Diplomatic Pouch / March 4, 2016
By Larry Luxner
Last week, President Obama announced his intent to nominate Carla D. Hayden as the next Librarian of Congress — a woman he said “has devoted her career to modernizing libraries so that everyone can participate in today’s digital culture.”
Not only will Hayden be the first woman to run the nation’s largest library. She’ll also be the first African-American to hold the position, “both of which are long overdue” in the president’s words.
Nobody in the audience at the Italian Embassy’s Feb. 29 “Women in Tech & Politics” seminar would have disagreed. In fact, the point of that event, which attracted 200 people, was to highlight the efforts of women — and particularly women of color — in breaking the high-tech barrier all too common in U.S. executive boardrooms.
The keynote speaker was Megan Smith, named by Obama in September 2014 as the first female chief technology officer in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology. Her job is to focus on how technology policy, data and innovation can advance U.S. interests.
“Our mission here is profound, and the things we work on are very intriguing,” said Smith, an award-winning entrepreneur, engineer and tech evangelist who was a vice-president at Google before joining the Obama administration. “I’m hopeful to see this astonishing enthusiasm coming from techies and government folks when they make progress together.”
Smith said her office, which employs 300 people, is a strong supporter of open government, of the type already practiced by countries around the world including France, Chile, Israel and South Korea.
“We want kids to learn about computers, but there’s a tremendous cultural bias here,” she complained. “A very large percentage of high-school computer science teachers think boys are better than girls, despite the evidence. We need to get over those barriers.”
Other panelists at the event, which is part of the Italian Embassy’s Digital Diplomacy series, were Antigone Davis, head of global safety policy at Facebook; Leah Gilliam, vice-president for strategy and innovation at Girls Who Code, and Donna Harris, co-founder and co-CEO of 1776. Susan Glasser, editor at Politico, moderated the discussion.
“One of our biggest challenges is that we are a global platform with over 1.5 billion people using Facebook,” said Davis in explaining her unusual job title. “This means ensuring that people who use our platform are safe to share and connect, which is obviously the goal of Facebook, and that means dealing with issues like hate speech, bullying and harassment of women online. Unfortunately, there are mean people everywhere, and our big challenge is trying to create policies that we can apply globally.”
Gilliam said her goal is to get people to think about a gender-specific approach to computers and technology, “not just inspiring and educating girls, but really trying to help them understand that they can do anything they want to do, and using technology as a point of entry.”
Harris agreed, asserting that “we could literally close the job gap overnight” if companies across the country made it a priority to name women to executive positions and fund female-led startups through venture capital.
“Women are getting less than 8 percent of all venture capital. There is subconscious bias in the industry, and we hear a lot of debates going on, with women complaining ‘don’t compare me to your wife,’” said Harris, whose 1776 organization works with 6,000 companies worldwide, including many based here in Washington.
The choices women executives face every day are daunting, she said, and entrenched stereotypes don’t help.
“Do I go home to my 5-year-old, or do I go to that networking event to meet investors?” said Harris, reflecting a common frustration among her peers.
“When we eliminate gender and make it a blind sample, women tend to fare better than men. But when we attach gender, the biases kick in and women score significantly less.”
She added: “We don’t speak at panels that are not balanced. We quietly call other people out on it when we see this behavior happening. We have to be different and encourage others to be different, because women need an extra layer of encouragement.”