Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day: Women Excelling in Technology

In case you've forgotten, today - March 24 - is Ada Lovelace Day. I and over 1500 other bloggers have pledged to post about "women excelling in technology". I had a hard time deciding whether I should profile someone who works on the business end of tech, or if someone in academia would be more interesting. In the end, I took the easy way out by including one of each: Silicon Valley CEO Carol Bartz on the business side, and Georgia Tech professor Amy Bruckman on the academic side. They are from two different generations, and are involved very different aspects of the technology world. Both demonstrate that women can be - and are - successful in technology.

Technology Business: Carol Bartz

In January of this year Carol Bartz was thrust into the international limelight when she was named the new Chief Executive Officer of internet giant Yahoo! While many people outside of tech world may not have heard her name before then, she is certainly not new to the industry; from 1992-2006 she was CEO of Autodesk, the giant software company that produces AutoCAD and other design software, and she served as their Chairman of the Board until this year. Before heading up Autodesk she was CFO at Sun Microsystems. She's clearly no stranger to Silicon Valley.

But her career trajectory could have been very different. In high school she was a cheerleader and the homecoming queen - and one of only two girls taking physics and advanced math classes. She originally intended to major in math in college, but took a computer class and fell in love. She told More.com:

Well, the first time I wrote a program, I just loved it," she says, sighing at the memory. "I absolutely loved it. We had to write a program that would add up all of the license plate numbers in the state of Missouri. Ah! I remember that so clearly."
This was 1966 and she the small college she was attending didn't offer the courses she was interesting in taking. She transferred to the University of Wisconsin at Madison to major in computer science, paying her way through school working as a cocktail waitress (a detail that all the articles about her like to emphasize). Her first major job after graduation was at 3M, where she ran into a big wall: she had entered an industry where women weren't particularly welcome.
"3M was where I first realized that this corporate thing against women really existed," she says. "I was definitely singled out." In her first week, Bartz, the only woman professional in a division of 300 men, was sent to an out-of-town business meeting where everyone was assigned to share a room. When "C. Bartz" saw her room assignment, she quietly had the hotel switch her to a single room. The next morning she was met by a manager who had just, apparently, had a good look at the list. "We're going to have to let you go," he said. "You slept with somebody last night."

Bartz can laugh about it now. "They were so whacked out just because there was actually a female there," she says. "I told them I didn't sleep with anybody last night, and that I didn't know anyone there. Even so, for the next several hours, I was fired."

Bartz spent four years at 3M. But in 1976, when she requested a transfer to headquarters, "They told me to my face, 'Women don't do these jobs.' It was the first time I actually heard that," she recalls. "I'm out of here," she told them. She packed up her desk and left.

At that point Bartz could have found an industry that was more friendly to women, but she instead decided to stick it out in the high-tech business world. In retrospect, that was clearly the right choice. But even now, after decades in the industry, she is one of the few women to hold a top position. Back in 1997 she wrote:
In the country's biggest companies, there aren't many women CEOs. But more are coming up. Some are starting their own companies. It's better to be a woman in technology than in other industries, but there definitely still is a gap or a glass ceiling. It's there in a lot of subtle and some not-so-subtle ways. It starts with venture funding. It's present in the fact that there are not that many women technologists. It goes back to the fact that young girls still aren't encouraged in the math and science arena. It goes to the fact that white males are still more comfortable with white males.
And she sees the situation as largely the same today.

I wonder how many women in technology who had similar experiences to Bartz's in the early days of their careers simply decided to leave for friendlier climes. I believe that Bartz would have likely been just as successful if she had done just that. She could have been one more statistic used to show that women "chose" alternative career paths. But she persisted despite the road blocks thrown up in front of her, and has clearly demonstrated that women can be successful in the high tech business world.

More about Carol Bartz:
Technology as an Educational Tool: Amy Bruckman

Just two years after earning her Ph.D. from the Epistemology and Learning Group at the MIT Media Lab, Amy Bruckman's work at Georgia Tech caught the eye of Technology Review, which named her a "1999 Young Innovator". In their profile of her research, they described how she was developing online communities as a tool for education.
As a graduate student, Bruckman founded an online community for new-media researchers called MediaMOO,as well as a MOO for children called MOOSE Crossing. Bruckman has undertaken "the most notable MOO research in education," says Aaron Tornberg, an educational technology researcher at the University of Cincinnati.

To make this possible, Bruckman had to design a new interface, as well as a new programming language. Once she creates virtual communities, Bruckman doffs her engineer’s cap, puts on her anthropologist hat, and studies how the online environment influences the interactions of its participants.
Online communities have blossomed (exploded?) over the past decade, and her research has followed their progress. One of her current projects is "exploring how Wikipedia actually works, conducting empirical studies of regular contributors, administrators, participants in WikiProject subgroups, and people banned from Wikipedia."

Bruckman is also helping develop new online communities, such as Science Online, which helps students learn science by writing about it, and Georgia Computes!, which aims to increase diversity in computing. She believes that such communities can be an important tool in education:
Dr. Bruckman's research applies the "constructionist" philosophy of education--learning through design and construction activities on personally meaningful projects--to the design of online communities. The Internet, she asserts, has a unique potential to make constructionist learning scalable and sustainable in real-world settings because it makes it easy to provide social support for learning and teaching. In electronic learning communities, participants can help motivate and support one-another's activities, "thereby scaffolding the project-based learning process."
I very much like the idea, mostly because I think that's how I learn best.

Bruckman's approach to technology is very different from that of Bartz, but I think that both clearly illustrate that women and technology go together quite well.

More about Amy Bruckman:

You can read more Ada Lovelace Day posts here.

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Le cinq blog said...

I think it would get easier if more women were in top positions to act as mentors for the younger women.
I absolutely loved both the stories. Very inspiring.
It truly was tough or infact it is truly tough with everyone going with the common convenient misconception that just because a human being has ovaries and breasts, suddenly loses their capacity to lose their brain and therefore will be technologically challenged in some way. hmmmmm
Great article.

Anonymous said...

my chin hit the floor at 'which breast?' - Carol has been added to my hero list. thanks for telling her story.