Telle Whitney Receives IEEE Honorary Membership

Longtime champion for women technologists, Whitney recognized for contributions throughout her career.


On May 17 Telle Whitney received the 2019 IEEE Honorary Membership at the 2019 IEEE Vision, Innovation, and Challenges Summit (IEEE VIC Summit) in San Diego for leadership in supporting and promoting women in technology, and for building a highly impactful global organization dedicated to this purpose.

Sponsored by IEEE, the grade of Honorary Member is a significant honor bestowed by IEEE and is awarded for life to an individual. Honorary Members are elected by the Board of Directors from among those who have rendered meritorious service to humanity in the IEEE’s designated fields of interest and who are not members of the IEEE. Honorary Members shall be entitled to all rights and privileges of the IEEE, except the right to hold office therein.

A pioneer for the promotion of women technologists and recognized expert on diversity, Whitney has championed the cause of increasing the representation of women in the global technology workforce.

During her accomplished career in the semiconductor industry, Telle Whitney developed a critical understanding of the challenges women face in technology sectors and used her experiences to become a pioneer for the promotion of women technologists. As president and chief executive officer of the Anita Borg Institute for Women (now known as from 2002 until 2017, Whitney shaped and executed the Institute’s mission of increasing the number of women technologists in the global workforce. Through Whitney’s vision, hard work, and intense commitment, AnitaB has identified issues, pushed both women and men to address the challenges, and inspired hundreds of thousands of women at all stages in their careers to persist and succeed. She guided the organization from a new and struggling nonprofit to one with a global reach and brand that has become an established force supporting women in technology. She led the development of a wide variety of programs aimed at recruiting, retaining, and advancing women. She cofounded, with computer scientist Anita Borg, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference in 1994, which has grown exponentially from 500 attendees in 1994 to over 18,000 in 2017 and has become the premier global event for promoting and creating opportunities in technology for women. To expand the conference’s influence, the Grace Hopper Celebration India was launched in 2011 and had over 2,900 attendees in 2016. She has led the creation of the Systers network to build local communities of women technologists and their allies, cofounded the National Center for Women and Information Technology, and cofounded the BRAID (Building Recruiting and Inclusion for Diversity) project. BRAID works with computer science departments across the United States to help increase the participation of women and people of color in their undergraduate majors.

Semiconductor Engineering had the opportunity to speak with Whitney recently. Following are excerpts of that conversation.

SE: What got you started on the path to championing women?

Whitney: I got my PhD in computer science from Caltech and when I was there, it was only 13% women, so when I came up to the Bay Area—because it was really Silicon Valley then—I was really desperate to meet other women. It was during those early years where I first met Anita Borg. She and I were very close friends. She and I did some work together, and she and I founded the Grace Hopper celebration in the early 90s and that’s really where it started.

SE: Could you share your reflections as far as the progress that’s been made for representation of women in technology, in semiconductors?

Whitney: I took over the Anita Borg Institute in 2002 and for me it was a big switch. I had worked in startups in the semiconductor industry for many years and really had a passion for technology. Switching to a nonprofit, I still worked broadly with technical women, but the work was fairly different; it was a big change. In that job young women would come to me and they’d say, “This work changed my life.” The Grace Hopper celebration in 2018 had 22,000 people attend so it has grown phenomenally—not so much just women in semiconductors, but this is women broadly in computer science, computing and technology. My experience in terms of women in semiconductors is that there’s still not many of them, but we do see so many women who are excited and passionate about making a difference in technology. Interestingly, there are some areas where it is 50% women. Human computer interaction has a great representation of women. I sit on the board of AI 4 All, which is training the next generation of AI developers or researchers. And it’s exciting to see these young women and under-represented minorities very excited about the possibility of artificial intelligence.

SE: What should our focus be today and for the next 5 to 10 years to improve the number of women in semiconductors?

Whitney: First of all, what has happened in the time that I’ve been intimately involved in this work is the attention. There’s much more discussion about having more women in the workplace, and you can see that. It is part of the reason why the Grace Hopper Celebration has grown so dramatically. More and more companies are very interested in understanding what to do so they come there to recruit, but they also bring the women who work in their companies with them. For me, what is really important is that you can create change, but it takes focused effort. In particular, what you measure, you will change, and so you see companies very dramatically in terms of the representation and participation of women. In terms of semiconductors, one of the companies that has been the gold star is Intel. The Intel of my professional youth was white guys in white shirts, but Intel has, especially under the last two CEOs (before the current one), were very systematic about looking at how to change their numbers and measuring everything. As a semiconductor company, they’re used to measuring everything, and that serves you well when you’re trying to create cultural change because you can look at where you’re losing women, you can look at where you’re losing underrepresented minorities and then create programs that address your very real needs. One of the programs that Intel installed a couple of years ago had to do with the technical track. All too often the Fellows are all white men, and they’re the ones evaluating [candidates] to join the Fellow track. And what they did was they started looking in the pipeline at Intel: the principal engineers and creating professional development that helped them better understand how to present their technical ideas. They also broadened the group that was looking at the applications for Fellows to include some very senior women executives. By creating some change, and while numbers are still pretty small, they were able in one year to add four or five new women Fellows, which was unheard of in their history. Intel publishes a diversity report twice a year and they talk about how they’re doing, what their goals are and how they’re measuring that.

SE: Technology-wise, what are some of the most exciting technology developments that you’ve witnessed during your career?

Whitney: I think there are two aspects. As I mentioned earlier, I was very involved in what I would call the VLSI revolution. At the time we were very focused on being able to take IPs and pieces of technologies and stitch them together onto chips and be able to create these application specific chips, both programmable logic (I worked at an FPGA company for a number of years) as well as system on a chip. I was at a company that created a voice over IP processor using some of those principles. What’s fun for me is that I can now look 20 years later and see what has happened. Chips became ubiquitous. They’re in refrigerators, they’re in cars. We actually have a pet rabbit and she has a chip inside of her. She’s a rescue rabbit and the pound put a chip in her for tracking.

SE: When you look ahead 20 years, where would you like to imagine that the representation of women in technology has reached?

Whitney: I certainly believe in 50/50. Half the population is women and it’s important to have women at the table creating technology, but in addition to just having equal representation overall, it’s important to have representation in leadership positions. Right now, if you look at the Fortune 500 CEOs, it’s about 6% women so part of the revolution that needs to happen isn’t just with participation but in leadership. That’s why this systematic approach of inclusion at organization is so important.

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