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Mentor Monday: Anita Borg's Elizabeth Ames

Sarah Thomas
10/12/2015
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The Anita Borg Institute's Elizabeth Ames has one question for men who might not see why initiatives to empower, promote and find equality for women in the tech industry are important: Do you want to be winners in a rigged game?

"You're better than that. You can compete," Ames, vice president of marketing, alliances and programs for the Anita Borg Institute tells men who don't get the message.

The Anita Borg Institute is a social enterprise founded in 1994 by computer scientist Anita Borg on the belief that "women are vital to building technology that the world needs." One of the ways it does so is through the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC), now the world's largest annual gathering of women technologists, taking place this week in Houston, Texas. (See No Frat Party Here: 12,000 Computer Scientists Convene in Houston.)

Ahead of the conference, Ames explained to Light Reading why she thinks it's a great time to be a woman in tech, but also why there is still room -- lots of room -- for improvement. The glass ceiling absolutely still exists, women struggle to get the recognition they deserve and, worse, they drop out because they aren't given advancement opportunities, she says.

See the interview below for more of her thoughts on why this problem still persists and what both women and men -- of all levels -- can do about it, and follow Women in Comms online and Twitter via @sarahthomas1011 and @LR_WiC this week for coverage of the Grace Hopper Conference.

Elizabeth Ames, vice president of marketing, alliances and programs, Anita Borg Institute
Elizabeth Ames, vice president of marketing, alliances and programs, Anita Borg Institute


Light Reading will be attending the Grace Hopper Conference this week in Houston, hosted by Ames and the Anita Borg Institute for the third year. Check back to Women in Comms online for updates, news and insights from the show.


Light Reading: Recruiters often say that they simply don't have women applying to their technical jobs, so they cannot fill them with females. Is it just a pipeline problem or is it a recruiting issue?

Elizabeth Ames: It's very clear you can write job descriptions in a way that will attract women to apply to jobs and in ways so you get no women applying. The first thing I'd say is go back and look at what you are doing. We see that excuse all the time: "We just can't find any women." Then you go look at the way they write job descriptions. We know they use descriptions that will turn women off and a whole host of men off as well. They need to look at their processes -- the way they write job descriptions -- to be more welcoming.

We also see in companies we work with that when they tell recruiters to have a qualified woman on 80% of job plates, they get huge push back from recruiters who said it would take longer, and they couldn't find candidates, blah blah, and the company stuck to their guns and, lo and behold, recruiters would find someone who was qualified. Sometimes you have to dig harder or get more creative on what you're looking for here. Oftentimes they find candidates out there that are qualified, and forcing that increases women being hired.

Is the pipeline thin? Yes. The other thing we see is when there are no role models higher up in the organization, meaning when your entire senior level has no women, you will have a hard time recruiting women. It makes perfect sense. If you interview some place, and there is no one at the senior level who looks anything like you, is that somewhere you think you'd be comfortable?

Companies that have women tend to be beacons for other women, and those organizations tend to have more success attracting women. It's an ecosystem. What you have at the top in terms of roles models and visibility and breaking down stereotypes encourages women to come into the field because they see it as doable and more friendly.

LR: If you are a company with few senior female leaders that wants to become more inclusive and gender intelligent, what's the first step?

EA: If you have no women at the senior executive level, I would say "chop chop, go get on it." They are out there. Make it a priority to find some women. Look at the next job opening at the senior level and say, "I want qualified women candidates for this, and I am going to start putting women into those roles."

The other thing I would say is to identify who your high potential women are internally and make sure they are getting good assignments that will help advance their careers. Make sure they are getting promoted, and if they are not, find out why. There are a lot of things executives could do that way.

LR: What is your biggest piece of personal advice for women in comms looking to advance their careers and be promoted?

EA: The one thing I would say in particular is don't be shy in finding out what it takes to advance. A lot of times in companies no one asks, "What does it take to be promoted?" I know, myself, when I started my career, I thought I would just do a really good job and get promoted. Truth is, it doesn't work that way. Go and ask and understand what it takes to move from a manager to a director or whatever the next level is. Understand the process or what the criteria is so when it comes time, you have your ducks in a row.

The other thing I recommend they think about is, because there are stereotypes about women and men, we need a different language to talk about men and women. Oftentimes the language we use to describe men is the language of leadership. We describe women in communal language. "She is a great team player." Often it involves talking about their attributes, not necessarily their accomplishments. "He drove that project to completion. He led the team to deliver on time. She was a great team player. She was really helpful at x, y, z."

Really look at how people describe you and review you. Do they describe your attributes and personalities or do they focus on your accomplishments and your skills. If they focus on your personality, redirect them to your skills and accomplishments.

LR: As a leader, how do you practice inclusive leadership?

EA: Women work in all kinds of different ways. To the extent you can look at each person as an individual and create an environment that is inclusive and values differences, that's where you get the big win. To the extent that people can look at people as individuals and provide that inclusive environment, that's where you get the win-win.

Don't necessarily make assumptions about them. A woman that I spoke with who does a lot of work on diversity and inclusion says she was working with an organization with a male manager that he thought he was treating everyone equally. He was -- he was treating them all as a white male. They just happened to not all be white males. It was a great insightful comment that treating everyone equally doesn't mean treating them to the stereotype in your head. It's hard to wrap your head around it. I totally understand it's hard. It takes a bit of work on everybody's part. But I've seen over and over that having that more open framework in how you think about things yields huge benefits.

LR: What is your biggest piece of advice for men who either want to help create a better work environment for women or for those who don't understand why it's necessary to do so?

EA: Why is it important? Here's the basic reason it is important: Your company and our country can't afford to leave half the intellectual capital on the sideline. It's as simple as that. If you really want to have the best and brightest, a meritocracy, you have to have an inclusive environment that lets everyone in. That is not what we have today. It's very clear that's not what we have today. Women actually take home more degrees than men do already -- 57% of the degrees conferred in the country go to women and that number is going up, not down. Are we willing to leave a huge percentage of them on the sideline? That seems like a huge mistake. That's why it matters.

The other thing I would say to men is, "Really, do you want to be winners in a rigged game? You are better than that. You can compete."

What can they do if they are supporters? The biggest thing I would say is, listen to what women will have to say. Don't talk at them; listen to them. Understand their experience. Don't think you know what their experience is. Listen. The second thing is speak up when you see things happen that are wrong. When a guy talks over a woman. When everyone ignores a woman's idea. When it's one woman in a room with ten men, provide support and provide a space for her to talk.

— Sarah Thomas, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Editorial Operations Director, Light Reading

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Sarah Thomas
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Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
10/13/2015 | 12:54:11 PM
shutting down the naysayers
I asked Elizabeth a number of questions that have been posed in our comments section by those who don't understand why these issues matter or why things are the way they are. I thought she gave some good, frank answers. I'm looking forward to keeping this conversation going this week in Houston at the show. 

Let me know if you have any other topics or questions you want me to address with GHC's impressive line up of speakers and attendees.
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