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The Importance of Role Models by Caroline Simard

Close your eyes. Imagine the CEO or CTO of a high tech company. Who do you see? For most people, the answer is "white" and "male", because there is such a lack of diversity of role models at that level. Ask a young girl what she sees when she thinks "computer scientist" or "technologist"; unless she has role models in her family, she will probably imagine a man. Role models and mentors play a critical role in women’s career success. However, research shows that women in technology are likely to suffer from a lack of mentors and role models.

Close your eyes. Imagine the CEO or CTO of a high tech company. Who do you see? For most people, the answer is “white” and “male”, because there is such a lack of diversity of role models at that level. Ask a young girl what she sees when she thinks “computer scientist” or “technologist”; unless she has role models in her family, she will probably imagine a man. Role models and mentors play a critical role in women’s career success. However, research shows that women in technology are likely to suffer from a lack of mentors and role models. For example, the annual UC Davis Census of Women in Business in California finds that nearly half of the 400 largest firms in California have all male executive teams, with the software, hardware, telecommunications and semiconductor sectors trailing behind other sectors in terms of female representation in the board room.

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That report lists companies that have no female executives or directors, including a long list of high-technology companies.

For girls and women from under-represented minorities, the absence of role models is even greater. In our study of technical women in industry, Climbing the Technical Ladder (www.anitaborg.org/news/research), we found no Latina women at the highest level of companies, and the proportion of African American women falls from 4.6 percent at the entry level to 1.6 percent at the high level jobs. For young Latina and African American women, this complete absence of role models sends them a strong message that this is not a welcoming career path. One technical Latina woman we interviewed reflected that “I’m the only Hispanic person in my group … There are very few Hispanics in my technical field. Sometimes I look around and I’m ‘both’: I’m the only Hispanic and the only woman.”

Fortunately, many organizations are working to address the lack of role models in technology. Our Women of Vision Awards ceremony (coming up on April 30 – http://anitaborg.org/wov/) and Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (www.gracehopper.org) shines the light on the accomplishments of women in technology and provides powerful role models- the Anita Borg Institute You Tube Channel showcases many of them. The National Center for Women & IT (www.ncwit.org) showcases interviews with women entrepreneurs who have made a mark using technology.

Many other organizations are working on increasing the visibility of role models for women in technology.

Who is your role model?