of organization and its dedication to taking tangible and immediate action steps.

“Progress to address these issues has been painfully slow,” said the roundtable’s convener, EECS professor and department chair Tsu-Jae King Liu. “Our whitepaper makes that clear.”

Indeed, the whitepaper — the brainchild of fourth-year EECS doctoral student Virginia Smith and EECS Ph.D. alumna Gitanjali Swamy, managing director of IoTask — reported that significant barriers exist for females to advance in technical professions. These barriers result in “leaky pipe” syndrome — higher attrition rates for women than for men despite higher-than-ever graduation rates for women in science, technology, engineering and math.

The whitepaper — which served as a launching pad for the day’s discussions — issued a call to action that the organizers hoped to transform into a set of actionable next steps, framed by best practices, that would span private industry, government and academia.

In order to allow the participants to openly share their stories and observations, the group agreed that all conversation was subject to Chatham House Rules (that is, free to be shared without attribution).  All quotes included in this article have been approved by the speakers. 

Not enough data that tells the true story

A challenge that is keeping the industry from getting a real handle on the problem, the participants noted, is the lack of detailed data that gives greater insight into the status of women in technology.

"It’s not just about the number of women in high positions,” said Andrea Goldsmith, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University who also co-founded two wireless communications startups.

Catalysts for Change report cover

Catalysts for Change

From 2009-2014, the number of women majoring in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) at the college, or in computer science through the College of Letters and Science, has almost tripled, and underrepresented minority students in those majors have more than doubled, according to a campuswide report called Catalysts for Change: Innovations in Equity, Inclusion & Diversity at UC Berkeley.

The fall 2015 semester saw a record high percentage of women and underrepresented minority students entering EECS, while the proportionate increase in women and URMs among EECS graduate students has been three to five times the overall rate.

These successes are the fruits of a collaboration among EECS leaders, faculty, staff and student groups, along with campus colleagues, to increase diversity at all levels and foster an inclusive environment.

Goldsmith emphasized that in order to truly assess just how much power women have in the workplace, one has to look at concrete metrics on the influence of that position through factors such as budgetary authority, number of direct reports and recognition of leadership as well as contributions to the company’s core business.

“These factors help to tease out whether she has more than just a title,” she said.

And a few participants mentioned that because the statistics on diversity are not tied to management performance reviews, there’s no accountability for managers to work actively to improve the numbers.

But Laura Haas, an IBM Fellow and the director of the company’s Accelerated Discovery Lab, said that having a commitment at the highest level of an organization can make all the difference.

“When you have the right voices at the top, you do see a change in inclusion; and when we have better inclusion, the men see that it’s a better working environment and that their lives improve — for example, they get paternity leave benefits,” she said. “Our woman CEO [Ginni Rometti] has changed the culture and is a communicator. That’s changed the morale within the company in the last few years.”

The group also agreed that because women generally are not as likely to take risks in the workplace as men, this can hold them back.

Identifying solutions

After the group reviewed the entirety of sentiments and observations shared during the day, they identified the most impactful solutions via popular vote. Then they fleshed out concrete steps for implementation:

  • Be data-informed and collect data: There should be a standard set of metrics for the diversity data that an organization collects. And a good way to publicize the data — as well as to incentivize companies to make progress — would be to aim to publish it in the business press  (say, Fortune magazine) as part of a feature story on "the best workplaces for women."
  • Encourage risk-taking: A mentorship program that promotes best practices and behaviors would be helpful, the group agreed. There also needs to be more women sponsors and role models, to encourage women to share their own stories.

On a personal level, the group felt it was good to go outside of one’s comfort zone regularly — for example, by doing one thing that scares you every day.

Other highly ranked strategies were finding ways to involve men and fostering an inclusive work environment. Many men want to be included as allies and to serve as mentors and advocates for women; mechanisms to engage and reward them for doing so are needed. Key elements of an inclusive culture include habits of inclusion exemplified by leadership; awareness and mitigation of unconscious bias; and accountability for diversity (or lack thereof).

Next steps

The participants each committed to take at least one step toward implementing these solutions, and a smaller working group was formed to ensure progress toward establishing a standard set of metrics before the next gathering of the entire group in the coming year.

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Topics: EECS, Education & outreach, Events, Industry, Public policy