Despite the increasing role that technology plays in our lives, a shrinking percentage of women have been seeking tech-related university degrees and careers over the past two decades.
RELATED: 20 years in tech, through the eyes of 8 women: How these computer scientists made their own way in an industry dominated by men
To better understand the trends, GeekWire turned to professor Ed Lazowska with the University of Washington’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering for help. We asked Lazowska — whose department has had far better success recruiting women to tech than many other institutions — to assist us in finding female graduates from their program from 20 years ago.
Ultimately, we interviewed eight women, seven of whom are still in technology. Six have children. Five worked at Microsoft at some point in their career, and three are current employees. Two have their own tech businesses. All still love technology.
We didn’t intentionally select subjects who had remained in the field, but because of privacy laws, we were only able to contact women whom the university could locate and gave permission to share their names. In that way, they were a self-selected group — a unique case study in the broader issues facing women in technology.
Continue reading for a profile of each woman.
UW Computer Science, Ph.D., 1994. Current Job: Microsoft, Big Data Team principal program manager
Cathy Palmer can speak with authority about being a woman in the Northwest tech industry. Just consider her CV.
One of Palmer’s first software jobs was an internship at what was then a Seattle-based startup called Microsoft. The year was 1985 and her position was tech support. By mail. People wrote in with their questions about Word — Excel and Windows weren’t released until later that year — and she wrote them back. Palmer went on to work as a software engineer at Boeing for a couple of years, and then enrolled in the University of Washington’s computer science graduate program.
Palmer remembers the nascent efforts to support women in technology in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. It included the Systers online community started by computer scientist Anita Borg to connect women in the field. The initiative evolved into the Institute for Women in Technology (now the Anita Borg Institute), which was founded in 1994, the same year that Palmer earned her doctorate.
As the local tech industry was taking shape, women already recognized and began to struggle with their minority status. In the mid ‘90s, only 20 percent of the Computer Science Bachelor’s degrees earned at the UW were awarded to women — a number that has since increased to 31 percent last year. In the labor force, less than one-third of the nation’s computer scientists and mathematicians were women.
“That was in my era,” Palmer said. But despite being so underrepresented in the tech field, she never felt isolated or discriminated against due to her gender.
“I didn’t think about the male-dominated part… I tend to be not that observant,” she said. “It’s always been that way — I’ve always been around guys.”
While a graduate student, Palmer and her husband had two children. After the UW, she took a job with Tera Computer, a Seattle-based super-computing company. In 2000, Tera purchased the Cray supercomputer unit of Silicon Graphics and adopted the Cray name. Palmer left Cray after a decade of employment and returned to Microsoft in 2006.
“I felt a little bit like Rip van Winkle. It was quite a different company than it was in 1985,” she said. But while it was so much larger, women were still underrepresented overall and particularly in management. There are women’s groups at Microsoft and conversations about recruiting and promoting talented women, but even a decade after her return, the gap is stubbornly persistent.
While the percent of senior leadership positions held by women at Microsoft has reached an all-time high, last year its overall U.S. workforce slipped to 26.8 percent female — a 2 percent decline from 2014. That follows the national trend as each year, women make up an ever smaller fraction of tech workers.
“Everybody has a different reason why that is,” Palmer said. “Some of it is the pace of tech and the commitment of the job as your career,” which can be difficult to balance with the demands of family.
Having children, “it necessarily takes a toll on your career,” she said. Yet Palmer finds herself ready to climb higher professionally now that her kids — who now include stepchildren following a second marriage — are grown and in college. She’s currently part of Microsoft’s Big Data Team.
“It’s all about priorities and timing. You can have whatever you set your mind to, but you have to determine the path to get there, and sometimes the path has side roads,” Palmer said. “But I believe you can have the career you want.”
UW Computer Science, Ph.D., 1995. Current Job: CEO and co-founder of AgiVox, Inc., a Silicon Valley startup
For most of her professional career, Radhika Thekkath has worked for Silicon Valley tech companies, first Equator Technologies, a multi-media processor startup, and then MIPS Technologies, where her roles included director of Architecture and director of Strategy and Business Development.
