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Office of the First Lady

"Why You’re Cool"

Keynote Address at the National Center for Women and Information Technology
Indiana Awards Ceremony for Aspirations in Computing
One America Building
Indianapolis, Indiana
January 19, 2011

Introduction

Thank you Bobby. I am delighted to be part of this evening’s awards ceremony, and to help celebrate such a terrific group of young women. And anyway, who wouldn’t want to hang out with the cool kids? I titled my talk this evening, “Why You’re Cool,” for lots of reasons:

  • You are cool because you are some of the top technology talent in the nation, and your talent has just been recognized with a one of a kind award.
  • You are cool because you are brilliant problem solvers who push the limits of your imaginations.
  • You are cool because where some of your friends can only download apps, you can create them.
  • You are cool because you can look forward to a well-paying career in one of the hottest, fastest growing sectors of the economy.
  • You are cool because you’re helping us all break down gender stereotypes, and because you refuse to be defined by them.

You probably all hear from those of us a bit older than you that the opportunities that brought you here tonight were not always out there. You’ve probably heard that there was a time when had you expressed an interest in math or science; you would have been told that these were not suitable careers for women. 

You’ve probably heard that there was a time when, had you gotten a college degree or even a Ph.D. in engineering, or biochemistry, or statistics, that the only job you could find was as a teacher, and likely not at the college level. You may have heard that there was a time when there weren’t awards for young women like you, and no national organization like NCWIT celebrating your achievements.

I have a feeling that you all might be just a little bit tired of hearing about the bad old days, that you feel pretty darn proud of what you’ve accomplished and you’d like to look forward, not back.  And so you should! 

But I also know from my own experience that it helps to understand how change happens, because all of you, on top of the very impressive achievements that brought you here tonight, are change agents for your own futures and for your younger sisters’ futures too. 

A Personal Perspective

I can relate a little to what I imagine you’re experiencing, listening to those older than you reflect on the past.  I came of age during the second wave of feminism in the late 1960s and 70s, and my professors and mentors would say they worried that my generation would rest on THEIR laurels and become complacent about the need for continued hard work that would ensure that their gains weren’t lost. 

I benefitted hugely from those gains and the older I get the more grateful I am to those earlier pioneers.  I certainly didn’t experience the kind of discrimination and restrictions my mother did, when she, who loved chemistry, was prodded into majoring in history because she surely would not be able to get a job as a chemist or even as a chemistry teacher. 

I expected to be economically self-sufficient and to have a career, even if I got married, and it seemed that I could do anything I wanted. I got a real kick out of pursuing a career in IT, even though I had intended to get a Ph.D. in history, because there weren’t very many women in computing and because, then as now, it was cool. 

But as I got older, deeper and more subtle challenges became clear. 15 years into my career, there were still very few women in programming or engineering positions, and fewer still in management ranks, particularly at the top.

When my first husband and I decided to start a family in the early 80s, I had to save up all my vacation and sick leave to get enough time off after my kids were born – job-protected maternity and child care leaves of absence were not yet fully part of the working world.  And even in 1995, when my oldest daughter was 12 and struggling with algebra, her math teacher told her that it was okay if she got a “C” because she probably wasn’t going to grow up to be a mathematician.  

What a terrible message for any young person, especially a young woman, in an era when most jobs require at least some technical literacy! I should tell you that same daughter went on to major in theater in college, possibly proving her middle school math teacher right, but not before she showed her up by getting an “A” in AP Statistics in high school. Everyone needs sound math skills and a good understanding of the scientific process, and fortunately, my daughter didn’t let her teacher’s attitude affect her own.

A Story of Unsteady Progress

We can scan the landscape today and see plenty of evidence that there’s more to do to ensure that young women as well as young men are supported and encouraged to pursue scientific and technical fields, because our country and indeed the world, needs every one of our brightest students to engage in innovation, invention and discovery.

But a report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that women in computer and information sciences actually declined in the last 25 years.  

In 1984, 37% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer science and computer engineering went to women. While women have made inroads in stereotypically male fields like mathematics, biology, and chemistry, surveys by the Computing Research Association show that in 2004, only 17% of undergraduate computer science degrees were awarded to women, down from 19% in 2000.  

The good news is that 2004 appears to be a low point and the numbers are inching back up. Today, one in five computer science degrees are awarded to women.

So progress is being made and it will continue, thanks to a broad array of efforts, and of course, thanks to role models like you. NCWIT is just one of the many organizations designed to support women’s participation in computing and technology.

The National Science Foundation and other entities have developed bridge programs to transition high school graduates into computer science majors in college, as well as programs to motivate undergraduate students to remain in the field. Many universities have developed Women in Science programs, and several founded interdisciplinary IT studies, such as Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing.

Visionary corporations, such as IBM, who are committed to diversifying the workforce, collaborate with faculty members at many universities to ensure curricula stay up to date and that retention programs for women and minorities are effective. Changes in personnel practices that give mothers (and fathers) more flexibility to attend to family needs have boosted the number of those staying in the workforce.

And evolution in society’s perceptions of female scientists, engineers, and technologists is helping. We’ve gotten a lot more comfortable associating femininity with brains—how many of you have seen the “Science Cheerleaders” videos on YouTube? I loved a recent NPR commentary by a senior director at Google who talked about how much she loves programming, so much so that she even thinks of how she organizes her wardrobe as a big information science exercise. It’s cool to be a girl who loves science!

This is how change happens, one effort at a time, one person at a time showing the way, and by not letting setbacks deter future progress.

Agents of Transformation

Tanzeem Choudhury, a researcher at Dartmouth, who was recently named one of the Top 35 Innovators under 35 by MIT, works on developing machine learning techniques that can analyze how humans interact with each other.

To her, computer science is a collaborative field in which new ideas and discoveries are the result of teamwork. Taking note of the many stereotypes that serve as barriers for women, she says hardened notions about gender-specific abilities take a while to go away. She advises young women to ignore the stereotypes and talk to other women working in computer science to get a clear idea of what the field is like and what it has to offer.

To her wise words, I would add, don’t be afraid to take some risks—the rewards could be enormous and you’ll find that not hitting your goal teaches you the most about yourself and the world—and the world is far more forgiving than you might think.

I urge you to build strong social and professional networks through organizations such as NCWIT. Seek strong role models and become mentors to those who come after you.  Believe me, you will be looked to for guidance and examples, so seek out growth opportunities, have fun, and let your brilliance shine!

Conclusion

I’ve always loved the words of Mahatma Gandhi that we should each “be the change we wish to see in the world.” In addition to leading the next wave of discoveries in the exciting field of information technology, you have the potential to transform the field, to change the face of IT. I know you will make the most of that opportunity, and that you will never lose your cool!

Thank you!

Read about the National Center for Women & Information Technology »»

Read about the Indiana Aspirations for Women in Computing 2010-11 Competition »»