Breaking Barriers to Entry & Success for Women in Tech
Consultant, Speaker and Co-Founder, Grace Hopper Celebration
About this episode
In this podcast episode, Margot interviews Telle Whitney, a highly accomplished woman in the tech industry. Telle is best known for her 15 years as CEO of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, also known as AnitaB. Anita Borg was a close friend of Telle’s, and when Anita fell ill, Telle stepped in and made AnitaB into the world-renowned organization focused on advancement for female technologists that it is today. Before running AnitaB, Telle was a well-known engineer, then a leader and executive in software and product engineering. During their conversation, Margot and Telle explore the vital work of organizations like AnitaB and WiDS, which aim to support women in overcoming systemic barriers to entry and success in the tech industry.
Telle Whitney began her career in the tech industry in 1986 after earning a Ph.D. in computer science from Cal Tech. Her journey into graduate studies was sparked by an encounter with graphics during her undergraduate studies at the University of Utah. Although she initially wasn’t interested in graphics, the idea of computer-aided design fascinated her, and she was drawn to work with Ivan Sutherland, a co-founder of the computer science department at Cal Tech.
Throughout college, Telle learned various programming languages, starting with C as an undergraduate and later delving into object-oriented languages like Simula and Mainsail. While she hasn’t programmed in years, Telle acknowledges that programming languages evolve and change rapidly, but once you understand the core concepts, transitioning to a new language becomes relatively easy.
Reflecting on her path into computer science, Telle admits that she had no exposure to the field during high school, which is a common experience for many young girls. “It wasn’t until my sophomore year, where I was at my wit’s end of trying to figure out what to study, and I took this interest test that compared your interests to other people’s interests and programming came out on top.”
From her first programming class, Telle knew she had found her calling, even though she started later than many of her peers. Telle’s love for programming stems from its logical nature. “When you’re writing a program, and you’re trying to solve this problem, it is so absorbing. I would become completely captured with whatever I was working on at the time, and it was very fulfilling, no question.”
She advises aspiring coders to ignore the myth of natural ability in programming and the notion that girls are not good at math. Persistence and patience are key in navigating the challenges that arise, and the belief in one’s ability to succeed is crucial.
Discussing the persistent stereotypes and biases that deter women and people of color from pursuing careers in tech, Telle, and Margot highlight the prevalence of these harmful beliefs even today. Despite efforts to increase diversity, Telle emphasizes that more needs to be done to ensure the best minds participate in shaping the future of technology. Both Telle and Margot stress the significance of representation, with Margot outlining the WiDS goal of achieving at least 30% female representation by 2030, given that the current representation stands at a mere 10%. Such representation can help drive a cultural shift and improve the treatment of underrepresented groups.
Telle dedicated 20 years to working full-time in the chip industry, actively striving to bring about change within the field. Concurrently, she collaborated with her close friend Anita Borg on the Grace Hopper Celebration, an initiative aimed at celebrating women who create technology. When Anita fell ill with brain cancer, Telle was asked to step into the role of CEO. During her 15-year tenure, Telle successfully expanded Anita Borg into a prominent organization.
Although she hadn’t planned to take on this role initially, Telle saw it as a valuable opportunity and made a conscious pivot. She has since left Anita Borg to establish her own consulting firm, proud of the impact she made and the organization’s continued influence under new leadership.
The lack of progress in achieving diversity in the tech industry is a cause of concern for Telle. Breaking down barriers and changing the perception of what a technologist looks like remains an ongoing challenge.
Telle’s particular interest lies in fostering a more inclusive culture within organizations. While community plays a vital role, Telle believes that actual cultural change stems from providing equal opportunities for advancement.
Offering advice to aspiring data scientists, Telle urges them to take risks, develop confidence in their ideas, and master effective communication. She emphasizes the importance of curiosity and creativity in shaping the future and encourages aspiring data scientists to be at the forefront of technological advancements. “I want you to be at the table creating a technology that’s going to change our lives. That’s what you should do.”
About the Host
Stanford Professor [Emerita] Margot Gerritsen is the Executive Director and co-founder of Women in Data Science Worldwide (WiDS) and born and raised in the Netherlands. Margot received her MSc in Applied Mathematics from Delft University of Technology before moving to the US in search of sunnier and hillier places. In. 1996 she completed her PhD in Scientific Computing & Computational Mathematics at Stanford University and moved further West to New Zealand where she spent 5 years at the University of Auckland as a lecturer in Engineering Science. In 2001, she returned to Stanford as faculty member in Energy Resources Engineering. Margot was the Director of the Institute for Computational & Mathematical Engineering (ICME) at Stanford from 2010-2018 and the Senior Associate Dean for Educational Affairs in Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences from 2015-2020. In 2022, Margot took Emerita status to devote herself to WiDS full time. Margot is a Fellow of the Society of Industrial & Applied Mathematics, and received honorary doctorates from Uppsala University, Sweden, and the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. She now lives in Oregon with her husband Paul.