She’s heard anecdotes about women dealing with discrimination in the tech world but, somewhat ironically, it wasn’t until she became her own boss that the issue hit home.
In 2010, Thekkath launched a startup with a woman she met while working on her doctorate at the UW. The company is called AgiVox and they’re developing what Thekkath calls “Pandora for news.” A big fan of NPR, Thekkath was frustrated when radio stories on topics she was interested in were too short or infrequent. To solve that problem, the AgiVox app will curate and play audio stories based on a listeners’ interests.
Thekkath, who left India to attend the UW and then decided to stay in America, loves the challenge of running a startup. She enjoys doing the hiring, developing the technology and calling the shots.
But then there’s the matter of money.
“The standard demographic for a startup is a 25-year-old man. If you’re not a 25-year-old white or Indian male in the valley, then you don’t fall in the standard bucket,” said Thekkath. “The VCs don’t know what to do with you, to put it kindly.”
They wonder, “can you pull it off?” she said. “It just doesn’t work that smoothly if you fall outside the demographic.”
Luckily, in 2014, Thekkath landed a National Science Foundation grant to provide seed money for the project. She’s trying to get a product to market as soon as possible, and instead of pursing VC dollars is seeking angel and strategic investors.
Thekkath has been satisfied with her career path and professional accomplishments, which she’s managed alongside raising two children, a boy and a girl now in their teens.
If she hadn’t had children, she might have taken a different route, Thekkath said, like perhaps not spending a decade at MIPS. “It’s a little unusual in the valley. Part of why I did that, I think, was because of the kids. I didn’t want to make too many changes in my life when the kids were growing up,” she said. “I wanted to be at a job I knew I was really good at.”
So she waited to do her startup until the kids were older and needed less of her time and attention. But it’s still not easy.
“It is difficult to juggle everything,” Thekkath said. “I am juggling a lot of stuff, even today.”
UW Computer Science, Ph.D., 1995. Current Job: Principal, Sandbox Consulting, independent consulting and contracting
While many corporate leaders may be trying to emphasize diversity and inclusion, Denise Draper believes the culture of the tech industry has become less female friendly over time.
“Things have changed in this industry for the worse,” she said. “It feels like it’s a harsher environment than it used to be. I hit it at the sweet spot. There was a gender imbalance, but it wasn’t like people around me were sexist in deep ways.”
After earning her doctorate in ‘95, Draper went on to become a co-founder and CTO of Nimble Technology, a company launched from a research project (though not Draper’s) conducted in the UW’s Computer Science and Engineering Department. The company was acquired by Actuate, which is now part of OpenText, an Ontario-based corporation.
From there Draper went to Microsoft, where she stayed for eight years.
“When I started, we were all just geeks. No one had that masculine self-confidence,” Draper said. “We were all outsiders and self-conscious.
“People didn’t go into the business because of money, they went into the business because they were passionate about it,” she said. Draper points to the emergence of “brogrammers” as evidence of the cultural shift and acceptance of more machismo attitudes in the field.
She said that “casual sexism” exists in technology, but hasn’t bothered her. She agrees with Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of “Lean In,” that the best way for women to succeed in the field is to be aggressive in the pursuit of their goals. And she would love to see more women at venture capital firms, making decisions about which efforts are funded.
“The VC system has become kind of a distortion of what it should be,” Draper said. “There is a lot of speculation based on little knowledge.”
And she agreed with many of her female peers in the field: The bigger challenge is boosting the numbers of racial and other minorities in the industry.
But she did attend a conference two years ago that suggested there’s room for a bit of optimism for the field. It was an annual event for Code for America, a nonprofit working to improve technology in government, held in San Francisco.
“That was the most diverse audience I’ve ever seen,” Draper said. The crowd was half women and there were many black and Hispanic participants.
“Maybe there is a place to look [for diversity]. There is the open-source world and the civic-tech world, so there are these parts where the goal is not just money. The goal is something else and that is drawing the melting pot and the new generation that is gender blind and everything else blind,” Draper said.
