Laurie Burns McRobbie

The CEWiT Leadership Retreat Dinner

Introduction and Welcome

Thank you, Maureen, and good evening.

It’s great to be here among such strong student leaders, and I’m delighted to get to spend some time with you tonight. This time of year is always exciting—the campus is absolutely buzzing, and I hope all of you are finding your way with classes and schedules and everything else that marks the beginning of a new school year.

The start of this academic year is especially exciting for CEWiT, as we journey into our third year of operation with much to celebrate and be proud of. We have built a phenomenal community on the Bloomington campus, across disciplines, professions, and life and career stages. It’s sometimes easy to overlook how important connections are, and how important community is—it’s essential to our growth as individuals and to our ability to tackle obstacles and challenges. I’ll speak to this point more later in my remarks this evening.

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.

Currently, we have more than 2,000 students, 350 faculty, 425 staff, and 1,200 alumnae affiliates working with CEWiT to advance skills, research, and engagement with technology. In short, a vibrant and growing community of women at Indiana University.

Increasing the number of women in computing and information technology is fundamental to CEWiT’s mission. But we’re 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 biologists, artists, journalists, English majors, and international studies majors—you’re all “techie women.”

The creation of CEWiT was a real milestone for Indiana University, and particularly IU Bloomington, in our collective effort to address a stubbornly persistent problem: the gender gap in computing, information technology, and other tech-related fields.

I got my own start in computing in the early 1980s, and back then, women were under-represented in most professions, not just science and technical disciplines. We set about trying to change the tech world, none of us realizing that we’d still be at it this far into the 21st century. There are lots of reasons for why the gender gap persists, and the more we understand them, the better we can find solutions for them. That is also part of CEWiT’s mission.

The student leaders represented here tonight—all of you—include the WESiT executive board and committee chairs, social media and web design special interest group interns, and CEWiT’s interns and graduate assistants. Thank you for your dedication to advancing the mission of CEWiT. You’re an inspiration not only to your fellow students, but also to CEWiT faculty and organizers. And you inspire me because you demonstrate true leadership.

Leadership Diversity

Leadership diversity is essential for excellence. Numerous 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 percent higher return on investment. We need a diverse workforce to produce the products and services that respond to a varied, global consumer base where, incidentally, women make the vast majority of purchasing decisions.

As female leaders, we must continue working to reduce the barriers that keep women and minorities from seeing themselves as business leaders, political leaders, civil society leaders, as well as leaders in the professions and every discipline. Openness to new ideas, challenges, and risks is crucial for any leader—and it’s especially important for women to see themselves and other women stepping up and getting out in front in order to close the gap in the tech world. You’re here tonight because you want to help do that—and I know I speak for everyone in saying how grateful we are that you do—thank you.

Challenges Facing Women in Leadership

I want to take a few minutes to talk about what I see as three key challenges facing women leaders. These are not in any particular order.

The first is unconscious bias. This affects women and men, and is truly unconscious, so therefore it is much more difficult to identify and change. In general, bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although we rightly associate it with many highly negative outcomes—it’s a kind of “cognitive shortcut” that helps us assess situations quickly, and in an evolutionary sense it’s fundamentally important to human survival.

But in the workplace, biases that keep us from valuing different perspectives are better described as “errors in decision-making, errors in assessment.” The point isn’t that we need to get rid of bias—we can’t—but that we are aware of our own biases and how they can work to limit us and our assessment of others.

We have to build positive images of women leaders who are themselves, and can be themselves. We have to explicitly value women’s leadership styles. Our images of “leaders” still tend to be characteristically male traits—hierarchical, results-oriented, data-driven—even when women embody those characteristics, rather than characteristically or stereotypically female traits—collaborative, people-oriented, inclusive—even when men display those characteristics. Being open in our valuing of women’s leadership styles can help combat those unconscious and negative associations.

A second challenge is institutional barriers. Many of these have fallen, but we still have not eliminated bias in hiring and promotion, in funding for research and start-ups, and in governance.

