Sisterhood Is Digital

Anita Borg is a living legend among computer scientists. She is also leading a worldwide movement to redesign the relationship between women and technology. Some of the world’s most powerful technology companies are finally paying attention.

Despite the beautiful northern California weather, 23 eager dreamers have sequestered themselves in a windowless conference room in Santa Clara. Like so many other Silicon Valley denizens who aspire to nothing short of changing the world, this group is brainstorming exciting new product ideas. But don’t confuse this group with a typical Silicon Valley startup. For one thing, all of these dreamers are women. For another, they’ve convened at the request of a nonprofit organization, not a top venture-capital firm or investment bank. Finally, most of them aren’t Web geeks or MBAs. They are what the insiders in the technology industry rather coldly refer to as “users,” or, only slightly more affectionately, as “customers.”


This is a diverse group of people. There are two juniors from a nearby high school, one of their teachers, and three administrative assistants, as well as a leader of the Career Action Center (a well-known Palo Alto organization), a seventysomething retiree, a stay-at-home mom, and two professors — one of law, the other of psychology — from Santa Clara University. Mingling among the civilians are some women with decidedly hard-core technical credentials: prominent computer scientists from Compaq, IBM, Sun Microsystems, and Xerox. But these geeks aren’t flaunting their expertise – which is another big difference between this group and the usual Silicon Valley scene. “You are all experts,” declares Anita Borg. “This is not a focus group. Each of us is here as an expert in our own experience.”

Borg, 50, is the impresario behind this unlikely gathering. She is a Silicon Valley superstar, an accomplished computer scientist who is known for her pioneering work in fault-tolerant operating systems and for tools she developed to predict the performance of microprocessor memory systems.

But Borg is even better known — celebrated, really — for her activism on behalf of women. She created Systers, one of the world’s oldest global electronic networks of women in computer science, connecting more than 2,500 women in 25 countries. She also cofounded, with Telle Whitney, 43 (now vice president of engineering at Malleable Technologies Inc.), the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, a prestigious conference for women in computer science.


Today’s workshop, called “Technology in Support of Families,” is part of Borg’s latest — and in some ways, her most ambitious — initiative: the Institute for Women and Technology (IWT), a nonprofit group that she cofounded and heads. IWT has a small full-time staff — but some big-time backers. It’s housed at Xerox’s legendary Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Companies such as Compaq and Sun Microsystems help fund and contribute some of their best researchers to the project. Hewlett-Packard recently donated $2 million in equipment and $100,000 in seed capital to support the creation of a “virtual development center” — a research facility that is designed to help turn ideas into products.

Why would so many big-name companies support Borg’s work? Part of the answer to that question lies in the power Borg’s name wields in technology circles. Barbara Simons, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, who’s been on the Systers list for 12 years, is clear about Borg’s standing among female engineers: “She is a leader and a heroine to many women in the field. I’ve seen younger women at conferences who were just thrilled to meet her. She has those all-important leadership qualities: She’s not afraid to act on her beliefs. She has the vision to start new things and to come up with ideas for dealing with problems. She thinks big.”

John Seely Brown, 59, PARC’s director and himself a legend in computing circles, is one of Borg’s most enthusiastic supporters. “Every day,” he says, “some kind of visionary walks into my office for one reason or another, and 99% of those visionaries lack the discipline to put an idea into action. Not only does Anita have wonderfully poetic ideas, but she also has the personality, discipline, will, and desire to act on them.”


Simply put, Anita Borg knows how to write code – and how to raise hell. One of her T-shirts reads: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” Back when she worked at Digital Equipment Corp. (she spent 11 years there), she was scheduled to address her colleagues at Digital’s large internal conference. At the last minute, she threw out her prepared talk about microprocessors and instead delivered a speech titled, “Why There Are Only Seven Women Left in Research at Digital.” At a recent ceremony honoring the “Top 25 Women on the Web,” Borg accepted her award and then declared, in her trademark high-energy style: “The genius of women in this industry has not been tapped. The companies that finally figure out how to tap into that genius are going to eat everyone else’s lunch.” The response from an audience of 400 mostly young women was a rousing round of applause and a loud burst of cheers.

