Anita Borg: A Voice for Women in Programming

Posted by Flatiron School  /  January 15, 2016

This blog originally appeared on January 16, 2015.

Blog post image: tumblr_inline_nia1roKk7A1rtan47.jpg

Anita Borg dedicated her career to making the tech industry a better place. Although she was a respected computer scientist, she is given the most credit for her tireless advocacy for and mentorship of women in computing. In honor of her 66th birthday tomorrow, here are three reasons to celebrate her memory.

1. She taught herself how to program

Borg always loved math, but had not planned to turn this into a career in computer science. She taught herself how to program while putting her husband through school, working as a “girl Friday” in a small insurance company. Her extra-office studies clearly sparked a passion. She later attended New York University and received a PhD in Computer Science.

2. She created communities of women in computing

In 2015, Borg is best remembered for her work supporting, celebrating, and advocating for women who wanted to impact technology. This work gained momentum when she founded the online community Systers in 1987—years before online communities (let alone global communities of women in computer science) were a thing. In 1994, while attending a conference with a notable lack of female representation, Borg had dinner with Telle Whitney and started the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Now the world’s largest gathering of its kind, this conference started with 500 attendees and was dedicated to bringing women’s achievements and research in computer science to the forefront. She also founded the Institute for Women and Technology. According to Borg, the Institute was started to ensure women (regardless of whether or not they worked in tech) had opportunities to shape the technologies of the future.“There are many ways that women can impact technology without being IN technology. We need both kinds of women… At IWT, we think that women must be involved in every aspect of defining the future of technology, from policy to research to design and implementation. We must be there in order to assure that the technology of the future serves us well.”

3. She helped show Barbie that math is for everyone, not just boys

In general, Systers provided a place for technical women to discuss highly technical topics. But on occasion, non-technical discussion was sanctioned. One of these occasions happened in 1992 when a talking Barbie complained about math class. Mattel’s Teen Talk Barbie was programmed to say 270 phrases including “Math class is tough.” If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, allow us to direct your attention to the recent Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer controversy. Because girls were playing with Barbies at an age when confidence in their math abilities needed to be bolstered, not undercut, protest stirred among the Systers list. Ultimately, they played a role in getting Mattel to remove the phrase. The beauty of Borg’s advocacy lied in the belief that rallying women’s voices would add a distinct, yet critical perspective to technology. This diversity of thought would not only make the industry richer in the short run, but would help future technologies make a positive impact. In a time when technology touches people’s social, political, economic, and personal lives, it should serve everyone, regardless of their gender, age, or level of tech savviness. Advocating for women was her part in helping all people secure the power to shape their own futures. Happy Birthday, Anita Borg! Thank you for making our community even better. Anita Borg art by Flatiron School Instructor Mitch Boyer.