Women in Technology: How a Handful of Leaders in Tech are Taking Matters into Their Own Hands

Virginia Smith
7 min readAug 24, 2016

There are more men on boards of S&P 1500 companies with the names John, Robert, William, or James than there are women in total. [E&Y]

It’s an eye-catching statistic — one that’s usually met with a grimace or uneasy laugh. However, no such sound bites were needed at the meeting. The women and men in attendance were keenly aware of the dearth of women in technology, particularly at the senior level.

Indeed, looking at the group of industry executives from companies like Google and HP, leaders at non-profits like Project Include and the Anita Borg Institute, and professors and academic administrators from institutions like Stanford and UC Berkeley, I knew that we were all intimately familiar with the numbers and the importance of the situation. For one, these extremely busy individuals had devoted the entire day to brainstorming solutions to this issue. The majority of participants had been working in tech for decades. They were ready to take matters into their own hands.

The Women in Technology Leadership Round Table

Thirty of us gathered on November 6th, 2015 for the inaugural Women in Technology (WiT) Leadership Round Table, an initiative aimed at developing sustainable solutions to increase the presence of women in technology. Along with Gitanjali Swamy, Tsu-Jae King Liu, and Sheila Humphreys, I helped to start this initiative after feeling frustrated at the rate of progress on this issue in the tech industry.

About to graduate with a PhD in machine learning, I looked at post-graduation with more unrest than the typical malaise that comes with finally having to get a “real” job. I had been quite involved in the women in tech movement up until this point — mentoring girls interested in technology, serving as Co-President of Berkeley’s graduate women in EECS organization (WICSE), and spending my extra research hours investigating root causes for the attrition of women in tech. I’d attended numerous conferences and workshops, and took recommended training courses on topics like negotiation skills and networking strategies.

However, I could see that these bottom-up efforts alone were not changing the environment quickly enough, for me or for others. There are numerous, hugely important organizations and events that help women in technology, but in order to make substantial change it is vital to engage people at all levels. In particular, there are few initiatives that directly hold leaders (executives, entrepreneurs, professors) accountable in order to improve diversity.

We started the WiT Round Table hoping to engage this group directly. In doing so, the round table seeks to spark solutions-oriented discussions with women and men who can go back to their organizations and immediately make change. The initiative is also unique in that it brings together leaders from across technology — spanning academia, industry, and non-profit sectors. This wide range of participation provides a diverse level of insight and support.

During the inaugural WiT meeting, participants came prepared not only with decades of experience, but also having read extensive background research prior to the event, including e.g. many of the resources currently hosted at: wit.berkeley.edu. Together, we discussed the most important areas for improvement and proposed numerous solutions strategies. As you might imagine, despite our preparation, we could only really scratch the surface of these ideas in one day. However, two salient initiatives came out of our first meeting.

Facing the Data

what you can measure, you can change

The first initiative was that (as with any good experiment), we need better baselines to track progress. As one participant put it, “what you can measure, you can change.”

Participants agreed that companies need to do a better job tracking diversity metrics and holding themselves accountable for improving them. Even though there has been a push recently to release diversity numbers, there are still few companies that track diversity data with fine enough granularity to be useful (even internally), and many are missing key metrics. It can also be easy to ‘gerrymander’ current metrics, for example by blurring the lines between tech and non-tech roles.

This initiative particularly resonates with me as a statistician. Visualizing and monitoring data is typically the first part of any scientific workflow, and I see no reason why diversity and inclusion efforts should be different. Collecting and continuously monitoring diversity metrics is a fundamental step in defining the problem and in finding approaches to fix it.

However, figuring out exactly what data to collect can be difficult. To this end, we formed a working group after the first round table, and members spent several months researching and developing a thorough list of suggested metrics for companies and institutions. We finalized these metrics during our second round table event in June 2016, and a report outlining the proposal is available here. Participants are now taking these metrics back to their companies as a first step in getting them implemented.

Be bold

encouraging women to be bold

The second initiative raised was the need to encourage more women to be ‘bold.’ Participants arrived at this initiative after agreeing that the successes in their careers came from taking risks and being bold (whether in their speech, choices, or actions), and noting that women are often dissuaded from this type of risk-taking behavior. In our discussion, boldness embodied anything from major actions like altering one’s career path (e.g., going up for a promotion or applying to a different position) to everyday activities like speaking up during meetings.

I must admit that at first this initiative gave me pause. In the women in tech movement, much emphasis is put on finding ways that women can deal with the issue themselves, e.g., by seeking support groups, changing their behavior, or learning strategies for coping. These ideas are important and effective, but only so much can change if only one party is invested.

However, this second initiative is not solely about altering the way women approach situations in the workplace — rather, it is about cultivating working environments that are encouraging and receptive to boldness in women. Doing so requires making everyone part of the conversation. The goal is to find ways that women can take chances and dream big, while also being effective and remaining authentic.

For the ‘be bold’ initiative, the group discussed various types of mentoring, training, and sponsorship programs, highlighting ways to get both women and men involved. A working group is currently meeting to build a repository that will host materials on encouraging boldness, as well as success stories of bold women in tech.

Looking forward

As I realized while participating in the round table, those of us in the trenches are now past the point of discussing whether or not there’s an issue with diversity and inclusion in tech. This is a victory in its own right. Moving forward, I’m excited to see the discussion focus on solutions, with the WiT Round Table being a promising arena for cultivating these ideas.

Let me note, of course, that the issues and solutions discussed at the round table may not apply to all women in tech, nor may they affect individuals during every part of their career. As one participant put it, “I didn’t realize I was a woman in tech until 5 years ago.” Further, while the round table has initially focused on gender diversity, there are many other important types of diversity and inclusion, including for example racial and LGBT diversity. While the proposed solutions may be applicable in some settings, achieving diversity across the board will likely require an array of solutions with different approaches for different communities.

Since the first round table, momentum has grown, and we were able to collaborate with several additional companies and organizations in our second event. The third round table meeting will be taking place in November 2016.

What strikes me most about our time so far is the willingness with which the participants have collaborated on new ideas and strategies. As Grace Hopper once said, “The most damaging phrase in the language is ‘We’ve always done it this way!’” Several groups other than the WiT Round Table have also proposed interesting solutions-oriented approaches, including for example Project Include, Intel, and LeanIn.org / McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace. Changing the tech environment will not only take commitment at all levels and from these different organizations, but will also require an openness to new strategies — because if the last 30 years are any indication, it’s time to diversify our approach.

An Open Invitation to the Tech Community

We can use your help! Please help us in encouraging companies to adopt meaningful metrics for tracking diversity in their workforce by sharing our metrics report. You can also get involved with WiT directly or learn more about the initiative by joining our mailing list or visiting wit.berkeley.edu. We welcome thoughts or suggestions and can be reached directly at witroundtable@gmail.com.