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Society News

Women of Vision awards presented at Anita Borg Institute banquet

“Each of our Women of Vision winners this year could have won in any of the categories, they’re that good.” Telle Whitney, ABI CEO


These are the women of vision who won the awards: Dr Susan Landau of Sun Microsystems, left; Northwestern’s Dr Justine Cassell and Helen Greiner of iRobot.This May the trustees of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (ABI, www.anitaborg.org) hosted the third Women of Vision Awards banquet in San Jose, CA. Women of Vision is one of ABI’s major initiatives. Diversity/Careers became ABI’s first media sponsor this year, and D/C editor in chief Kate Colborn attended the banquet as a guest of the institute.

The first Women of Vision awards were presented in 2005, and the second set of winners was named in 2007. The awards have now become an annual event, with next year’s presentation scheduled for April 30, 2009.

Women of Vision honors women who make significant contributions to technology in areas of innovation, leadership and social impact. One winner is selected in each category.

Institute of initiatives
The institute itself was founded in 1997 by the late Dr Anita Borg as the Institute for Women in Technology, and renamed in her honor in 2003. Several of the board members, staff and active volunteers of today’s ABI were Borg’s friends or associates.

In 1987 Borg founded Systers, the first online community for women in computing. In 1994 Borg and her close friend Telle Whitney began the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (www.gracehopper.org). Both Systers and the Grace Hopper Celebration are still important elements of ABI’s work.

Since 2002 the institute has also organized a series of TechLeaders symposia for technical women at all levels.

Maria Klawe: participation is power
The ABI board of directors works closely with the full-time staff to set the direction of the organization. Dr Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College (Claremont, CA), became board president in 2002 and stepped down this June. She, like all the staff and board members, is passionate about the organization’s mission.

Klawe notes that Borg realized twenty years ago that “If you don’t have women and other underrepresented groups participating in the creation of technology, you’re going to get technology that doesn’t reflect the needs of society, particularly the needs of women.”
The institute, Klawe says, has been remarkably effective in supporting technical women
at all levels.

“I’ve been to more than half of ABI’s programs and to every Hopper conference. I can’t begin to tell you the number of both young and mature women who have said to me, ‘This has changed my life.’”

Borg initiatives, Klawe declares, “give you the opportunity to be part of a community where hundreds or even thousands of women are talking about technical issues.

“After you’ve spent most of your life as one of the one or two or maybe five technically-minded women out of a group of perhaps a hundred, an opportunity like that is very powerful! I believe ABI is one of the most effective organizations I’ve ever worked with in terms of actually having an impact,” Klawe concludes.

Margaret Ashida: a huge passion
Margaret Ashida, director of diversity and workforce programs at IBM (Armonk, NY), is also an ABI board member. “I was the prizewinner in high school math and physics, and I took a very advanced math class in college because I love math and wanted to explore it.

“I was the only girl in the class, and I still remember asking for help and being shoved off to the side.

“In the end I went the business route, and it’s been fine for me. But as I looked around at how few women there were in math and science and technology, it became a huge passion for me that nobody else should be turned off from a career for reasons that just don’t need to exist!”

Women of Vision
“Each of our Women of Vision winners this year could have won in any of the categories, they’re that good,” comments Telle Whitney, ABI’s CEO.

This year’s winners are a fascinating trio. They’re involved in very different areas, but all strongly committed to technology and the role of women in the technical arena. They spoke about their work with D/C’s Colborn at a press conference before the presentation.

Dr Susan Landau: into public policy
Susan Landau, PhD, a distinguished engineer at Sun Microsystems (Palo Alto, CA), received the award for social impact. In addition to her long commitment to advancing women in technology, she’s been involved in public policy on wiretapping and encryption at the national level for more than fifteen years. And as she’s also a world expert in computational algebra and number theory, she clearly has the technological foundation to speak with authority in those areas.

Public policy is a very different world from the technical research that’s occupied much of Landau’s career. “In the world of math, you can disagree about how a proof was arrived at but you can’t disagree about whether or not something has been proved. But in public policy issues facts are usually just a small part of the equation: no more than 10 percent! It took me a long time to get my head around that; to me that’s a striking difference.”

Helen Greiner: entrepreneurship was the natural path
Helen Greiner is chair and co-founder of iRobot, the company that produces both the successful Roomba self-propelled vacuum cleaner we enjoy in our homes, and the PackBot tactical mobile robot currently in use by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

iRobot has sold more than three million of the home robots, and delivered more than 1,500 PackBots to the military. It makes several other products as well. No wonder Greiner won this year’s award for innovation.

Greiner has a BSME and an MS in EE and CS from MIT. But even before college she was drawn to robotics by the engaging robots in the Star Wars movies. MIT’s robotics competitions, the precursor of today’s FIRST Robotics, reinforced her interest.

Entrepreneurship seemed like the natural path for her, Greiner says. “I was accepted to the PhD program at MIT, but instead I left to start a company. I didn’t want to go to a corporate research lab because nobody in industry was doing the kind of robotics I wanted to do. A NASA lab or a military lab were possibilities, but I didn’t want to limit myself to just research.”

After that conclusion it was a relatively seamless progression. “I was living like a grad student, and after I started the company I kept living like a grad student for a decade or so,” she says with a smile.

Dr Justine Cassell: girls and games
Dr Justine Cassell, director of Northwestern University’s Center for Technology and Social Behavior, received the award for leadership. Cassell developed the concept of the embodied conversational agent (ECA), a computer-based virtual human capable of interacting with humans using both language and nonverbal behavior. Cassell is also the author, with three colleagues, of Embodied Conversational Agents, the first book on the subject.

She is well known for her work on gender and technology, and is co-editor of From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender in Computer Games, published in 1998, and co-author of the introduction to Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat, the 2008 sequel. These books look into how women and girls fit into the world of computer gaming.

Cassell’s background includes advanced degrees in linguistics and psychology. She’s been actively involved in various projects to study the factors that influence girls’ interest in technical careers, and to support girls and young women with leanings toward technology.

Dr William A. Wulf is the new board chair
New board chair Dr William A. Wulf with Wendy Dow of Sun Microsystems.At the reception preceding the awards ceremony, CEO Whitney thanked Maria Klawe for her tenure as board
chair, and announced the new board head. He is William
A. Wulf, PhD, a professor of engineering at the University
of Virginia and two-term president of the National Academy of Engineering.

Wulf, too, was an associate of Anita Borg’s and has been
a member of the ABI board since its inception. “I feel it’s time to plough some of my energy back into the system,”
he says.

Corporate support is essential
Significant support from corporate sponsors is essential to ABI’s work. Gold-level sponsors of the Women of Vision event were Juniper Networks and Sun Microsystems; silver sponsors were the Bay Area CBS affiliate, Cisco Systems and SAP; bronze sponsors included Adobe, Career Action Center, eBay Inc, Google, Intuit and Symantec. Among the table sponsors were First Republic Bank, Intel, Microsoft, Net App, Texas Instruments and VMWare.

“Share the vision” table sponsors, who funded the attendance of area college and high school students, included Amazon.com, Career Action, Cisco, Goldman Sachs and TI.

On to 2009
Nominations for next year’s awards may be submitted by high-tech companies, universities, private industry and the public. Nomination details will be available at the institute website
in September.

Videos of the acceptance speeches by the Women of Vision awardees are available on YouTube via a link at the ABI website.

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