We sat down with the CTO of tech’s most women-friendly company. Here’s what she said.

Rebecca Parson, CTO of ThoughtWorks, accepted the 2016 award for Top Companies for Women Technologists, presented by the Anita Borg Institute. (O'Reily Conference/Flickr)

HOUSTON — Thousands of women and men gathered in an NBA arena to launch the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Technology Wednesday morning – T-shirt cannons firing, lights flashing and music blasting from a high-energy DJ set. Amid the increasing energy and celebration, ThoughtWorks CTO Rebecca Parsons took to the stage to deliver a humbling message.

“I wish I was able to stand here and say we’ve solved the gender gap,” Parsons said. “Though things are much better than they were years ago, we know that’s not the case.”

Parsons accepted the 2016 award for Top Companies for Women Technologists, presented by the Anita Borg Institute, placing ThoughtWorks above Google and Facebook as a Top Company for Women in Tech. According to the latest numbers from the Anita Borg Institute, less than one third of technical positions are filled by women at top tech companies.

I sat down with Parsons after her speech to discuss the efforts that ThoughtWorks has made to be more inclusive, and the long road ahead for the tech industry.

You just surpassed Google and Facebook and thousands of other companies as the best company for women to work, how does that feel?

It feels pretty awesome, I’ve got to say. We’ve really focused on this for several years, it’s very gratifying to get that kind of recognition, and I think it acts as a proof point that it is possible for us to make progress on this gender gap.

Why do you think Thoughtworks deserves this award?

I think a lot of it comes down to focus. There is clearly a business case to be made for diverse teams, particularly when markets are tough, the studies show that businesses that have more diverse management teams do better. They take more… they don’t stop taking risks, but they don’t tend to be as reckless. There’s very clearly a business case to increase diversity, not just at the graduate level, but up through the executive ranks. We look at it not just as the business case, but as the right thing to do. I hear from people that say, well, there is really not a problem with women in technology because any woman who wants to be in tech is there. It’s an attractive career and therefore, why wouldn’t they be there?

And yet— study after study shows that you have many more women dropping out of the technology workforce than you have men, and you don’t have to look very far to hear the war stories that women go through, whether it be being trolled on Twitter, harassed at conferences, or just the subtle things. People walk into a meeting, and I’m the woman there, and so they ask me, ‘Can you get me a cup of coffee?’ —they would never ask our male CEO to get them a cup of coffee. There’s this implicit assumption that because I am the woman in the room, I must be the admin. I must be the person who is going to provide them with coffee. That seems trite, but day after day of having those kinds of experiences, women are being driven out of this industry women are being pushed out, they are not going in for many of these reasons. By looking at this, [we’re] saying we want to do is to provide a safe and inclusive environment.

We want women to feel valued for their technical skills, for their people skills, for their organizational skills, for their technology skills, for their design skills. We’re not hiring people because they are women, we are hiring them because they are great technologists who happen to be women. I think that’s an important message to send: We don’t go around lowering any standard when we hire women, we’re looking for fantastic women who have attitude, aptitude and integrity, and we’re hiring them and then trying to make an environment where they feel safe, where they feel like they can grow their careers, where they feel like they can learn new things and contribute.

We’re not hiring people because they are women, we are hiring them because they are great technologists who happen to be women

What do you say to the people who don’t have diverse workplaces and use the excuse that there is no talent, no pipeline, and there are no candidates they’d be willing to ‘lower the bar’ for?

It is easier to hire men. I’m not sure I would call it ‘lazy’… I would call it doing the things that we have always done. We’ve seen many studies of unconscious bias, and if you’re always looking in the same schools, and you always have the same people doing the looking, and the same people doing the interviewing, they’re going to hire the same kind of people who look like themselves. If you don’t look in different places, you’re not going to find different kinds of people. If you don’t have different people asking the questions, you’re not going to pick up on another way of being just as awesome as this way. One person who looks at this and says, ‘Well, this person doesn’t look like me, therefore they must not be awesome’ — well, actually, maybe they are, they’re just awesome in a different way. I think a lot of it is that we need to be more creative about where we look, how we judge talent, and also, the risks that we’re willing to take.

There are studies that show that men are often promoted for their potential; women are promoted for their experience. If you’ve got two equally-qualified people, our unconscious bias will say, ‘Well, the man is ready’ even though he hasn’t demonstrated that he can actually do the promoted job. The woman hasn’t demonstrated yet, so she’s not ready. We have to consciously fight those biases and say, okay, well if we think two people of equal caliber can both stretch into this role, let’s not assume the woman can’t do it because she’s never done it before. Let’s put women in those same kind of stretch roles that we historically — and continue to — offer to men.

What are some ways that you are recruiting, retaining, and advancing women within ThoughtWorks?

We’re looking in different places, we’re trying to get more involved in the community, so we have people who will come to us, who may not have the traditional-looking background. We are investing in growing talent. We have a program where we recruit people from university who don’t have a computer science degree, and we have a special program that will help them to become technologists, and help them to learn the skills they need to be software developers. We are investing in that program to help bring people from different kinds of backgrounds into the fold as well.

In terms of workplace policies and recruitment strategies, how are you adapting? Do you adapt more for women? Do you avoid things that have historically advanced men?