IWT is by far Borg’s most ambitious and far-reaching endeavor. Its premise is simple — and urgent: How can it be that “technology changes everything” (a rallying cry among those who champion all things digital) when a majority of the population has little or no say in how technology evolves? “What if,” Borg asks, “only 30-year-old women developed technology — all of it — and that technology was geared mainly for 13-year-old girls? Technology would be out of whack, out of balance. But that’s the world we live in: Men hold the power, and boys drive the market.”

Her conclusion: If one of the defining stories of the last 20 years has been women’s growing power in politics, then a defining story for the next 20 years has to be women’s growing power in technology. Women need a louder voice and a greater role in designing and selling hardware and software.


“Technology is not neutral,” Borg says. “Every invention reflects the values, perspective, background, and needs of its inventor. It’s no accident that as women began entering medicine in larger numbers, medicine began questioning whether research using only male subjects was applicable to women. The variety and impact of new digital technologies will depend on the extent to which women are involved and their needs are taken into account. Technology is going to change our political, economic, social, and personal lives. Women need to be there saying, ‘This is how we want things to change.’ “

Caroline Kovac, 47, a vice president at IBM Research and one of Borg’s many allies, is even more direct: “With the Internet, we are on the verge of epochal change. It will have a greater impact on society than the printing press has had. If women are left out, then we will be left out of one of the most fundamental changes in humankind, and we will be disenfranchised in all walks of life.”

Design as if Women Mattered

Do women really think differently from men about the role of technology in their lives? If there were more female engineers, would products be different? Does making products more relevant to women make products better in general?


IBM’s Caroline Kovac often thinks about those questions. Kovac runs an organization of 650 scientists and engineers, and she’s about as wired – complete with laptop, cell-phone, and PDA — as anyone you’ll meet. But Kovac hates many of those tools — especially her pager. She thinks it’s ugly. And when she clips it on her belt (where it’s designed to go) it makes her clothes look ugly. “This product was not designed with women in mind,” she says. “I tell my male colleagues all the time, ‘You may like to walk around with a tool belt on your waist. But that doesn’t work for women.’ They just laugh and pat me on the head.”

A few technology companies have begun to realize that women don’t relate to their products. IBM has launched a major initiative to make its products and services more relevant to women entrepreneurs. (See “How IBM Learned to Love She-Business,” page 198.) Palm Computing, the 3Com Corp. division that has sold millions of PalmPilots, has recognized that its phenomenally popular device isn’t all that popular with women. In 1997, some 90% of PalmPilot buyers were men; a year later, that figure was still at 80%. Two female engineers and one male designer, all from Ideo, a design firm in Palo Alto, set out to make the new Palm V appeal to women — while also maintaining its popularity among men. So the team asked 15 women to voice their concerns. “Normally, when you brainstorm with engineers, it’s a systematic process,” says Amy Han, 35, a mechanical engineer at Ideo. “But we wanted people to speak in broader terms: What is the future of technology products for women?” The result has been a product that’s better for women — and one that’s lighter, sleeker, and easier for everyone to use.

Of course, the Palm V is hardly a revolutionary advance; it’s a modest rethink of a product that was designed with men in mind. What might personal digital assistants be like if they’d been conceived with women in mind? “Well,” says Borg, “I find it hard to imagine that they would have been designed to fit in a ‘breast’ pocket.” More important, they wouldn’t be so personal. “PDAs and calendaring systems,” she says, “are good at keeping track of one schedule. If you ask a roomful of women, ‘How many of you keep track of just your schedule?’ you’ll probably get a meager response. The ‘one-mouse, one-keyboard’ paradigm is a very male model of computing. Forget personal digital assistants. What would a small-group digital assistant look like? Forget personal computers. What would a family computer look like?”


Those are the kinds of questions, agrees John Seely Brown, that offer the real opportunity for change. “We have to start asking tough questions about technology,” he says. “Has it really improved our lives? If it has, how has it? If it has not, why not? What new conceptual engines do we need? The challenge isn’t just to create ‘better designs.’ It’s to achieve a deeper understanding of how technology is being embedded in society. That’s our real challenge as technologists, male and female.”