We have also not made the necessary accommodations for those who have additional responsibilities outside the workplace, such as giving birth to the next generation, rearing those children, and at a later point in life, caring for aging parents. No matter how open the working world is, women are still the ones having the kids, and no matter how many young men today were raised by strong working mothers and care-taking fathers, they’re not always picking up their share of the work at home. 

In my time as a young mother, the norm was to promote a view that men and women were the same—same capabilities, same intelligence, same potential. All true when it comes to jobs and advancement, but that mindset prevented a lot of sensible policy choices about accommodating family life, because it meant distinguishing between men and women in a way that reinforced old norms and expectations. 

We are still operating a bit in that mindset, and we have to face this issue more directly and honestly, because we need the next generation to be brought into this world by parents who can take care of them and who can teach them the value of education and hard work—people like you and many others who are in education and in the workplace.

The third challenge is personal barriers. This is the substance of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In:Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Her story is perhaps not as representative as those of most working women, but she is right that women need to sit at the table, be present, take their careers seriously, and be committed.

The linguistics scholar Deborah Tannen has written extensively about gender and language and how women’s linguistic patterns can put them at a disadvantage in workplaces that are “culturally male,” which pretty much describes the tech world. There is a lot in what Tannen has studied that speaks to the issue of unconscious bias because we tend to associate male linguistic styles of speech—directive, bottom-line oriented, without qualifiers—as indications of leadership and competence, and women’s styles—collaborative, asking questions rather than directing, empathetic—as indications of weakness and lack of knowledge.

But women can also be too open about being unsure, using “sorry” a lot, qualifying their statements before they say them, and other phrases that undermine their strength and credibility. Again, being conscious of how you express yourself in meetings and in groups helps you reinforce those expressions that do you justice, and to eliminate those that make it easier for someone else, not always a guy, to see you as less than credible.

Color Assessment

So leadership is very much about knkowing our own strengths and using them well. As part of this evening’s program, we completed a color-personality assessment. I hope you enjoyed it and experienced some self-discovery in the process. Each color has strengths. Each color has weaknesses. And each color adds value to a team.

Of course, each of us has a little bit of all the colors, which helps us maximize our primary strengths while also correctly interpreting the language and behavior of those whose primary colors are different from ours.

The highest-performing teams are colorful—they need gold’s ability to bring structure and rules to the table, and in contrast, orange’s persistence—not asking for permission, but rather forgiveness after the fact. High-performing teams need green’s big-picture thinking and vision, and blue’s focus on building teams, relationships, and collaborations.

I thought it would be fun to dissect a statement from a strong female leader and pick out her primary color. Arianna Huffington says, “We need to accept that we won’t always make the right decisions, that we’ll screw up royally sometimes—understanding that failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of success.”

Can you pinpoint Arianna’s primary color? Based on this statement, it’s probably orange.

I first did my own color analysis about six years ago, and I went through it again to make sure I remembered where I came out. The process was fascinating. I am almost exactly tied between green and blue, with green getting the edge. The analysis also helped me recognize that in my early career, I was certainly more blue than green—focused on being part of a team and not yet sure of my abilities to be strategic and really lead.

Time has passed, and now, I call on my strengths differently than I did earlier in my career. I think it will be very interesting for you to revisit your color assessment in the years ahead and see how your leadership style has developed over time. Because it certainly will.

Everyone Has a Story to Tell

Everyone has a story that narrates how they got where they are and why they care about certain things. So let me tell you a little about mine.  

I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan with a father who was a faculty member at the University of Michigan and a mother who was a community leader who served on City Council and ran for Mayor in the 1960s—only the second woman in Ann Arbor’s history to do so. At age 92, she’s still actively engaged. Both of my parents were very community oriented, and their values and actions very much formed my own ideas about civic engagement and citizenship.

I was a history major at Michigan and planned to get my Ph.D., but instead married a “computer guy” and through him, found opportunities in information technology, particularly in computer networking where I got my start.  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. 

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. 

