Not everyone was pleased when they read the MICRO-50 conference program, which included an all-white, all-male panel entitled “Legends of MICRO.” Inspired by a SIGARCH blog post about gender diversity, a group of male and female colleagues wrote a statement on the importance of diversity in tech, which they presented at the beginning of the “Legends of MICRO” panel.
We spoke with Dr. Margaret Martonosi and Dr. Sarita Adve, two of the women involved with the MICRO-50 statement, to learn more about the importance of supporting underrepresented minorities in the tech field.
Research shows that when an organization employs a diverse workforce, its operational and financial performance improves. So why do you believe women and other underrepresented minorities are still not getting hired or recognized in the numbers we’d like?
Margaret: Some of this is due to implicit bias. As people, we often naturally tend to want to hire and work with people who are like us. That means that people who are in the majority have to be very aware of their potential implicit biases as they conduct interviews or read applications. Without a consensus view on the degree of the problem and the need for a solution, progress is doomed to lag behind.
There are also other harmful factors that discourage women from joining the tech field. As recent news has revealed, sexual harassment is not uncommon in many workplaces. There are also poor workplace dynamics and a lack of family-friendly policies.
Sarita: Women also tend not to self-promote as much as men, so they are often overlooked for senior positions. This is a problem, because seeing women succeed inspires other women to keep moving forward. We need to make it our collective responsibility to provide all of our colleagues the recognition they deserve.
You say that the reason you “[stepped] to the microphone” and made your MICRO-50 statement in a public venue was because “the quiet route [did not] result in sufficient, substantive change.” What must women in tech do to make sure their voices are heard?
Margaret: Although it’s important to have male allies, and we are very grateful for ours, there are times when women must and should speak out themselves. The field must learn to listen directly to the voices of women and members of underrepresented minorities.
Speaking out can begin change or accelerate it. But it is through ongoing attention and hard work that real change actually occurs. We’re now creating a process for conference leadership to identify action items and plan ways to make progress on them. As a community, we need to be willing to both pitch in on those action items, and to speak out again if progress slows or seems to falter.
Sarita: It is important for women to take on leadership roles when opportunities arise, and to actively seek out such roles. Having a platform and leadership experience provides further impetus to make real change.
Both of you have won ABIE Awards for your impactful work as well as your commitment to increasing the representation of women in technology. How does it feel to be a role model and advocate for women in tech?
Sarita: I just feel so wonderful when I meet other women in tech. What one may call “being a role model” or “mentoring” is often a two-way street —we all learn from each other. I distinctly remember a recent meeting when I was supposed to be “mentoring” a grad student and came away with a great suggestion from her that we later implemented in a project for SIGARCH. I have got so much from my mentors, both male and female. To be able to pay it forward to the extent I can is a privilege.
Margaret: I seem to have a lifelong case of imposter syndrome, so the “role model” mantle remains unnerving to me. But I do acknowledge that it is important for women and minorities to be able to look ahead in their career pipeline and see people who help them believe, “If they can do it, then so can I.” I was fortunate to have had role models in my life, and I hope that future women will have even more.
Many women are still hesitant to pursue computing careers. As professors of computer science, what do you do to encourage and support your female students?
Margaret: I try to remind them they are doing great. Any student’s confidence can waver at times, and they need to be reminded of their skills, talents, and potential.
Sarita: For women in particular, I find confidence-building in the early years is important. I try to have my antennae up to isolate problems due to a lack of confidence or insecurity, and I try my best to address them.
I also am especially open about the juggling it takes to handle work, kids, and everything else, and I make sure to convey that it’s all normal and doable. I want them to know that a career in computer science can be fulfilling intellectually, but doesn’t have to come at the cost of other fulfilling things in life.
What message do you have for women and minorities in the tech field?
Sarita: By working to improve diversity and inclusion, you end up helping everybody. The MICRO issue is a great case in point. Our male colleagues would complain about the entrenched, parochial steering committee all the time, but nobody did anything. It took women leading a broader effort to say “enough is enough.” And the result is going to make the community more welcoming and inclusive of everyone.
Margaret: It may be okay to “go it alone” when things are going well. But when things are not going well—and everyone’s life hits speed bumps—then it is nice to have a posse with whom you can commiserate, brainstorm, and take action. When planning our MICRO-50 statement, we got in touch with male and female computer architects to discuss options, join forces, and plan an effective reaction. Whether it’s mentors or friends, knowing whom you can count on as allies is priceless.