Laurie Burns McRobbie

“The Power of YOU”

Coverage of the NAWBO event and an in-depth interview with Laurie Burns McRobbie >>

INTRODUCTION

Thank you, Ericka. And I want to thank all of you, as NAWBO members and guests, for your warm welcome. It is my great privilege to serve as the 2014 Trailblazers Honorary Chair.

I am also honored to share the panel with these extraordinary women. Elaine, Autumn, and Nichole, your impact as business and civic trailblazers is felt far beyond your own organizations. You three, and really, all of us here today, as accomplished and aspiring leaders both, have the power to make our world a better place.   

WOMEN AS LEADERS

There’s a Chinese saying, “women hold up half the sky.” Organizations like NAWBO bring us together and hold us accountable so that we, as a collective unit of leaders, are supporting at least our half.

Now more than ever, we need to recognize how we can increase our economic and civic impact, to understand the dynamics of good leadership, and how we can each exercise our personal influence.

Events like today’s connect and inspire us, and they also give us a chance to reflect on our own leadership journeys. In my case, and I hope in yours, I’ve had wonderful mentors and role models to light the path.  My mother, Eunice, was one of these. In 1960, with my father’s encouragement, she ran for elected office, serving six years on city council and becoming only the second woman in our city to run for mayor. 

After my father died unexpectedly in 1965, my mother returned to school to earn her master’s degree. At age 50, she re-entered the work force, remaining engaged in the community throughout her working life.  She’s now 90 and still going strong!

My mother’s willingness to take on new challenges epitomizes what has become a family motto - “Yes, YOU!”  This was my father’s response to her saying “Who, me?” when he encouraged her to run for office, and it also fit with President Kennedy’s call to public service that resonated so powerfully then, as now.

Openness to new ideas, new challenges, and risk-taking are crucial traits for any leader—and it’s especially important for women to embrace opportunities and to dream big.  WE can be the ones to break new ground and light the path for others to follow.

LIFE TRANSITIONS

Our lives, particularly as women, go in phases, and we can find ourselves looking for ways to draw threads through sometimes disconnected, often unexpected experiences. My own transition into mid-life has been a process of finding commonality across my longtime interest in women’s equality, my career in information technology, my desire to serve my community, and my deep belief in the power of education. 

Becoming IU First Lady was one of those unexpected experiences (though not unwelcome!), and it has certainly given me a unique position from which to draw the threads together.

GENDER EQUALITY IN TECHNOLOGY

Although I am no longer actively pursuing my IT career, I’ve stayed involved in the tech world, because with respect to gender balance, we still have a lot of work to do.  Though most other professions have made significant progress, IT is one area that has seen virtually no change since the 1980s when I got my start. In fact, since the turn of this century, the number of women in tech has actually declined. In 1985, 37 percent of computer-science graduates were women. In 2012, it was just 18 percent.[1]

Why is changing this so important, especially at a time when women have more freedom to choose what they want to do? There are many reasons, simple equity being one of them. Jobs in the tech sector pay well, and the wage gap between men and women is smaller than in most other industries.

But it’s also about the economy and employment. Forecasts show a tremendous need for a technically literate workforce, alongside a projected shortage of trained employees. Women, and minorities, represent a relatively untapped pool of talent. 

But the most important reason, I believe, is excellence – the health of the tech industry itself.  Multiple studies show that diverse work teams produce more creative and innovative solutions, and companies with diversity in their leadership ranks have as much as a 34% higher return on investment[2].  We need a diverse workforce to produce the products and services that respond to a varied, and global, consumer base.

We must keep working to reduce the barriers that keep women and minorities, from seeing themselves as technologists, mathematicians, engineers, and scientists. I’m proud to say that IU is doing much to address the diversity issue in technical fields and I have had the great opportunity to be involved in a number of initiatives.  As an adjunct faculty member in the School of Informatics and Computing, I co-founded ServeIT, a service-learning program that connects teams of undergraduate students with local nonprofits to provide IT support. Last October, I helped launch the Center of Excellence for Women in Technology at Indiana University. The Center unites women at IU, starting in Bloomington, to advance our technology skills no matter what discipline, department, or life stage we are in. 

WOMEN’S PHILANTHROPY

IU is also blazing a trail in another area that is also about the future, which is women’s philanthropy.  The connection women have to their communities, to social justice, and to so many important causes is inextricably linked with women’s leadership, throughout history and today.  Through the research being done at the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy – the world’s first such school – we have come to recognize the value of women’s patterns of giving, which are different than men’s.  Women are more likely to seek a deeper connection with the organizations to which we give and to demand accountability, rather than just putting our name on things. We tend towards collective forms of giving, and we value the power of networks to amplify our individual contributions.  

Using this research, the IU Foundation is working to educate alumnae and women friends about our own capacity to make a difference, and to spark creative and lasting change in the future of IU.  This work, along with our collective efforts to increase women and minorities in STEM fields, are the kinds of crucial contributions that our public institutions of higher education are making to the state of Indiana, to its economic and civic future, and indeed, to a better world for the next generation.

CLOSING

Today, I am inspired to do more just by being here with women like you, women who are working in all sectors to improve our economic and civic lives.

To my fellow panelists and the women of NAWBO, thank you for inviting me to share in this wonderful event.

Now I will turn the program over to Barb Lewis who is leading our Trailblazer discussion.



[1] Cain Miller, Claire. “Technology’s Man Problem.” New York Times 5 April 2014 Sunday edition. Print.

[2] www.catalyst.org