Better Living through Thinking

Back at the workshop in Santa Clara, the 23 participants are embracing that challenge. The topic is a timely one: technologies that can make life better for families. The allure of the “digital living room” has fueled vast R&D budgets and countless startups. According to Borg, those initiatives have one thing in common: They are virtually devoid of women who hold positions of power. “Major companies and universities,” she tells the group, “use no women technologists to develop technology for the home.” The unsurprising result, says Borg, is that “most descriptions of the home of the future revolve around new gadgets for boys: Turn on the lights in your living room from your desktop at work! Watch the DVD player in your bedroom from your TV in your home office! The focus is usually on ‘wiring the house,’ not on serving the needs of its inhabitants.”

This group wants to arrive at a more compelling vision. To do that, it adopts a “thinking environment,” explains Sara B. Hart, 54, the group’s facilitator. The parameters: Everyone gets a turn, no one can interrupt, and when someone is talking, you have to keep “your eyes on her.” That means no idle list making, no doodling, no quick exits to use a cell-phone. “Our thinking is only as good as the quality of the attention that we give to one another when we’re trying to think,” says Hart. “Most meetings don’t get the best thinking; they get maybe one good idea — a ‘winner.’ ” Instead of a competition among ideas, the goal of this workshop is to collaborate.


The women divide into two groups and begin thinking. Soon dozens of ideas cover the walls, ranging from the practical to the outrageous. How about a personal-health monitor to gauge blood pressure, blood-sugar levels, or vitamin intake on a daily basis and to help you tailor your diet accordingly? Why not a smart “help center” that digitally stores the manuals for all of your appliances?

As the day progresses, the group reaches consensus on what it considers to be the five best ideas, which they then spec out in some detail: a home-inventory-and-control system, a medical-and-nutrition assistant, a virtual shopper, a videophone, a virtual environment, and a centralized family-scheduling computer.

The virtual environment is really popular. Imagine a digital “wall” in the home – something much bigger than a PC monitor or a TV screen. The purpose: to make it possible to visit distant friends or relatives without the expense and disruption of travel. It would be a way for grandparents to see their grandkids, to share holidays and special occasions, to feel generally more connected. With the use of well-synchronized audio and video, it would be like looking into another room.


Sound far-out? That’s the point. Compaq’s Kathy Richardson, 37, specializes in network performance and reliability and is one of the technical women who attended the workshop. “The women who were less technically knowledgeable came up with better ideas than the women who had technical expertise,” she says. “The nontechnical women were not stuck in a ‘what’s doable’ box. To them, it’s all magic — so why can’t it be magic done this way?” The next day, Richardson went back to her colleagues at Compaq, excited about the idea for a virtual wall. “A guy in my group actually told me that it would be great for playing video games,” she says wearily.

That reaction from the technology priesthood is all too typical. “If only a narrow segment of the population designs products,” says Borg, “don’t be surprised if products are relevant to only a narrow segment of the population.” That’s why Nancy Levitt, 52, program manager of corporate philanthropy at Hewlett-Packard, has agreed to spend half of her time working on the virtual development center. “This is revolutionary,” she says. “We’re not trying to design products for women. We’re trying to enable women to participate in the design of technology that will change how the world works.”

Linda Bernardi, 38, vice president of global business development at PPD Development, who is also on the Institute’s board of trustees, says, “This is not just another ‘women’s group’ dedicated to issues concerning women. We’re focused on proving that women can contribute innovations that will change the world. This is about innovations in technology that are driven by women.”


Designing the Futures of Women

Perhaps it’s fitting that the innovator who’s driving this growing movement to make technology more relevant to women nearly ended her technical career before it began. “I almost switched my major to Russian,” Borg laughs. Actually, Borg got her first taste of computing when she briefly dropped out of college. She left school after her sophomore year to support her husband at the time, who was a graduate student. She worked as a “girl Friday” in the data-processing department of a small New York City insurance company. (“Thankfully,” she says, “those jobs no longer exist.”)

Borg was intrigued by what she saw. So she picked up an IBM instruction manual and taught herself COBOL. She even got assigned to a programming project, although “they never actually made me a programmer. I left after some combination of quitting and getting fired.” A short time later, Borg got divorced — and went on to get her degree in computer science from New York University.

