Connecting women to technology
Industry veteran behind efforts to diversify field

By Diane E. Lewis, Globe Staff, 5/12/02

Computer scientist Anita Borg has been called a radical, a tech feminist, and a Silicon Valley superstar.

In fact, the California technology specialist and Digital Equipment Corp. alumna has all the trappings of a computer geek: a doctoral degree in computer science from New York University, top jobs at leading technology firms, patents for numerous inventions, and a recent $250,000 Heinz Award for advancements in technology, the economy, and employment.

But the moniker the 51-year-old Borg is probably most proud of is tech feminist, a reference to her efforts over the last 15 years to increase the number of women in the high-tech industry and to encourage research and development among female computer scientists and engineers.

A supporter of engineering colleges for women, Borg maintains that if more efforts were made to introduce girls to science and technology, there would be far more women in the field.

Borg's concerns about the lack of diversity in the industry are backed by recent findings. Last year, the National Council for Research on Women reported that the percentage of women in college computer science courses dropped to 20 percent in 1999 from 37 percent in 1984.

By contrast, the council reported, the number of women who earned undergraduate biology degrees and mathematics degrees has steadily increased, reaching 53 percent and 46 percent, respectively, in 1999.

Why the disparities? Researchers say the increase in female participation in biology and mathematics may have to do with greater flexibility at work and more role models at colleges and on the job. They note, too, that young women are often discouraged early in life from participating in technical games or projects. Borg says women tend to look for work that has a direct and immediate impact on people's lives.

In a push to decrease isolation among female computer scientists and link them around the world, Borg launched an electronic mailing list and community called the Systers List in 1987. Today, the list has 3,000 female members from the United States and abroad who share ideas and information about their work and research. In 1994, Borg put together the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, which brought hundreds of women in the technology industry together.

In 1997, Borg founded the Institute for Women and Technology in Palo Alto, with support from some of the country's biggest tech firms. Today, the institute, sponsors forums between the women of local communities and female and minority computer scientists and engineers. The goal is to develop new technology that is more relevant and practical, she says.

Last Sunday, Borg was a speaker at the Simmons College Graduate School of Management's leadership conference at the World Trade Center. She also talked to the Globe about her career, the institute, women in technology, and diversity.

How did you break into the technology field?

I got involved in the early days. From 1967 to 1968, I was in my first two years of college and then I quit to put my husband through school. I Iearned to program while working for the data section of an insurance company. I found some IBM books, and I taught myself. Following my divorce, I was able to get money to go to New York University, and I did well in programming. I thought I'd see if I could get a master's degree, but NYU said, "How about a PhD?"

Were you the only woman pursuing a doctorate at the university at that time?

There were a number of women in the PhD program. In the 1950s, women were involved in creating the first computers. There are some very famous older women in computer science, but no one talks about them. The guys were always the famous ones. In fact, in the 1960s the number of women in the field first started growing. By the mid-1980s, close to 35 percent of the undergraduate degrees in computing were awarded to women. Then, the numbers started to nose dive.

What happened?

The stereotypes about programmers began to appear in the 1980s. Young women did not want to be geeks and they did not want to be nerds. That was a major problem. Also, at many colleges, students were expected to declare a major when they began school. They were expected to choose between computer science or computer engineering. Young women weren't always ready to choose. In many cases, those courses had been moved from arts and sciences to engineering, which was predominantly male.

What are the solutions?

We need to work with middle school girls particularly.

What happens in middle school?

Girls begin to hear the stereotypes. They start out open to everything but by the end of middle school they are not that eager to do math, and they do not want to be associated with the nerds or geeks. There really needs to be support in middle school and encouragement right up through high school, every step of the way.

You have said in the past that it might be a good idea to develop engineering schools for girls. Why? Are you suggesting that girls are held back — even in college — by what happens in the classroom with males and that affects their choice of careers?

I believe women think differently. There are subtle differences, though there are women who think like men. We need to bring a wide range of brilliance into technology. But most of the people who are doing that work now are males who have been taught and have learned a particular way to create. So, what happens is that a lot of high-tech stuff is being built but it is being built for guys.

So, yes, I support the idea of an engineering school for women. Smith College has a new engineering school. It essentially got together with young graduates to create a new educational experience.

You also say that women approach the creation of technology differently. In what way?

Two years ago, we had a gathering of 50 very senior women talking about education, computing, and policy. Rather than say that the next grand challenge in computing is to make the computer bigger and faster, these women said, "Let's make the next big challenge for those of us in technology social and then let's figure out what technology we need to develop to meet that challenge."

That is a different way of thinking. There are wonderful men out there who think that way, too. But the tendency has been, "Let's build the next best complex thing" first rather than sorting out how we can use the technology to benefit the country.

Diane E. Lewis can be reached at dlewis@globe.com.