“I was just amazed to see it, I’m hardly ever in a room that is 50 percent female. That gives me some hope.”
UW Computer Science, Ph.D., 1995. Current job: Tableau Software, senior software engineer
Flexibility is Elizabeth Walkup’s secret to career success and fulfillment.
“When money is not the primary problem, the intellectual challenge and satisfaction become really important,” said Walkup. It has also allowed her to fold motherhood into her work trajectory. “I was really aware of being a parent and wanting to be involved with my children.”
So after graduating in ’95 with her Ph.D., Walkup worked a few years at Intel and another tech company, then moved to a small Kirkland-based startup called Consystant Design Technologies. While working there she had her first child, whom she enrolled in the daycare next door so that she could visit and nurse him during the day. She cut her hours to part time, but occasionally pulled the long days required to launch a new business, and eventually returned to full-time work.
Walkup’s son was a little over a year old when she was laid off from the startup, and she wasn’t ready to hit the career fast track. Through word of mouth she found her next job, as a software engineer in the UW’s Department of Genome Sciences. At the university, she mostly worked an 80 percent schedule, and while the pay only barely covered her childcare, she was able to have a second child and maintain a quality of life she enjoyed.
But not everyone celebrated her ability to balance parenting and programming.
During grad school, Walkup attended one of the women’s lunches where a female faculty member asked about her career plans. When Walkup explained that she’d like to have a family and that could affect her path, the faculty member “was furious with me,” she said. The woman reminded Walkup of the sacrifices other women before her had made, but Walkup was undeterred.
“I know what I want and what was right for me,” she said. “I didn’t want there to only be one way.”
Others resisted her less conventional path as well. When Google was getting established in Seattle, a recruiter contacted Walkup. At the interview she asked if it was possible to work part time.
“Not only would people not answer the question,” she said, “but they were like, ‘Why would you do that?’”
So Walkup stayed at the UW for 10 years, then took a job at Tableau Software in 2012. She’s working full time again and now her husband has shifted to part time, which allows him to help out more with their sons, who are 12 and 15 years old.
Walkup is glad to see more women working in technology, and for them to be comfortable being themselves more than was possible in the past, including dressing in conventionally feminine ways. She said she’s never witnessed overt sexism in the workplace, but recognizes that unconscious bias is sometimes at play.
Men who don’t want women to argue will ask them to “calm down,” she said. “They won’t ask a man to ‘calm down.’”
And more than just promoting women in technology, she’s concerned about making sure all underrepresented populations, including racial and sexual orientation, are supported and encouraged to work in the sector. One reason is the hope that a more varied source of ideas will result in better products that appeal to a broader audience.
“Any time you throttle diversity you’re losing information,” Walkup said. “And you don’t want to lose information.”
UW Computer Science, Ph.D., 1996. Current jobs: Professor in the Department of Computer Science and associate dean (research and graduate studies) in the Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia; co-founder and chief scientist at startup Tasktop Technologies Inc.
The thing about gender bias is that it can be so subtle.
Gail Murphy, a computer science professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, preempts one of the slights she has repeatedly experienced.
“Any male professors get called ‘doctor so-and-so,’ but I don’t unless I point it out,” Murphy said. “It’s just the default. [The students], they don’t think about doing it.” So at the beginning of a course, she tells her classes that she has Ph.D. and that’s all the nudge they need.
Murphy has also learned to be mindful about lectures and assignments to make sure male and female students are on equal footing from the outset.
“In early university courses, you have to choose really careful examples and language.” Even making casual references to games like Minecraft can tip the presentation in favor of male students “because there are a lot more boys who have spent time building Minecraft plugins.” So Murphy seeks examples that the female students can find relatable and connect to as well.
Murphy used to do projects in pairs in entry-level classes, but realized that women were getting discouraged working with male partners who picked up the assignments more quickly, again because they had a bit of experience that gave them a jump start. The women, Murphy realized through conversations, understood the concepts equally well.
She sees a lot of young women interested in tech and would like to see their numbers come up, but fears losing them along the way.