One of the things we’ve been looking at across different countries is our family leave policy. We’re firm believers not just in having a strong maternity leave policy, but making paternity leave available too. We’re trying, with many of these things, to address issues that women face, but we want to make sure that we make them available to men. We encourage our fathers-to-be to schedule their paternity leave, and to go off and participate in the early days of their children’s lives. Similarly, when we have flex-time policies, we make sure that those are available to both men and women. Part-time work is the same kind of thing; we want to make sure that we’re not just addressing the needs of women, but we’re also making those things available to men as well. We’re looking overall for our employees to have more productive lives, and to be able to have the right kind of family situation.

What’s your background with technology?

I started programing when I was about 14 years old. In high school, I had a math teacher who recognized I was bored. He was actually taking a programming course at the local university, and so he bought a textbook for me, the same one he was using, and he said here, go off and learn this, and I fell in love with it immediately. I love to program [and] love to solve puzzles, so early-on I worked with some of the original Basic machines, and wrote an assembly language. I started with that, but I think one of the real gifts that my parents gave to me, and to my brother and sister, is this unflinching belief that we could do anything we set our minds to, if we were willing to work hard, and if we were willing to apply ourselves.

When I faced the things that I faced;  people telling me, ‘Oh, women can’t understand math and computer science,’ or anything like that, I didn’t pay attention to it. It’s like, ‘Well, you’re just an idiot, so I’m going to go and prove you wrong’ rather than letting that slow me down. I’ve worked in many different industries, I’ve been in academia, I’ve spent some time at Los Alamos National Laboratory, I’ve worked for an NGO, I’ve worked for a startup… I’ve seen a lot of the industry, but at my heart, I’m a geek. That’s who I am.

Is there a moment you can remember where someone really did get to you, where you were really affected by those naysayers?

One of the first times I encountered a man in the workplace who basically made it clear that it was alright for him to treat me as an object, I was very young. It was my first real job. That was hard, particularly because —without anybody telling me— I knew that I was just supposed to accept it, that I was going to get nowhere except to hurt myself, if I said anything.

What happened?

I was groped at the coffee machine. That was just what you were supposed to accept. It was the reality. That really bothered me. That made me realize that the playing field wasn’t level. If I had needed to know that, that something so fundamental to that could happen, with no recourse. That’s one of the ways, in general, that things have gotten so much better. In the workplace, that is just not acceptable anymore. Yes, it happens in bars, yes it happens in conference parties where people get drunk, but it’s not considered okay.

At that time, even women considered it okay for something like that to happen. That was probably my low point. In my early years at Thoughtworks, I kind of felt like I was in a bubble, surrounded by people who respected me — heaven forbid — for what I knew, and what I could do. I wasn’t “the woman,” I was a geek like everybody else. I was here at one of the early (for me) Grace Hopper conferences, and they did the first CTO forum. We did a lunch, and each of the CTO’s on the panel were at a table.

There was a young woman from Southeast Asia, and she said to me, ‘I think I might have to change my advisor, or maybe drop out of graduate school, because my current advisor told me that I was taking the spot of a man, and I should go home and make babies like I was supposed to.’ And I thought, this is the 21st century. That basically shattered my bubble. That’s when I decided I need to get back out there, I need to be giving the kinds of speeches I gave, I need to be talking to groups about technology, because I didn’t want the world to still be in a place where it was okay for a professor to say that to a talented young woman. Talented enough that they would have sent her from Southeast Asia to a conference like this in the United States. That just made me so angry, I thought, I need to do more to help fix that.

We’re here at Grace Hopper, and in a way, this conference is a bit of a bubble as well. We’re celebrating and dancing and though it’s worth celebrating, you sounded a bit broken-hearted in your speech, and you provided a call to action, acknowledging that we’re not quite there yet.

You just have to listen to the stories from women at conferences. You just have to look at what happens to women on social media; death threats, people posting the home address of women. One situation where a woman spoke out about the fate of women in technology, and her home address was posted, along with an advertisement that said, ‘This woman and her daughter are willing to do a threesome.’ She had to go into hiding. We still have situations where women are at risk, and there is a swell against it. It’s not considered acceptable, necessarily, but there is still this, ‘Oh, well you just need a thicker skin.’

Well, maybe for some of the things, but death threats and issues affecting people’s children, that can never be considered okay. That’s the reality that we still live in. It’s still the case that you look around so many boards, and you don’t see women there, you don’t see very many women CTO’s, you don’t see women in leadership in organizations, and you have a lot more women dropping out of technology, or going to work for themselves because they’re just tired of the environment.

Yes, we’ve come a long way, and the Grace Hopper Celebration is a fantastic way to get recharged… personally, I think it also says to people, ‘Oh, you say there’s a shortage?’ We had 15,000 people, 14,000 of them were women. You can’t tell me that there aren’t women in technology. Just the energy that comes from this group, and all their great ideas… it is this balance. There are still significant problems in the technology industry, and that’s one of the things I want to continue to fight.

What would be your advice to a 14-year-old girl, interested in your field, who might not have the confidence or support you had at that age?

Fundamentally, believe in yourself. Continue to do what you’re passionate about, because it’s a whole lot easier to ignore the haters, to go past disappointments, if you’re doing something you’re passionate about. Never be afraid to learn. The single most important thing is that when an opportunity comes for you, say yes. Even if you don’t exactly know how you’re going to do it yet, if it’s something you’re passionate about, if it’s something you think is important, have enough belief in yourself that you can learn it. A man faced with that same opportunity is going to say yes. If you don’t, someone else will.

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.