14,000 women showed up in Texas to address tech’s gender gap

Thousands of women in the tech industry gathered at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Houston, Texas, this week. (Photo by Rachel Rohr/GroundTruth)

HOUSTON — The largest gathering of female technologists in the world, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, kicked off Wednesday in Houston, Texas with some good news and some bad news.

The bad news, reported the Anita Borg Institute, is that just 21.7 percent of tech roles at 60 top tech companies are held by women, a .9 percent increase from last year. Women hold 14.5 percent of tech positions at the executive level.

The good news is that companies like ThoughtWorks, a Chicago-based tech firm awarded for employing and nurturing a large percentage of female employees, are demonstrating that companies can — and perhaps should — hire women at much higher rates while building successful businesses.

At ThoughtWorks, 59 percent of entry level tech jobs are held by women. The company provides agile development and design services, employing 4,000 people nationwide.

It’s a major accomplishment, but CTO Rebecca Parsons used her acceptance speech to discuss how far there is to go.

“Now is not the time for us to rest on our laurels, let’s redouble our efforts as one community,” she said to a cheering crowd. “We are not done, not by a long shot.”

A simultaneous celebration of women currently in tech roles, and recognition of the long road ahead to equal representation in tech, were the common threads throughout the first day of the conference.

“You’ve come to join a global movement of women finding their rightful place at the table as leaders and as innovators,” said Telle Whitney, the CEO and president of the Anita Borg Institute, in welcoming attendees.

This year 15,000 people (about 14,000 women and 1,000 men) are gathered in Houston for the 16th celebration of women in technology. That’s an increase from 11,702 last year and 2,784 in 2011.

Parsons said she sees her company as proof that diversity and good business go hand-in-hand.

“For over 20 years, our missions-driven organization has thrived on the unyielding belief that technology stands on the very epicenter of both business and social change,” she said. “Our continued growth has shown that idealism can harmonize with great technical work. Social good and profit, yes it’s possible.”

To improve their company’s diversity, ThoughtWorks tried new methods to looked beyond traditional four-year computer science degrees as a qualification when hiring.

That was the case for Theodora Skolnik, a developer at ThoughtWorks, who learned her technical skills through a code bootcamp, Dev Bootcamp Chicago. She said the diversity at ThoughtWorks made it her “dream job.”

“I was like wow, I can get a job and on top of that have people not give me special support, but treat me with…equal opportunity,” she said. “It definitely did matter to me, I just didn’t know it was possible.”

Beyond business, Latanya Sweeney, director of the Data Privacy Lab at Harvard University, explained that diverse perspectives are key to tech as a part of civic life.

“Technology design is the new policy maker,” she said. “Arbitrary design decisions dictate the way we live our lives.”

At the Data Privacy Lab, Sweeney and her students have used data science to prove that supposedly neutral algorithms can have bias built in. She found that names associated with black children are 80 percent more likely to come up with an arrest record advertisement on Google. It’s one project among many from Sweeney and her students that have enacted change in tech companies and policy.

Conversations on tech’s lack of diversity translating to products with implicit bias and discrimination may not always comfortable. But IBM CEO Ginni Rometty said that’s a good thing.

“Growth and comfort never coexist,” she said in a keynote speech. “It’s the same for people, countries and companies.”

This story was written as part of a Women in Tech fellowship sponsored by the GroundTruth Project and SiliconANGLE Media’s theCUBE. Other stories reported from the Anita Borg Institute’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference in Houston can be found at the TechTruth Women in Tech site.