Dr. Anita Borg, breaking barriers for women computer scientists

Technology has taken on an almost unprecedented importance in our lives: it has become key to human progress and to overcoming the many challenges facing the world today. The future of computing promises an array of exciting developments (think of quantum computers, for example) that will revolutionize everything from personal devices to large industrial projects. And yet, women remain woefully underrepresented in technology, even more so than in other industries. One of the leading organisations fighting against this inequality is the Anita Borg Institute, a non-profit based in Palo Alto, California, and founded by the formidable Dr. Anita Borg. DiscovHER pays homage to this trailblazing computer scientist.

“Around the world, women are not full partners in driving the creation of new technology that will define their lives. This is not good for women and not good for the world… Women need to assume their rightful place at the table creating the technology of the future.” - Dr. Anita Borg

Ask any woman in technology about who inspires her and there is a good chance she’ll name Dr. Anita Borg. Dr. Borg was an excellent computer scientist, but she really became known thanks to her pioneering efforts to promote women in technology. Born in Chicago in 1949, she worked in numerous computing companies including the Digital Equipment Corporation, where she stayed for 12 years before joining Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Centre) as its Chief Technology Officer.

Throughout her career, Dr. Borg experienced numerous incidents that reminded her that sexism was alive and well in the technology industry. When looking for her first job in New York, the newspaper advertisements were still separated into jobs and women and jobs for men.

But it wasn’t until she went to a computing symposium in 1987, attended by precious few women, that she was really inspired to take action. After meeting the other women at the conference, all of whom were struck by their scarce number, Dr. Borg founded Systers, a mailing list reserved exclusively for women engineers with advanced technical knowledge. Discussions were reserved for technical topics, but Dr. Borg occasionally allowed the conversation to steer towards other important subjects. Systers memorably fought against a Barbie doll developed in 1992 that was programmed to say “math class is tough,” and the group succeeded in getting this infamous line removed from the doll’s microchip.

Dr. Borg’s next initiative was to found the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing with Dr. Telle Whitney in 1994, a conference for women in technology that continues to this day and that will host over 18,000 attendees in 2017.

Arguably Dr. Borg’s most ground-breaking contribution to advancing women in technology was the founding of the Institute for Women and Technology (since renamed the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology since Dr. Borg’s death in 2003; ABI). ABI runs a variety of programs aimed to increase women’s role and participation in technology, such as publishing an influential annual list of the most women-friendly tech companies in the US. Amongst ABI’s other initiatives is a host of awards recognising women’s contributions in computing, and a toolkit designed to help women to break into the tech sector.

Dr. Anita Borg passed away in 2003, but she left behind an enormous legacy and remains an inspiring figure for women in technology around the world.

For Women in Science

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