Laurie Burns McRobbie

Technology for Social Good: Home and Abroad

Thank you, Linda. I am delighted to celebrate the 106th year of International Women’s Day with this extraordinary group of individuals. It is my privilege to speak today about equality for women and I’m honored to share this podium with my fellow speaker, May Oo Matraw. May Oo, you are an inspirational leader and I applaud your dedication to improving lives through education. Your efforts to advocate for, educate, and empower the Burmese refugee community is just one example of the many ways you are working toward a more equitable future. Thank you, May Oo!

I also want to take a moment to thank Isabelle Masquelin, Linda Halcomb, Fran Colley, and all of the staff and volunteers from the Association of International Women who have done such a wonderful job in organizing this luncheon.

I would also like to recognize several friends and colleagues from the IUPUI campus, particularly Professor Marianne Wokeck, Director of the Institute for American Thought and chair of the IUPUI Faculty Council, and Kathy Grove, Director of the IUPUI Office of Women.  I’m also very pleased to see Ellen Rosenthal, President of Connor Prairie, and Kristin Garvey, Executive Director of the Indiana Commission for Women.


The theme of today’s event, “equality for women is progress for all”, underscores the fact that equality is not just a women’s issue. Gender parity is a human rights issue and it affects all populations, in all communities, and in all sectors. To illustrate this point, the UN’s Millennium Development Goals[1] articulate a concerted focus on educating females, which is fundamental to women’s progress. Research also shows us that investing in women’s education will not only empower women, but will positively influence a country’s GDP growth, among several other socio-economic factors. The secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) argues that, “women are the most underutilized asset in the world’s economy.”[2]

Events like today’s provide us the opportunity to celebrate the numerous and often heroic efforts made to advance women in society. Equally important, this event brings us together and inspires us to continue working towards achieving the ultimate goal:  gender parity in all communities, in all sectors, and in all nations.

Indiana University is a committed partner to this end. By establishing international relationships and developing ways to improve communities here and abroad, IU’s efforts translate into educational, cultural, and idea exchanges for the greater good – a crucial element in the global advancement of women, and thus of everyone.

As of fall 2014, IU has more than 8,500 international students. We are proud that IU Bloomington is ranked 10th out of more than 1,200 universities in the United States for the number of enrolled students from other countries.

Even more important, we have over 3,000 IU students studying abroad during their college careers, and this number ranks the Bloomington campus 5th among those same 1,200 universities in the number of college students who study abroad.

These statistics reinforce the university’s investment in developing internationally minded and diplomatically skillful citizens. However, these numbers alone do not fully capture IU’s commitment to lead in international education and enhance connections around the globe.

IU has long been an internationally focused university – for example, we teach more foreign languages, about 70 in any given academic year, than any other university in the country—and we are embarking on a new and broader phase of global engagement.

Last year, IU brought all of its language and renowned area studies programs together into a newly created School of Global and International Studies, and broke ground on a new building to house it. 

We have also recently opened Global Gateway Offices in Beijing, China and New Delhi, India. These offices will function as portals to the university for prospective and admitted students from the region, provide conference and symposia space for visiting faculty and scholars, and help keep alumni directly connected to the university. In the next academic year, we will have a third office in Istanbul and a fourth in Berlin, and by 2020 we plan to have three more, one each in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.

IU has nearly 600,000 living alumni, living and working in nearly every country in the world. We have established at least one alumni chapter in each of the 32 countries where we have the greatest concentration of alumni, partnerships with leading universities, and active faculty collaborations.  This global IU network plays a crucial role in fostering mutually supportive relationships at home and abroad.


Our international alums, like those in this country, are engaged in a wide array of careers and activities that contribute to the betterment of society, and this includes the critical issue of women’s empowerment.  

In May, my husband Michael and I, along with a number of senior IU leaders, will travel to Indonesia for the third “Asia-Pacific Alumni Conference”, to be held in Bali.  There will be a half-dozen panels focusing on economic development, effective governance, education, philanthropy, and, I’m pleased to note, leadership in women’s empowerment, a panel that I will moderate.

