Laurie Burns McRobbie

NCWiT Aspirations in Computing Awards

Introduction and Welcome

Thank you, Maureen, and good evening. It’s great to be here among such talented and aspirational young women!

I also want to extend thanks to Michele, for kicking off this wonderful event, and to Lamara, for planning this celebration and inviting me to speak tonight. And to Eva, thank you for your regional leadership of NCWIT. You have much to be proud of with an incredible year of growth for the Aspirations of Computing awards program.

98 applications submitted – the most received since the first round of awards six years ago and an 8% increase over last year’s number, coming from 54 different high schools across the state. Our winners come 16 high schools and 11 counties, and represent all levels: 2 freshmen, 3 sophomores, 4 juniors, and 15 seniors. And of the current winners, 8 are winning the award for the second time, and 3 are winning it for the third time!

Let’s recognize our three-time winners:

Gayatri Balasubramanian

Madison Thomas, and

Michelle Flora

Congratulations and very well done!

We’re also recognizing Mindy Johns of New Albany as the Educator of the Year tonight. Mindy will be retiring at the end of this year, and we’ll miss her. From the inception of this award, she has encouraged many young women to apply. Mindy, thank you!

You Are Awesome!

And congratulations to ALL of you who have received awards and honorable mentions, and congratulations and thanks as well to your families who have supported you in your efforts. I’m delighted to be here with so many awesome young women! • You are awesome because you are some of the top technology talent in the nation, and your talent has just been recognized with a one of a kind award.

  • You are awesome because you are brilliant problem solvers who push the limits of your imaginations.
  • You are awesome because where some of your friends can only download apps, you can create them.
  • You are awesome because you can look forward to a well-paying career in one of the hottest, fastest growing sectors of the economy.
  • You are awesome because you’re helping us all break down gender stereotypes, and because you refuse to be defined by them.
  • And, you’re awesome because you represent the future, and at a time when we have never needed bright, talented, and motivated people entering the tech sector more, and helping to create the kind of future that works for everyone. Technology, as we know, is everywhere, in everything, affecting the quality of our communities and individual lives. We need a diverse workforce to ensure that this tech-enabled world we live in is responsive to the needs of a diverse society.

So, everyone, welcome to the future!

The Past Teaches Us About the Present

But as much as we celebrate what lies ahead for you, and commit to continuing to help you achieve your goals, tonight I also want to talk a little about the past, including my own – I’ll give you a quick overview of my own story and offer what I hope are useful lessons learned – and also talk about how those who came before us contributed to getting us to today, because it’s easy to forget and thus miss out on all we can learn from previous generations.

In the context of women in technology, you’ve probably heard from those of us a bit older than you that the opportunities that brought you here tonight were not always out there.

You’ve probably heard that there was a time when had you expressed an interest in math or science or computing, you might have been told that these were not suitable careers for women.

You’ve probably heard that there was a time when, had you gotten a college degree or even a Ph.D. in engineering, or biochemistry, or statistics, that the only job you could find was as a teacher, and likely not at the college level.

You may have heard that there was a time when there weren’t awards for young women like you, and no national organization like NCWIT celebrating your achievements.

You may have heard that even when women achieved tremendous things in science and technology, they weren’t recognized for their accomplishments.

How many of you have seen the movie “Hidden Figures”? Or read the book? For me, I was simultaneously inspired and also a little embarrassed. I was a history major in college and had a 25-year career in tech, but I had no idea that those “female computers” even existed.

I shouldn’t really be embarrassed – the history books do a pretty good job of telling a different story and about different kinds of people (who certainly deserve to be written about).

But for me, and I hope for you, it is deeply empowering to hear about what these women did, because it gives us a sense of belonging. These are most definitely suitable careers for women, and they are not limited to only certain kinds of jobs, and we can and should celebrate that. And it’s humbling – as hard as we think it may be today, it was so much harder for them, and they didn’t give up. It’s a crucial lesson about persistence and sacrifice.

A Personal Perspective

Reading about the past may be exciting for some or all of you, but I can also imagine that, with so much ahead of you, you could be a little tired of hearing about how things used to be. And I can relate to this. I came of age during the second wave of feminism in the late 1960s and 70s, and several of my professors always said they worried that my generation would rest on THEIR laurels and become complacent about the need for continued hard work that would ensure that their gains weren’t lost. I remember acknowledging this but also just getting back to what I was doing and what lay ahead.

