March 2015 - National Women's History Month

March 12, 2015
Dear Friends,

For one woman in our community, neither age nor gender has kept her from pursuing her dream to invent at a Silicon Valley company where she works. As we celebrate National Women’s History Month 2015, her story highlights the need to address inequality for women in the high technology workplace.

While listening to NPR recently, I heard Barbara Beskind’s story. At 90 years old, she works as a tech designer at IDEO, a company founded in Palo Alto and most famous for developing Apple’s first mouse.

One day a week, Barbara holds court at IDEO’s offices, brainstorming new products geared toward seniors. Her innovations include airbags that deploy when an individual falls, and glasses with cameras and speakers that assist individuals with remembering the names of family and friends. Her energy is described as “contagious.”

But Barbara hasn’t always been able to live out her dream as an inventor. She told NPR that she’s had dreams of inventing since she was eight years old, but growing up in an era when women couldn’t pursue engineering degrees, she found herself studying home economics instead. She later enlisted in the Army to become an occupational therapist.

After 44 years as an occupational therapist, Barbara was nearing retirement when she saw IDEO CEO David Kelley on 60 Minutes discussing workplace diversity and its value in creating better business. She decided to write to the company and days later she was hired. It turned out IDEO also had an interest in designing products for seniors.

Barbara’s story is one of persistence and about how differing perspectives enhance problem solving.

Last year, I authored an Op-Ed for the San Jose Mercury News with my Bay Area colleagues Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Barbara Lee that examined the lack of diversity in the tech world. We wrote, “Now, as major companies such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook and LinkedIn have disclosed their workforce and leadership diversity data, it is painfully clear the sector faces a persistent and troubling deficit when it comes to women, African-Americans and Latinos.”

A March 2nd New York Times story had the lede, “Fewer large companies are run by women than by men named John, a sure indicator that the glass ceiling remains firmly in place in corporate America.”

The gender inequality problem persists and women like Barbara Beskind are helping to break the glass ceiling. But more can and should be done.

Last December, I joined hundreds of women at POLITICO’s “Women Rule” conference in Washington, D.C. to discuss solutions to the lack of diversity in the high technology workforce. Companies can begin by diversifying their workforces—which is proven to help the bottom line—and continue to be transparent. At the same time, Congress should address education disparities so that more girls and women pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The number of women pursuing computer science degrees has actually shrunk over the past three decades with only 0.4 percent of incoming college women intending to major in computer sciences. The same is true for minorities. In 12 states during 2013, not a single African-American high school student took the computer science Advanced Placement exam. For Latinos, not a single student took the exam in eight states.

Congress can also open more doors of opportunity for women of all races and ages by passing legislation that ensures equal pay for equal work, access to child care, and paid sick leave.

The reasons for the lack of diversity in the technology workplace may be complex, but we all need to play a role in the remedies. Recognizing the problem is the first step to create change, and it is my hope that sharing Barbara’s experiences during National Women’s History Month, like those of countless women who seek careers in technology, spurs change for the next generation of women to invent, innovate and lead.

Most gratefully,

Anna G. Eshoo

Member of Congress