In the years that followed, Borg forged a model research career. She worked for important companies (Nixdorf Computer, Digital Equipment Corp.) and won patents on some important innovations. But no one ever confused her with the stereotypically awkward, ill-at-ease computer nerd. Borg has always been something of an adrenaline junkie. In the ’70s, her extracurricular passion was motorcycles. In the ’80s, she tried white-water kayaking. In the ’90s, she learned to fly — first a Cessna 152, then an Archer. Today, busy with the Institute, she contents herself with a “35-minute uphill grunt” bike ride every morning in the Palo Alto hills near PARC. She celebrated her 50th birthday by throwing a raucous party, complete with high-decibel rock and roll.


But something else has always been different about Borg. Early in her own career, she became concerned about other women who aspired to engineering or computer-science careers. In 1987, in response to those concerns, she created the Systers community — just six years after getting her PhD. And in 1994, she cofounded the Grace Hopper celebration. That event, which occurs every three years, has become a rallying point for women in computing around the world. “As a woman, you have to be in a field that has very few women to appreciate what sitting in a roomful of female colleagues feels like,” says Valerie Barr, 42, an assistant professor of computer science at Hofstra University. “Being among 400 other women computer scientists is an amazing experience. Without the conference, I could have gone my whole life without doing that.”

Borg transformed herself from informal advocate to full-time crusader after she read The Futures of Women: Scenarios for the 21st Century, by Pamela McCorduck and Nancy Ramsey (Addison-Wesley, 1996). The authors outlined scenarios that would either continue the progress toward gender equality — or cause a decline into more repressive conditions for women. “The book connected my general sense of how I think the world should be with all my work on behalf of women and technology,” Borg recalls.

In typical Borg fashion, she burst into an explosion of energy and initiative. And, as a result, her efforts have had an enormous impact on women in her field. During the past few years, Borg has taken her message to France, Germany, England, Croatia, and South Africa. The trip to South Africa especially affected her. “We held a meeting that drew 300 female scientists and engineers from 60 Third World countries,” she says. “If you think ‘women in technology’ is an oxymoron, try ‘Third World women in technology.’ I got a visceral understanding of these women — their passions and concerns, their brilliance. The experience transformed me and gave me even more motivation to do what I’m doing.”


Borg, in turn, is motivating other women. “When I met Anita,” says Kathy Richardson, “I was 28, and it was the first time that I felt I could be a woman and an engineer at the same time. I used to try not to act feminine. I wanted to fit into engineering as ‘one of the guys,’ to leave my personal identity out of it. Anita is very good at combining her professional and personal identities — and making other people comfortable with that.”

Borg “shows real leadership among women in computing,” says Telle Whitney. “People feel directly touched by what she says. Just before she spoke at the last Grace Hopper conference, she threw out her notes and just talked.”

Even when Borg speaks from prepared remarks, she tends to throw away a scientist’s typical sense of caution. At a major gathering sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Borg issued a challenge that, by her own admission, represents a “moon-shot goal.” The challenge, which she calls “50/50 by 2020,” charges that by the year 2020, half of all graduates of computer-science programs will be women. The United States is a long way from that goal. Unlike other professions, such as medicine, law, and consulting, the number of females in computer science is actually declining. According to the U.S. Department of Education, women represented roughly 30% of all college seniors receiving degrees in computer science in 1995 – down from nearly 40% in 1984.


That decline is indicative of an ongoing downward spiral. “One of the main reasons why young women say they leave computer science,” says Hofstra’s Valerie Barr, “is that they don’t feel it’s relevant. It’s really hard to get female students to understand that computer programming is relevant to their lives. But if we can point to a half-dozen projects around the country that are completely relevant to women’s lives, then that will make a big difference.”

That’s what makes this Santa Clara workshop — and Hewlett-Packard’s recent $2 million gift — so important to Borg’s Institute, whose virtual development center will support sites at universities around the country. Local women will attend workshops to brainstorm technologies and products that will be useful to them and to their families. Engineering and computer-science students will develop ways to turn those ideas into actual products. The Institute will use the Web to network with different universities, in order to share ideas and resources.

