Laurie Burns McRobbie

Extraordinary Women: Impacting the World Around Us

Thank you, Sandy. I am deeply honored and humbled to speak at an event that celebrates so many extraordinary women.

And I’m delighted to support a great organization like My Sister’s Closet, which gives women that crucial leg up to move into the workforce and independent, productive lives. I’m really looking forward to hearing Mary’s, Timmi-Lynn’s, and Alana’s stories.  I know they will reflect the many ways in which this organization is creating life-changing opportunities. 

I want to thank all of you here tonight for helping support My Sister’s Closet and helping it extend its reach into our community and beyond. 


There's a Chinese saying, "Women hold up half the sky." Organizations like My Sister's Closet bring us together and hold us accountable so that we women, as a collective unit, 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 tonight’s dinner connect and inspire us, and they give us a chance to reflect on our own journeys.

In my case, and I hope in yours, I’ve had extraordinary women to light the path. My mother, Eunice, is one of these. In 1960, with my father’s encouragement, she ran for elected office in Ann Arbor, Michigan, serving six years on city council as only the second woman to do so, and also becoming the second woman in that city to run for mayor. 

She didn’t win the mayoral election, but her campaign galvanized many others, and today it’s nice to say that it’s not “extraordinary” for a woman to serve on city council, nor for a woman to serve as mayor; there have been several since then.

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 almost 92 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.

Her openness to new ideas, new challenges, and risk-taking inspired me at the time, and continues to inspire me today. Her example, and that of many others, sparked my interest in movements for change, particularly those involving women’s equality and our full participation in all sectors of society. 

I’m especially interested in women’s history – that was my college major and remains a current passion.  As Sandy noted in her introduction, I am very involved in women’s philanthropy, at IU and in the community, and in working for equity in the tech sector, where we know much change still needs to occur. 

So I’d like to focus my remarks tonight on both of these subjects.  They may sound pretty unconnected but they are both about changing culture and awareness, and about helping others do more than they thought they could, become more than they thought they could be – just like My Sister’s Closet does.


Women have always been engaged in movements for progress -- as leaders, advocates and workers -- and heroic in their persistence and their unwillingness to give up until the change they knew was imperative had occurred.

To me, this work is at the heart of what it means to be philanthropic. Philanthropy is inherently about change, about making the world a better place for future generations, about righting injustices, about creating access and support, about being a citizen.

And in the ways through which communities have banded together to improve civic life, it is inherently the province of women.

Women’s history in this country is inseparably intertwined with the history of community associations, social welfare and reform movements, educational and health institutions, and organizations like the one that we're here tonight to honor that are dedicated to alleviating the lack of opportunity.

From colonial times forward, women have found an outlet for their otherwise untapped intellectual and organizational capacities in charitable work.

Well into the 20th century, cut off from the worlds of business and politics, women across the economic and social spectrum used voluntary associations to exercise public influence and to shape American concepts of community responsibility.

As one historian has said, “Female philanthropy has served … as the means through which American women … have made a lasting imprint on social and institutional reforms, professionalization, legislation, and even the Constitution itself.” We are at a point in our history when women have truly emerged as a pivotal force in philanthropy -- the giving not only of money but of time.

Research, done by IU’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, shows that once education, income, age, and other factors are taken into account, women give more than men, in some areas more than twice as much. With all due, and deep, respect to the many exceedingly generous men in this community, this is not really news to most of us.

Yet it's so important to recognize the work of those extraordinary women who came before us.  We can all think of many famous women, but we have so many examples here in our own community:

Women like Maud Showers, who as a young, widowed mother of three, inherited a third of the Showers Brothers Furniture Company in the late 1800s. Along with her keen business sense, Maude’s organizational skills and philanthropic passions benefitted the community in many ways. She was involved in the movement for women’s suffrage, the establishment of the Carnegie Library here, and the Bloomington Hospital.

Maud’s niece, Nellie Showers Teter, was another local trailblazer.  As the first woman elected to the IU Board of Trustees, she made it a point to address issues that affected women students. 