But of course, I benefitted hugely from those gains. I certainly didn’t experience the kind of discrimination and restrictions my mother’s generation did. I expected to be economically self-sufficient and to have a career, even if I got married, and it seemed that I could do anything I wanted.

I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the daughter of a University of Michigan faculty member (my father) and community leader (my mother) who served on City Council and ran for Mayor in the 1960s, only the second woman in Ann Arbor’s history to do so. Both of my parents were very community oriented, and their values and actions very much formed my own ideas about civic engagement and citizenship. And my mother’s example certainly blazed a path for me.

I originally thought I’d get a PhD in history, but partly through my first husband, who got into computing in the 1960s when he was high school, I found opportunities in information technology, particularly in computer networking. It was the early 1980s, the first PC had just come out and the TCP/IP protocols had just been standardized. So I got caught up in this huge wave of innovation, and despite having never written a single line of code, I was hooked. It was an exciting time, and then, the fact that there weren’t all that many women in computing was part of the excitement. We were in the vanguard, breaking barriers in this cool, new field, not realizing that many had actually been there before us.

I went to work for the state computer networking organization in Michigan, and then at the University of Michigan in its central IT organization, where I was a senior director. In late 1999, I went to Internet2, a national consortium of research universities, government labs, and industry, doing next generation Internet development, where I eventually became a vice president. I was fortunate and I loved it, and felt that I was succeeding at something important.

But as time went on and my career progressed, it became clear to me that things were not moving quite the way I thought they would for women in tech in general.

15 years into my career, there were still very few women in programming or engineering positions, and fewer still in management ranks, particularly at the top. My own management career was not a technical one; I was in charge of user services and user relations. And 25 years after I got my start, the number of women earning degrees in computer science had actually fallen, quite dramatically. In 1984, about the time I started out, over a third of CS degrees in the U.S. went to women. In 2007, it was about 12%. The numbers are inching back up, but we’re still not back to where we were a generation ago.

And I realized that although there were lots of reasons for the falloff in participation, a piece of it was that I and others in my generation hadn’t been intentional enough about preserving the gains of those who came before us. I hadn’t been doing enough to reach back, to mentor younger women, or even to notice that fewer women were coming in.

Everyone Has a Story to Tell

I’m here tonight, talking with you, because, in a sense I woke up, and started paying attention again. So let me tell you a little more about that, and how I got to Indiana University.

I told you about my career in computer networking and IT, and going to Internet2. Well, Internet2 was also where I met Michael McRobbie, who is now IU’s 18th president but who was then the Chief Information Officer at IU. In 2003, we were both widowed, and as we each came out of that experience we discovered we had a lot more in common than computer networking! In 2005, I moved to Bloomington and we were married. In 2007, Michael became IU’s 18th President, and I became IU’s First Lady. I always like to say that it’s a good thing I’m comfortable with change!

My Leadership Journey

As I was thinking about my remarks for this evening, knowing I would be speaking to the next generation of tech leaders, I wanted to reflect on my evolution as a leader, as well as how my leadership identity has been shaped by my role as First Lady. I wasn’t a super-involved teenager as I suspect many of you are, nor was I a super-involved college student – I spent a lot of my time in the library and joined a few groups, but didn’t really plunge in.

My leadership awakening came in the workplace, fairly early in my career, when the opportunity arose to join the University of Michigan’s Commission for Women, which was a cross-campus group advocating for improved policies and practices affecting women. I eventually became its chair, and discovered that being out in front was much more part of my identity than I’d realized.

I also remember being both excited and terrified – I really wanted to help change things (this was before we even had things like job-protected maternity leave, or even very many women faculty or senior administrators), but I didn’t know how to do that. This experience of being both scared and thrilled followed me into my first management job, and in later ones even as I gained experience.

This is where connections and relationship networks matter the most, and I simply wouldn’t have been able to pursue that first leadership opportunity, nor those that came later, without others, both women and men, who were encouraging me and to whom I could turn to for advice or just to vent the inevitable frustrations.

But I would not be telling a completely accurate story if I left out the times when I ignored advice, or simply didn’t ask for it because I was embarrassed at not knowing how to accomplish a certain task or figure out a strategy to surmount an obstacle. I also left a lot of opportunity on the ground because I didn’t seek a mentor at the right moments, or because I saw their advice as a sign that I was lacking in some essential skill – they had seen through me, that I wasn’t really as good as I wanted to be.