“Nothing more powerfully draws young women into this field,” says Borg, “than knowing that what they’re doing is deeply connected to the lives of real people. That’s why we’re trying to change the rules of the game to the rules that we want to play by. I’m neither interested in creating ‘female’ technology nor in identifying a new niche. I want to expand the way we technologists think about what we do and how we do things. I want to make products that are more useful to more people.”

Katharine Mieszkowski ( is a Fast Company senior writer based in San Francisco. Visit the Institute for Women and Technology on the Web ( or contact Anita Borg by email (

Sidebar: From Sisters to Systers

If you’re a man who’s ever wondered why women congregate in ladies’ rooms, or a woman who’s ever been ribbed about it, then consider this: What began as a casual chat in a ladies’ room 12 years ago has evolved into perhaps the world’s most important network for women in computer science.

Systers traces its origins to a two-stall, two-sink bathroom at an operating-systems symposium in 1987. There, Anita Borg and a fellow attendee began talking about the fact that only 25 of the 400 conference delegates were women. Soon another female attendee came in, and another, until six women were crowded into the small room. “We wouldn’t have run into each other and begun talking,” Borg says, “if it hadn’t been for the bathroom.”

As a result of that chance gathering, Borg and her colleagues decided to invite every woman at the conference to dinner. All but two showed up. The women ranged from world-class luminaries to graduate students. From that dinner meeting grew an email list, dubbed “Systers,” referring, of course, to “sisters,” but also to “operating systems.”

Today, more than a decade later, Systers has grown into an online community of 2,500 women from 25 countries. Its premise: You are not alone. In a profession where women are often isolated or end up working as “one of the guys,” Systers has become a trusted source of support and advice and a reminder that other women in computer science are out there. It’s a sounding board – a way to network and to learn from one another’s experiences and to plug into a ready-made group of mentors and peers. It’s also a forum for sharing job listings, posting conference announcements, and passing along news about women in the field.

But the real genius of Systers is that it’s not an organization; it’s a conversation — a remarkably intimate discussion among people around the world. Members tell stories of dilemmas they’re facing in their professional and personal lives and solicit advice from one another. Typical topics include ways to stay in touch with the office during an extended maternity leave, or what to do about an employer that promotes men more readily than women. “It’s like a safety net,” says Kathy Richardson, 37, a computer scientist at Compaq who’s been on the list for six years. “Send out a message about a problem you’re having, and you’ll get 50 responses with perspectives that never would have occurred to you.”

And these simple, personal questions can often lead to discussions about the impact that gender has in the workplace. Take, for example, one recent conversation that tackled the question of whether women technologists should volunteer to take the notes at meetings. Some participants took the position that it was too much like playing the role of the secretary in a roomful of guys. Others argued that there can actually be some subtle but important advantages to taking notes: After all, the person who takes the notes decides what gets recorded. “It can be a way of having influence, as opposed to being at the bottom of the heap,” explains Robin Jeffries, 51, distinguished engineer at Sun Microsystems. “Taking notes can be a way of becoming more of a power player.”

Members also use the list as a place to pose serious technical questions that, for various reasons, they may be reluctant to raise at the office. When they hear from their “Systers,” they get answers from their extremely competent peers – without being made to feel inadequate or embarrassed. Think of it as a virtual version of the new-girls’ network.

The list has even pushed forward the technical research of its creator, Anita Borg (aka, “Her Systers’ Keeper”). Over the years, she has encountered many technical challenges in the process of trying to get such a widespread group of people to communicate effectively. She developed the software, called Mecca, that manages the list. The software allows members to filter out topics they’re uninterested in, to find members who share their interests, and to search through years of messages in the virtual archives. Robin Jeffries now devotes half of her time at Sun to making Systers even easier to use, by redesigning the human interface. It’s just one more reason never to underestimate what goes on in a ladies’ room.

You can visit Systers on the Web (

Sidebar: How IBM Learned to Love She-Business

Unless you’ve spent the last year or so above the Arctic Circle, you’ve probably heard about IBM’s global research and marketing initiative dubbed “e-business.” IBM has another initiative that promises to change its relationship with customers — in this case, female customers.

Call it she-business.