In southeast Asia as in every region of the world, there are influential and extraordinary women who are part of IU’s alumni community, and who are living examples of the importance of women’s education and women’s economic participation.

As I began preparing my remarks for today, I immediately thought of one of Indonesia’s most inspirational global leaders, Martha Tilaar.  She is not actually an IU alumna, but her story begins in Bloomington, and she and her husband Alex (who is an alumnus) are deeply committed to IU and to their passion for helping other women through education.

In 1966, Martha and Alex came to Indiana University so that Alex could pursue his PhD in Education. A young wife mostly on her own in a new place, Martha utilized her skills as a hairdresser to earn some extra income and meet people.  She decided to improve those skills and enrolled in the Bloomington Beauty School.  There, Martha had an epiphany about how to focus her beauty career once she and her husband returned to Jakarta, which was to build it around traditional Indonesian beauty treatments and herbal products. 

Nearly fifty years later, Martha leads an extraordinarily successful, multinational cosmetics business, is on the Forbes 100 list of the top Asian businesswomen, and is a member of the UN Global Compact. Her company owns an organic farm that produces the plants used in her products, and runs an academy to train women in the beauty business.  What is particularly inspiring about what Martha has done is her commitment to helping other women. Martha uses her wealth and position to address problems of poverty and sex-trafficking by providing scholarships to thousands of young women from rural villages so that they can develop marketable skills and escape a potentially grim life. She is especially proud of the women who have used their careers to ensure that their children go to college even if they couldn’t, thus breaking the cycle of limited opportunity.

Martha and Alex recently set up an endowment at the IU School of Education focused on women’s empowerment through education in Indonesia. Martha’s strong belief in giving back and helping young women develop is a theme that I’m sure resonates with all of us here today. Committing to the power of education to inspire countless women to further their own prospects, as Martha has done, is as laudable as it is vital for a just and equal society.


We can all play our part in creating positive change, no matter where our careers and interests take us.  And it’s imperative that we do, because there’s much work that needs to be done—especially in our technology-driven world. It is clear that women’s engagement, through education and workforce participation, is necessary to closing the gender gap in social, political, and economic arenas. However, as many of us know, the one area where this gender gap persists and needs significant intervention is in the technology sector itself.

While most professions have made clear progress towards gender balance, IT is one area that has seen virtually no change since the 1980s when I got my start in tech. In fact, since the turn of this century, the number of women in tech has actually declined. In 1985, 37 percent of U.S. computer science graduates were women. In 2012, it was only 18 percent.[3]   

But why is engagement in technology so important, especially at a time where women have more freedom to choose what we want to do?  And why is it important in the global context?

One answer is simply equity. Tech careers pay well and offer lots of opportunities for advancement, and the salary gap between men and women is one of the smallest of any sector despite the fact that there are fewer women.

A second reason, and one we hear more and more about, is skilled labor shortages.  Most industries and professions today require workers who have at least basic skills in technology, but many companies are having trouble finding them. Projections show that this will only get worse.  Increasing the number of women – and not incidentally, minorities – can fill these projected shortages. 

A third, and often-overlooked reason, is the health of the IT sector itself.  We need the IT-based products and services of the future to be relevant to a diverse consumer market (where, by the way, in this country and I’m sure elsewhere, women make the vast majority of the purchasing decisions). Studies have shown that companies with gender balance on their management teams perform better and add more value.

And there’s a fourth reason, which is that technology is increasingly the avenue through which we learn about the world.  The United States is an engine of technological innovation, and we export a lot of our culture (for better or for worse) through technology and social media.  If we aren’t projecting the values of inclusion, of working across perceived differences, and of ensuring that the technology-driven 21st century is one where barriers to success are dropping for everyone, it undermines our ability as Americans to work effectively for global change.

Fortunately, we are starting to see a real uptick in the number of global entities, including businesses, governments, and non-profits alike, that recognize this gender gap in IT and are actively investing in solutions, whether it’s parity in their workforces, in their boardrooms, or to encourage girls and women to build their technology skills. I was delighted to see the announcement just this week by Apple CEO Tim Cook of their $50 million dollar investment to improve gender and minority diversity though education, research, and advocacy. 