“We have an opportunity to get closer to parity, but we could screw it up pretty easily,” she said.
Murphy encourages women to pursue careers in technology, saying it’s an exciting field. With the option of working remotely for many jobs, it’s also a path that can provide a reasonable work-life fit, said Murphy, who has three sons.
She does, however, acknowledge certain challenges that women face in this male-dominated field and has found that academia offers more equality.
“When you deal with a lot of men in a meeting, you have to learn techniques to have your voice heard,” Murphy said. “In academia, it’s a bit more recognized to go around the table and hear everybody’s view. When I’m in an industrial meeting, you sometimes have to work hard to get your voice heard.”
She doesn’t believe being a woman has prevented her from reaching her professional goals, though she realizes that she can be less aggressive when pursuing jobs and won’t promote herself as boldly as a male candidate might. She often sees the same behavior in other women.
“The women don’t write as directly and don’t put their accomplishments in as much grandeur,” she said. Conversely, applications from male candidates sometimes leave her skeptical that they’ve achieved all that they claim.
“I have to constantly remind some people I work with that unconscious bias does exist,” Murphy said. “The awareness of what it is, is growing.”
But the bias can be difficult to identify. “If you were passed over it’s hard to know if it was because that was at play,” she said, “or your own personality wasn’t to push the agenda.”
UW Computer Science, B.S., 1995. Current job: Fantasy romance novelist.
Computer science wasn’t among the most popular academic pursuits for women in the mid-‘90s, but when both of your parents are computer engineers for NASA, your perspective is a little skewed.
“I knew I wanted to go into computer science for a long time and never considered anything else,” said Amy Raby. She learned C-programming in high school and did an internship at IBM between high school and college. She kept working at IBM when she enrolled at the University of Texas.
But after an internship at Microsoft, the growing tech company offered her a full-time job midway through her sophomore year. She transferred to the UW where she finished her degree and worked 30 hours a week at Microsoft.
She loved the field of technology, despite it being male dominated. The fact that her mother was a developer was an inspiration.
“I just liked the problem solving aspect of it, the sense I could create anything I wanted,” she said.
“Anything you needed you could build it by programming.”
Raby said she did experience some sexual harassment in the industry in the early days.
“It could happen anywhere. I was also harassed at IBM,” she said. “It may happen more in tech just because there are more guys. There are just more men and more possibilities of running into that kind of a jerk.”
Raby hopes more women decide to pursue careers in technology.
“If you look at gaming software in particular, a lot of gaming is aimed at guys,” she said. “Having more women’s voices is going to mean more software that meets the needs of women. And it’s just a better work environment.”
Raby stayed at Microsoft for nearly a decade, working as software design engineer and ultimately a development manager. But she suffered a repetitive strain injury that made typing painful and also had her first child. Her husband worked at Microsoft as well, and Raby decided to make the needs of her body and her family her priority. She left the company. The couple had a second child, and overtime Raby began looking for a professional outlet.
She discovered fiction writing and made a career writing fantasy romance books. She enjoys the work, which doesn’t require as much typing as coding did. But she still misses the field.
“If I could have a tech job where I work 20 or 30 hours a week, I might do that,” Raby said.
But her fear is that finding a job limited to even 40 hours a week might be hard to come by, plus she would need to update her skills.
Working so many hours, she said, “it’s really hard to balance that with anything else in your life.”
UW Computer Engineering, B.S., 1995; Master’s in Human Centered Design and Engineering, 1998. Current job: Microsoft, Principal Design Director for HoloLens
When Bojana Ostojic decided to pursue a computer science degree, being a woman in a male-dominated field was not troubling to her. She had much bigger issues to consider.
As a student in her native Yugoslavia, Ostojic had focused on math and informatics in preparation for an architecture career. But in her final year of high school, she came to America as an exchange student, and everything changed.
“My country fell apart and civil war broke out,” she said. “I went into a mode of survival and how do I make it, and the early ‘90s were all computers.”