“Women and men buy technology at the same rates and for the same purposes,” says Cherie Piebes, IBM’s global-market executive for women entrepreneurs and relationship marketing. “But women respond to different messages, so you have to reach them in different ways.” Adds Caroline Kovac, a vice president at IBM Research, who works closely with Piebes, “One of our customers, a vice president at a bank, recently said, ‘We’ve finally realized that we can’t reach women customers by treating them as if they are slightly smaller men.’ More companies need to think this way.”

IBM is becoming one of those companies. Piebes, Kovac, and a team of IBMers have spent the last few years wrestling with such big questions as how to recruit and retain more female engineers and how to create marketing strategies that resonate with women. After working with advocacy groups and even studying how women surf the Web, they made the following discoveries.

Woman-run businesses are big business.

“So we’re trying to understand women because it makes good business sense, not just because it feels good,” says Piebes. The United States is home to more than 9 million woman-owned companies — 38% of all U.S. companies: “More women are graduating from universities and more experienced women are working in corporate America than ever before,” she says. “Women do a great job of starting companies.” And these companies spend a lot on technology — $67 billion last year alone.

Don’t just sell products, sell service.

Women tend to value reliability over wizardry. “When a woman looks at a piece of technology,” says Piebes, “she wants to know what kind of service she can expect, what the terms of the warranty are, whether customer service has a toll-free number. We gear our marketing material to women, which means emphasizing reliability and service.”

The network is the message.

Besides who it sells to and what it sells, IBM’s she-business initiative is wrestling with a third change — how it sells. For information on products and technology, says Piebes, women entrepreneurs tend to turn to their personal networks: peers and colleagues, friends and family.

IBM’s Piebes and Kovac make one final point: No company that has lousy relationships with its female employees should expect to have productive relationships with its female customers. “You can’t successfully market to women unless you are a woman-friendly company,” argues Piebes.

You can reach Caroline Kovac by email (

Sidebar: Today’s Special Guest — Women Customers

It’s 3 pm in Manhattan, and eager studio-audience members are gathered for the taping of a talk show. The program has all the sass and “you go girl” attitude of an Oprah Winfrey Show. But today, the goal is to gain insight, not to boost ratings. And people who work for the show’s sponsor — General Motors — are the only ones who will get to watch.

“Welcome to Just Ask a Woman !” says the host, Mary Lou Quinlan. Quinlan, 45, is vice chair of the MacManus Group, an $8 billion advertising-and-communications agency, and one of the ad world’s highest-profile female executives. “This is where you tell us and the advertisers what you think about what they’re doing.”

The audience of 30 or so women bursts into enthusiastic applause. They thought they’d signed up for another boring focus group. But instead, they’re the stars of a TV show. Today’s topic: car companies and their ads. The two-and-a-half-hour conversation is filled with fun bits — like “the good-, the bad-, and the ugly-o-meter,” which lets audience members rate ads based on how those ads portray women. Quinlan bounds around the set with a wireless mic. And a question as simple as: “What did you think of that ad?” brings heated responses: “I can’t relate to it at all,” says one woman. “It’s definitely geared toward the male population.”

Like any good talk show, this one has an element of true confession: “I get orgasmic when I drive my car!” admits one audience member. Another, more sheepish participant adds, “When I turned 40, I couldn’t get my 40-year-old ass into the Camaro anymore.” That comment inspires laughs, a consoling “I know what you mean!,” and a hug from the host.

The logic behind such offbeat programming is simple: If you want to design products that are relevant to women, you’ve got to understand how your women customers think. If you want to understand how they think, you’ve got to engage them in compelling conversation. The problem with focus groups, argues Quinlan, is that they are often more like police interrogations than inviting dialogues: “Because focus groups are designed to be analytical, they treat participants as if they are lab rats. What we’re trying to do is to put women in a relaxed situation so that they can communicate openly.”

Quinlan, the former CEO of N.W. Ayer & Partners, the country’s oldest advertising agency, spent 10 years in sales motivation and marketing at Avon before she joined the ad business. So she knows a lot about listening to women customers. “During our shows, you can watch the conversational train of thought build until the women have created what they believe to be the truth,” she says. “I have much more confidence making recommendations based on that experience than based on three people responding to a focus-group question.” Now you’re talking.

You can reach Mary Lou Quinlan by email (