In another example, the Global Fund for Women and UN Women have joined forces in creating IGNITE: Women Fueling Science & Technology, to raise awareness for women and girls’ access and representation in technology and science. IGNITE’s campaign shares stories of women leaders around the world – past and present – who have changed the technology landscape in all sectors through their innovative work. One of the campaign’s overarching messages points to the impact made by including women in technology. Women don’t provide just another voice in decision-making, women are utilizing technology and creating new ways to improve their communities – from the local to global scale. 


Technology for Social Good: ServeIT

This is a critically important point, and leads me back to what IU is doing to address the gender gap in tech. Studies consistently show that most IT-oriented women are drawn to the idea of the computer as a positive force for change, and other studies show that many minority students carry deeply held values of giving back to their communities, particularly when they’re the first in their family to attend college.  Programs that provide hands-on opportunities for students to apply technology to social problems tend draw more women and minorities. 

This research resonates strongly in IU’s School of Informatics and Computing, where I have an adjunct faculty appointment and where gender diversity is a top priority, equal to the core academic missions of teaching and research and on par with the felt obligation of the School to further economic development in Indiana and beyond.

It was another, community-based problem, which exists in Bloomington, Indianapolis, and across the country, that provided the opportunity to create such a program.  The problem is another IT gap, this one in the nonprofit world.  Anyone volunteering for local nonprofits, particularly small ones, can see how they struggle to incorporate up-to-date IT in carrying out their missions. Funding is scarce, and the priority is always direct service, not infrastructure.  As a result, many nonprofits rely on old equipment, limited site license seats even for enterprise-critical software, manual record keeping, difficulty maintaining websites much less improving them, and very little use of technology in support of fund-raising, which would help ameliorate all these problems.

So how do these two “gap” pictures fit together?  Four words:  “technology for social good”.  The concept isn’t new, but in the context of the gender gap in tech, it became something very powerful for my Informatics colleagues and me.  We thought that if we could organize a service-learning program around this idea of technology for social good, we might attract more women and minorities, and what’s more, we might keep them.

Five years ago, a colleague and I taught a graduate elective class of students from Informatics and Computing and IU’s nonprofit management program to look at the establishment of a multi-discipline, collaboratively-run clinic that would put student-led IT support teams into Bloomington area nonprofits. The students surveyed IT needs in a range of organizations, looked at a number of models in other places, developed a business plan, and came up with a name.

ServeIT officially opened for business in January 2011 with four clients and 23 interns organized into six teams, one for each client plus a tech support team and a training team. By fall of 2011 it was a bona-fide for-credit internship option in Informatics, a big win for students and a source of ongoing tuition revenue for the program, which provides its services at no charge. Fast forward to spring term 2015, 73 interns are providing services to six current client organizations, supported by several cross-clinic teams that take care of smaller projects, provide general tech support and client training, do initial design and development, and work on community relations. Since its beginning, ServeIT has assisted over 30 organizations and completed over 40 projects.

What has made ServeIT work so well?  Several reasons:  the teams work across semesters rather than ending when the course is over, and the entire focus is on what the nonprofit needs, not the requirements of the course.  The teams document their projects, so that if a client returns in the future there’s a record of what was done. The interns are also required to provide ten hours of direct service, so they learn about and have a stake in the organization they’re serving.  An intern on the database team for Middle Way House, our local domestic violence prevention agency, said it best: 

“It’s not hard to remember the mission of the organization when you’re building an input form focused on …a person who has been exposed to violence by someone who is supposed to love her. It’s in these moments when the task of building a database doesn’t seem so far removed from helping domestic violence survivors.”

We are also taking ServeIT abroad, with an alternative spring break in Belize, where a small group of interns will teach tech to middle school students there.