These are common experiences, I think especially for women – we know them as “the imposter syndrome” and other ways that stereotypes trip us up. For what it’s worth, even the most outwardly accomplished leaders struggle with this. That’s cold comfort when you’re the one feeling incompetent and exposed, but it’s part of the process of growth, if you’re willing to embrace it and let yourself be a learner at the same time you’re the one in charge.

Fast forward to now, when naturally, a large piece of my leadership identity stems from my role as IU’s First Lady. Being first lady is a unique position, to say the least, especially for a second-wave feminist with a successful tech career, and who has been interested in women’s equality and leadership all my life. Needless to say, this wasn’t part of my career plan – I didn’t exactly apply to be First Lady – and it was a jolt to adjust to not being fully in charge of own independent life.

But I discovered quickly that while the role can be constraining, it is simultaneously liberating. It’s constraining in that there are certain limitations on what I can say and do, particularly during election season – we’re a public university, after all – and that can dictate where I need to be on many nights of the week and the weekend, and even what I should wear (hint: it’s red).

But the role is also freeing, in part because people don’t really know what I do, and don’t always know how to put me in proper context. I discovered early on that this ambiguity was a major advantage – I get to define my own agenda and pursue the things I truly care about.

And along with this freedom of choice, I gained something of a “bully pulpit” as First Lady. I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity! I think the lesson here is that you don’t always get to choose your opportunities – the question is just whether you recognize them, and capitalize on them.

And one of the things I cared about was addressing the gender gap in IT. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be at Indiana University at the same time as Maureen, and thus have had the extraordinary good luck to be able to work with her on how we can close that gap. Maureen and I have collaborated on a few projects and I want to tell you about the one I think we’re most proud of, as an example of the kinds of efforts that can make a real difference.

Role with CEWiT

In my introduction, Maureen mentioned the Center of Excellence for Women in Technology, or CEWiT, which she and I along with two other colleagues founded on the IU Bloomington campus. CEWiT is the nation’s first – and we believe only – large-scale, interdisciplinary, university-based initiative that promotes the participation, empowerment, and achievement of women in tech.

Increasing the number of women in computing and information technology is fundamental to CEWiT’s mission. But we’re is also committed to a larger and I believe more visionary goal: we strive to motivate and empower women so they feel capable and competent with tech, regardless of their academic or professional field, because these days advances in nearly every discipline are propelled by digital capabilities, uses of big data, new computational approaches, and other tech-related drivers.

In other words, technology is not just for computer scientists and information scientists – it’s for everyone!

CEWiT engages more than 2,000 students, 350 faculty, 425 staff, and 1,200 alumnae affiliates, a huge, diverse and vibrant community of women at IU. CEWiT sponsors a wide range of skill-building workshops in programming, collaboration tools, project management, design thinking, and data management, to name a few; sponsors numerous opportunities for mentoring and networking; showcases tech-intensive faculty research; links staff in tech jobs and careers with their colleagues across the entire university and helps with job shadowing programs; provides undergraduates with research experiences in collaboration with faculty; holds an annual conference showcasing the work of faculty, staff and students and featuring career and job fairs; and is continually assessing the growth and needs of the community of tech-oriented women at IU. To all of you planning to attend Indiana University, I welcome and urge you to connect with CEWiT!

Call to Audience for Reflection

As I end my remarks tonight, I hope I’ve given you a few bits of wisdom, gleaned from a lot of time and experience: to keep at it even when the going is tough. To jump into new things even if you don’t know what you’re doing. To admit when you need to learn something new. To make and keep connections and networks of friends and colleagues – and to use them even when it feels embarrassing to ask how to do something you think you should know. To find the opportunities in ambiguity, whether it’s in a job description, role in a group, or a time of transition in your work or personal life. To pay attention to what’s going on around you, and be a voice for others. And to recognize that all of you, on top of the very impressive achievements that brought you here tonight, are change agents for your own futures.

But if I could give you just one piece of advice, particularly as you engage in technology where, as a woman, you may be in the minority, it is to always remember, you are where you are for a reason – you DO belong. You made choices, you prepared, you worked hard, and you are still working hard. You belong. Don’t go away. The sector needs you – we all need you, if we’re going to make all the limitless possibilities of technology work for us as human beings and improve the world.

Thank you.