Internet2 was also where I met Michael McRobbie, who was then CIO at Indiana University. 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 Beck Chapel. In 2007, Michael became IU’s 18th President, and I became IU’s First Lady. Good thing I’m comfortable with change.

Weaving a Narrative

As I was thinking about my remarks for this evening, I reflected back to when I first thought of myself as a leader, as well as how my leadership identity has evolved and how it’s current shaped by my role as First Lady. I wasn’t a super-involved teenager as I suspect many of you were, nor was I a super-involved college student, although I was part of the group that created the women’s studies major at Michigan when I was a sophomore.  

My leadership awakening came in the workplace, when I was in my second job and the opportunity arose to join the campus’s Commission for Women. I became its chair shortly thereafter, and discovered that being out in front was much more part of my identity than I’d realized. 

I also remember being both terrified and excited—I really wanted to help change things (this was before we even had things like maternity leave or the ability to stop the tenure clock, or even very many women faculty), but I really 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 seemingly 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 that 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. So 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. Ambiguity can be your friend, as unsettling as it is at times.

I had another major advantage coming into the First Lady role, which is that my IT career has been in higher education. I know universities well, and I love being part of one. I believe strongly in the importance of higher education, and trust in the power of universities to positively affect society.

So it was much easier to transition into the role of First Lady than it might have been had I pursued a career in the business sector, or if somehow I’d wound up as the spouse of a politician. And having grown up in a college town with a desire to be part of my community, I brought a strong “town-gown” perspective to Bloomington.

I found my way, early on, to the Board of Middle Way House (although, I’ve recently stepped off that board), and also served on numerous other boards in Bloomington and Indianapolis. 

And I’ve been extremely fortunate to be at Indiana University at the same time as Bobby Schnabel and Maureen Biggers, and thus have had the extraordinary good luck to be able to collaborate with them on helping to address this persistent gender gap in tech—one of the defining threads of my career. 

I’ve also been extremely fortunate to be at a university that is pioneering the academic study of philanthropy.  This, by the way, is not the study of fundraising, but rather of the nonprofit sector in all its dimensions, as distinct from government and the commercial sector, and of civil society globally.

Being First Lady is, first and foremost, a representational role, and as I was already meeting with many alums and donors and embedded in the IU Foundation. It was a short step to building on the research being done here at IU in women’s philanthropy, looking at the different patterns and motivations in how women and men give. 

I led the development of our Women’s Philanthropy program at IU, which helps connect women leaders to their philanthropic passions. Having always intended to continue on in graduate school (remember that PhD in history I didn’t get?), I’m—slowly—earning a Master’s degree in Philanthropy at the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

So, my interest and experience in technology and my more recent interest in philanthropy may seem like an odd match, but both are inherently about creating positive change, and about finding solutions that improve communities and people’s lives. I admit that it’s taken me some time to work these various threads—my IT career, my commitment to working toward gender equity and social justice, and my interest in philanthropy—into something that feels complete.

And this is part of the journey. I’m sure that each of you will find yourself, from time to time, working to fit different things together into a coherent whole. It’s not always a comfortable process, but it’s where the real growth comes. If you don’t feel as though you’re there now, and even if you don’t feel like you’ll be there in another 20 years, have faith—you will.

Call to Audience for Reflection

As I conclude here tonight, I want you to think once more about your colors and those of your team and think about the value of colorful teams. We all share differences in our leadership styles. But the more we see leaders of all kinds—certainly across both genders, but also from all walks of life—the more we can be certain that the ways in which we make progress will reflect the range of interests present in today's world. And the more likely we are to inspire and teach the next generation of leaders.

I hope I’ve given you a few bits of wisdom, gleaned from a lot of time and experience—to take the risk and 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, to use those connections even when it feels embarrassing to ask how to do something you think you should know, and 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. 

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.

So continue to inspire. Continue to lead. Embrace all the chapters of your leadership story as it continues to develop.

And thank you for all you do to move CEWiT forward.

Thank you.