Women like Frances Morgan Swain, one of my predecessors as IU First Lady, who in 1902 led Indiana University’s first capital campaign to raise funds for what was originally the Woman’s Building. A matching contribution from John D. Rockefeller stipulated that a wing be added for men, and it is now known as the Student Building. But the women got more square footage, thanks to Frances!

We should also recognize women like the late Elinor Ostrom. Lin was the last person to headline this event in 2010, having just been awarded the Nobel Prize for her groundbreaking work on how communities can come together to manage common resources, from forests and water supplies to community policing. Like all of you here today, Lin believed in the power of one to make a difference. Lin and her husband Vincent also rank among IU’s most renowned philanthropists, having made close to $4 million in contributions to research and scholarship, including Lin’s Nobel Prize money.

And women like my fellow members of 100+ Women Who Care, the women's giving circle supported by the Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County. At the end of our third giving cycle last year, we'd directed more than one-quarter of a million dollars to local nonprofit organizations. And that includes My Sister's Closet, which in turn has directly assisted more than 1,400 women in achieving economic independence.

Women built the nonprofit sector in this country, and we need to recognize that, claim it as our legacy, learn from it, celebrate it, and build on it. And as women, philanthropists, and change makers, we understand the importance of deep engagement in the causes we care about -- this is one of the central characteristics of how women give, whether it’s of time or treasure.


We can all play our part in creating positive change, no matter where our careers and interests take us, or whatever our backgrounds and individual journeys may be. 

And it’s imperative that we do, because there’s much work that needs to be done.  This is especially true in today’s technology-driven world, because as much as technology has fueled progress and connected us all around the globe, it can also distance us from the natural world, from simpler and less complex ways of getting things done, and from each other.  

I say this as someone who spent over twenty years in the IT field and as a big proponent of tech’s many positives. But it takes all of us engaging in how we use technology to ensure that it works well for all of us as humans.  And we know that not enough women, or many minorities, are finding their futures in the technology sector. 

We’ve seen enormous changes for women in nearly every profession and field of endeavor in the last 40-50 years, but 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]

So why exactly is this a problem, when women in fact do have more choices about what we can do with our lives?  You’ve probably heard at least some of the answers, like basic equity. Tech careers pay well, offer lots of opportunities for advancement, and the gender gap in salaries is one of the smallest of any sector even though there are fewer women.

A second reason that you’ve probably also heard 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 underrepresented 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 21st century to be relevant to a diverse consumer market (where, by the way, women make about 85% of the purchasing decisions). Studies have shown that companies with gender balance on their management teams perform better and add more value, making the sector itself even stronger.

And there’s a fourth reason, which is that technology is increasingly the avenue through which we learn about the world. The U.S. 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 an uptick in the number of businesses, governments, educational institutions, and non-profits that recognize this gender gap in IT and are actively investing in solutions, whether it is parity in their workforces, in their boardrooms, or to encourage girls and women to build their technology skills.

I was delighted to see, for example, the recent announcement by Apple CEO Tim Cook of their $50 million dollar investment to improve gender and minority diversity though education, research, and advocacy. We’ve started to see tech companies publish the gender and minority breakdown in their workforces, including where women and minorities tend to cluster (hint:  it’s not in the executive ranks). 

While she didn’t win her case, the recent gender discrimination lawsuit brought by a woman who did not make partner in a Silicon Valley venture capital firm revealed a wide array of behaviors and practices that create deeply challenging environments for women, and as a result, many more people are beginning to see that things need to change.

As UK computer scientist Sue Black said in a recent BBC piece, “We are hearing more and more women speaking up about what’s been happening to them – and we have more men agreeing that it’s a problem.”[2]

It’s just a fact that men outnumber women in tech jobs and degree programs, and if the culture is not welcoming many will simply choose to take their talents elsewhere, and the whole sector loses. 

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 members of underrepresented minorities also carry deeply held values of giving back to their communities.  Programs that provide hands-on opportunities for learners 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. 

