Commentary & Perspective

Honoring Anita Borg’s Vision for Women in Technology

“Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History.”

That was the quote on a t-shirt that Anita Borg, the founder and namesake of the Anita Borg Institute, loved to wear. She spent her life embodying that message as an outspoken advocate for women in technology, a well-respected computer scientist and researcher and a vibrant and loyal friend.

“She was just a fantastic person to be around.”

That’s how Alan Eustace describes his best friend during their days working together at Digital Equipment Corporation in the 1980s and 1990s.

“She was funny and extremely well read. She loved to dance, hike, rock climb…she was a great carpenter. She could build anything,” he continued.

Though Anita got a relatively late start in computer science, she quickly became an expert in fault tolerant operating systems, developing and patenting a method for generating complete address traces for high-speed memory systems.

And whether she was sporting her favorite t-shirt or the gold sequined gown she wore every chance she got, Anita, who would be 67 this January 17, worked constantly toward bringing people — and women technologists in particular — together.

Grassroots to Global: Planting the Seeds for GHC

Anita dedicated her life to advancing women in technology — her contributions and accomplishments could fill pages.

One of the highlights of her career includes launching Systers in 1987, the first online community exclusively for women in computer science to have real conversations about their careers and struggles. Today, Systers has more than 6,000 members in over 60 countries around the world.

Anita also co-founded an event that’s near and dear to the ABI community: the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) which in 2015 drew nearly 12,000 attendees. The first GHC in 1994 hosted 500 people.

“She built this large-scale technical conference for women, and that was unheard of at the time,” Alan said. “Her technical skills were really impressive but her ability to lead and organize and bring together people from a social perspective before Facebook and Twitter is really incredible.”

Rayona Sharpnack, a friend of Anita’s and the CEO and founder of the Institute for Women’s Leadership, remembers hosting a leadership class in the early 1990s where Anita began work on what would become the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC).

“One of the requirements of the class was to have a breakthrough on a seemingly impossible project, and Anita chose the Grace Hopper conference,” Rayona said. “Her goal was to bring together 250 women.”

“She was relentless in her passion to use her own voice and give voice to women who weren’t represented at the leadership table,” Rayona continued. “In her view, that was the most important thing she could give her life to.”

Harvey Mudd College president Maria Klawe, a regular fixture at GHC, believes Anita would be pleased to see how the conference has grown since its early days.

“I think she’d be thrilled to attend GHC and see what an amazing annual event it has become,” Maria said. “Just being there and the passion and energy is huge. That would impress her a great deal.”

Of course, significant hurdles remain for women technologists, which would be a frustrating reminder to Anita of all the work left to be done, Maria said.

“I think she would be really distressed…there’s a sense I’m getting from some of the younger women who are going into the tech industry — they hate this feeling of not being wanted and being told that women don’t belong here,” said Maria. “I think [Anita] would be really stunned by that.”

Honoring Anita’s Vision for Women in Technology

As a tribute to Anita’s birthday and her vision for giving a voice to women technologists to discuss issues that impact them most, we’re launching a new blog called Perspectives from ABI. In fact, this is the very first post.

Anita wanted to create disruptive change for women technologists, and she would have loved to see how far the conversation about women in the tech industry has come. But she wouldn’t be satisfied with the status quo. There are still (too) many challenges facing women at every stage of their careers in technology, and we’re eager to shed light on these issues, discuss solutions and recognize successes.

That’s where Perspectives from ABI comes in. This blog is where you’ll find thought leadership from the ABI team, commentary on current events in the tech industry and updates on ABI’s latest efforts to change the ratio. We’d love to hear your ideas for the blog as well – share them with us at content@anitaborg.org.

Do you have your own favorite memories of Anita? What impact did she have on you and your career? Share them with us on Facebook, Twitter and our other social channels using the hashtag #AnitasVoice.