So Ostojic enrolled in the UW’s Computer Science and Engineering program and found a job as an intern at Microsoft. Money was tight, but Ostojic was focused and earned her bachelor’s degree in 1995 — the same year that the war ended in Croatia, now her home country.
Ostojic kept working at Microsoft, then left to earn a master’s at the UW, where her studies combined elements of the humanities with engineering. Grad school provided her with a “college experience,” Ostojic said. “The bachelor’s was under such strife.”
She returned to Microsoft in 1999. Over time she has moved into the design side of technology, which more fully satisfies her passion for creative work that originally drew her to architecture. Her current role is leading a design team that’s part of HoloLens.
“I’m more of a bridge between engineering and design,” Ostojic said. She regrets that design still feels somewhat marginalized in Microsoft’s overall structure. “It’s never righteously in its leadership position.”
In her early jobs, Ostojic said she didn’t mind the disparity in the number of men versus the number of women. In fact, she viewed her minority status as something of an accomplishment and she was proud to help pave the way for other women pursuing careers in the field. “It was my measure of success that I was one of only a few women,” Ostojic said. “That [notion] definitely has matured since.”
Now Ostojic is trying to understand how gender could affect her career trajectory and her growing role as a technology leader.
“Statistically speaking, how many women have moved beyond this point?” she wondered. “It gets to be less and less women the farther up I go, and what does that bring and what does that mean?”
While there are different groups at Microsoft to support women and discuss ways to improve their inclusion and increase their numbers, Ostojic is a little leery of the efforts.
“It seems counter to what it is supposed to stand for,” she said. “You’re separating [women into these groups] in order to make the claim that you shouldn’t be separated.”
Ostojic also worries about the pursuit of a tidy solution to gender inequality in technology. She has grown tired of checklists and quotas that circumvent conversations about the real issues at play.
“It’s dangerous to look for a fix,” she said. People might think they’ve found a solution and move on. “You need to keep talking about it and stay in the gray.” People need to keep asking who or “what are we not representing — what is not clicking?”
UW Computer Science, Ph.D., 1990. Current job: Microsoft, senior PM manager in Azure Engineering Systems
Gail Alverson has built the tech career that she wanted, on her own terms. But there have been trade offs.
For 23 years, Alverson worked at Tera Computer, a Seattle-based super-computing company that later became Cray. When she started at Tera, the company was small and she quickly moved into a management position. A few years into the job, she started having children, and was able to negotiate a four-day work week.
“What I gave back was I would always work some at home on my fifth day off,” Alverson said. Working less than full time “did affect some of my career opportunities, the things that I would go for,” she said. “I didn’t put my hand up because I wouldn’t be able to do it on a four-day week.”
But the schedule meant she could volunteer at her kids’ schools on Fridays. “It was a real win,” she said.
At Cray, discrimination never appeared to be an issue, and on the contrary, there were many women in leadership roles. “I saw women in very high-level positions, and I think it was based on their accomplishments and what they were striving for,” Alverson said. If she didn’t take on bigger roles herself, “that was my choice in terms of time and in terms of travel. There is opportunity, but there are these considerations [around family].”
But as the years went by and her children grew up, Alverson decided it was time for a change.
“It was that desire for more knowledge and breadth,” she said. With encouragement from fellow UW grad Cathy Palmer, Alverson took a job at Microsoft a little less than two years ago. She’s working as a senior PM manager — meaning that she manages other program managers — in Azure Engineering Systems.
“I do look around the room at meetings I’m in, and I can be the only woman in the room. But that is not unusual,” Alverson said. “I don’t feel one way or another that it gives me an advantage or disadvantage, it’s just interesting.
“A challenge as a woman that I sometimes see is getting my voice heard more. It’s not because of my ideas — it’s the volume I speak at,” she said. “I do have to push myself and keep talking even if someone else is talking, or jump in more actively.”
She does see an effort at Microsoft to address some of these challenges.
“There is actually training around this that people take at Microsoft, to be more aware of unconscious bias,” Alverson said. “I have seen positive steps from people who see me wanting to have a voice, and that is really encouraging.”