We’re making real progress – women now make up 25% of the school’s student body – but finding the right approaches and programs that have impact on these numbers is easier said than done. But five years ago, we hit on a great idea, which touches on another important problem that I think will resonate in this room tonight -- the IT gap in the nonprofit world.

Anyone who has ever volunteered or worked for a local nonprofit knows that it is a struggle to incorporate up-to-date IT in carrying out nonprofit missions when funding is scarce, and the priority is always direct service, not infrastructure.

As a result, many nonprofits rely on old equipment, 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.

Our great idea goes by a great catch-phrase: "Technology for social good." This isn’t a new phrase, 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.

So, five years ago, a colleague and I, along with a group of students from Informatics and from our nonprofit management program at IU, designed a collaboratively-run clinic that would put student-led IT support teams into Bloomington area nonprofits. ServeIT officially opened for business in January 2011 with four clients and 23 interns. By the 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. I mentioned that women comprise 25% of the student body in Informatics and Computing – they comprise 45% of the interns, and the proportion of minority students is also higher than the school average. 

Since its beginning, ServeIT has assisted more than 30 organizations and completed more than 40 projects in Bloomington. And My Sister’s Closet is on the future client list!

At IU, we have broadened our work of encouraging more women to enter technology fields to the entire Bloomington campus, through a new Center that we launched in the fall of 2013. 

The IU Center of Excellence for Women in Technology, or 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, regardless of career or life stage.  Technology, after all, touches everything. Already, after just 18 months, CEWiT is providing students with new skills and moreover, the confidence to take on new challenges.

Last year, the program sent five students to the national Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, named for one of the pioneers in software engineering, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper.  Among many other accomplishments, she coined the word “bug” to describe a coding problem. Grace Hopper is the premier event for women in tech, designed to celebrate, encourage, and empower women in the tech field.

The five students who attended Grace Hopper blogged about their experiences. Meghan McGrath, currently a graduate student in Information and Library Science in the School of Informatics and Computing, attended the conference and wrote this reflective entry that – in my opinion – captures one of the overall goals of CEWiT:

 “I was worried it might be a bit intimidating, but it wasn’t at all. And while it was fun picking up Google socks and Rubix cubes and hearing about the user experience branches of different companies, the best part was just learning to talk professionally about technology. That’s something that has always seemed scary to me, but after three days and dozens of opportunities to practice, I feel a lot more excited about it—and more willing to participate in future conversations…”

The epilogue to Meghan’s story is that as a result of the conference and its networking opportunities, she is now employed by IBM.

It is clear that from Meghan’s story and many others yet to be told that efforts like CEWiT really do have impact.  By encouraging, supporting, linking, and celebrating women in technology, we can move the needle on the numbers, and help make the tech world more relevant and diverse.


I want to close by sharing a recent experience, and one that takes me back to my mother’s story.  A couple of weeks ago, I was asked about pursuing a big opportunity, one that I frankly had never even dared to dream about.  It doesn’t matter exactly what that opportunity was, and in any case there are certain realities that prevent me pursuing it. But my reaction to hearing someone say, “you could do that!” surprised me.  It really changed how I thought about myself. 

Here I am, at age 60 and with a whole career and set of accomplishments under my belt, and finally, fewer of those troublesome self-doubts that keep us all from daring to try something new. 

It made me realize just how powerful it can be to have someone tell you, in a real and authentic way, that you can aspire more, dream bigger, take a step into something you’d always thought was far outside the range of possibilities for what you can do with your life. 

It’s simple, really, the idea that someone believes in you, but it reminded me just how important it is for each one of us to not only aspire for ourselves, but to also inspire the other extraordinary women in our lives who don’t always see what they have to offer.  That’s what My Sister’s Closet does, for so many women, every day.

So I have a call to action for each of you here tonight, and that is to

keep learning,

keep connecting,

keep aspiring and

keep inspiring.

I know that by embracing new opportunities and dreaming big, each of us can be the one to break new ground and light the path for others to follow.  Sometimes all it takes it someone saying, “Yes, YOU.”

Thank you.


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