Approaching our 5th anniversary, ServeIT has demonstrated positive outcomes in improved nonprofit capability, and in helping to close the gender gap. Female undergraduate enrollment in the School has doubled several times and now stands at 25%, still short of critical mass but vastly better than it was.  Notably, women students make up 44% of the interns, and ServeIT also draws approximately 25% of other minorities. And it’s also important to note that over half the clinic interns are men. We believe strongly that the concept of “technology for social good” works to the benefit of everyone. The stereotypical “lone male geeks” benefit from interactions with people who see a larger context for technology than the computer itself.  And to the extent that computing culture can be narrow and monolithic, creating diverse, real world experiences helps transform it into one that is more inclusive, welcoming, and outward-facing. 


While ServeIT continues its work towards integrating diversity into the technology for social good arena, there is another movement at Indiana University that aims to reduce the barriers that keep women across the campus from seeing themselves as technologists, mathematicians, engineers, and scientists.

In October 2013, IU launched the Center of Excellence for Women in Technology, or CEWiT. CEWiT is the nation’s first – and we believe only – large-scale, interdisciplinary, university-based, rather than school or department-based, initiative that promotes the participation, empowerment, and achievement of women in tech, regardless of career or life stage.

Currently, we have over 2,000 students, over 350 faculty, over 425 staff, and approximately 1,200 alumnae affiliates working with CEWiT to advance skills, research, and engagement with technology. The key is that technology is not just for computer scientists and information scientists – it’s for biologists, artists, journalists, English majors, and international studies majors – they’re all “techie women”!

Increasing the numbers of women in computing and technology is fundamental to CEWiT’s mission. But CEWiT is also committed to a larger and visionary goal: we strive to motivate and empower women so they feel capable and competent with tech, and so that they will stick with it, regardless of academic or career path.

CEWiT is destined to carry on a tradition of empowering women with the technological agency to benefit their careers, discipline, and the global tech sector as a whole.


Education, participation, and collaboration are critical to attaining gender equality. By mastering tech skills, women can be more confident and capable of mobilizing and influencing change on a global scale. Women can – and should be – be collaborative participants and informed consumers of technology so they are fairly represented as active and equal members of society.

Earlier, I referenced the UN Women and Global Fund’s IGNITE project that highlights visionaries, leaders, and innovative women focused on fueling science and technology. I’d like to highlight the sentiment shared by one leader in the technology industry, Roxane Divol of Symantec Trust Services[4]:

“Bringing diversity to the technical and STEM fields has to be multi-dimensional and requires collaboration between educators, governments, corporations, nonprofits, and grassroots community groups to succeed. We have a long way to go, but I believe the journey starts with inspiration, backed by the resources needed to thrive. To me, success is a world where women and men of all ages design, create, drive, and own equally. Let’s continue to inspire, invest, create, and work together to make this future a reality.”[5] 

I want to close with one last story that brings all these themes of women’s education, technical skills and confidence, and international relationships together. Last fall, along with an IU delegation, I was in Saudi Arabia and India, visiting university partners and alumni.  Our last stop was New Delhi for the new Global Gateway Office opening.

As we left New Delhi for home, I had one last experience that made a perfect final act to a trip whose purpose was building educational bridges. 

As some of you probably know, women going through airport security in India are sent through separate lines to private screening rooms. So there I was in a tiny curtained booth, standing before a young Indian woman who, in a rather bored monotone, began to ask me the standard questions as she wielded her wand: “What was the purpose of your trip?”  “Business,” I answered. “What kind of business?” “We’re from a university in the U.S., here to build our relationships with Indian institutions and meet our alums.” 

She stopped and looked at me, and then leaned toward me as she quietly asked, “Do you have engineering programs?” Now as some of you may know, IU is in fact embarking on adding engineering to its many degree offerings, and I began to describe both our existing programs in design and technology, and also what might lie ahead. She put her wand down and gave me her phone so I could enter IU’s website address. Before I left the booth, she excitedly shook my hand and thanked me profusely, another young woman ready to make a leap into her future.

Thank you.

[1] Millennium Development Goals and Gender Equality, Accessed December 2014.

[2] Harvard Business Review Staff. “Women and Economics of Equality.” Harvard Business Review, April 2013.

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

[4] Roxane Divol is General Manager for Symantec Trust Services