About the ‘booth babe’ ban, why diversity makes everyone better, and the unfinished work of encouraging women in tech

Dr. Dena Haritos Tsamitis
Dr. Dena Haritos Tsamitis

Part of an ongoing series, Women in Tech.

Dr. Dena Haritos Tsamitis is one of the most powerful voices in the world of technology, and one of the most accomplished.  She helped found Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab, among the first organizations designed to encourage cybersecurity research sharing among schools, private industry, and government.  Carnegie Mellon is also home of CERT, the nation’s Internet security emergency response center.  Tsamitis serves as director the College of Engineering’s Information Networking Institute (INI) at Carnegie Mellon, where she leads initiatives in graduate education, curriculum design, and distributed education as an advocate of cybersecurity. Her research on transnational university partnership programs has influenced the framework of numerous degree programs offered through innovative delivery models.

Tsamitis is also one of the most important women’s voices in a field still dominated by men.  By actively encouraging young women to stick with their pursuit of computer science degrees, Tsamitis is helping change that equation one student at a time. In 2005, Tsamitis co-founded Women@INI (WINI) to address the unique challenges faced by women in the male-dominated field of engineering. The group has figured prominently in issues ranging from elimination of “booth babes” at security conferences to raising the percentage of incoming female students to 34 percent.  In this post, she explains why *everyone* benefits when groups embrace diversity.  And in telling the story of a young female student who hears form a male student that she is only receiving job opportunities from Google and Microsoft because of quota requirements, Tsamitis shows that more work needs to be done.

By Dr. Dena Haritos Tsamitis

In 2002, I became the Associate Director of the Information Networking Institute (INI) at Carnegie Mellon University, which offers technical, interdisciplinary master’s degree programs in information networking, mobility, security, and software management. When I started working here, I noticed something startling: our incoming class of 34 students only included 2 women (6%), bringing the total number of women enrolled at the INI to 9 (13%). Traditionally, women have been underrepresented in STEM, especially within the fields of computer science and engineering. In 2013, a study by the American Association for University Women (AAUW) found that women only make up about 26% of computing professionals—which is to say that women are less represented in these fields now than they were 25 years ago and represented at an equivalent to that of 1960.  In Engineering, they are represented even less, at a staggering 12%.  These numbers are also low when it comes to leadership in the business world. The 2020 Gender Diversity Index found that women only represent 17.9% of Fortune 1000 board members.  Of the Fortune 500, there are only 23 female CEOs—a representation rate of 4.6%; of whom, only 2 are women of color—an even more grave representation of .4%.

(See my other Women in Tech stories.)

In order to help attract and retain women to our programs, Chenxi Wang, a former INI faculty member, and I decided that something needed to happen to affect change.  We looked into research done by our colleagues at the School for Computer Science, Carol Frieze and Lenore Blum, as well as other various studies, and found that culture matters.  So, in 2005, we created Women@INI (WINI) to address the unique challenges faced by women in the male-dominated fields of computer science and engineering.  By doing this, we enacted a cultural shift and created an inclusive environment for our female students, where they felt safe, and supported, and where they were not the minority.  Ten years later, in the fall of 2015, we welcomed an incoming class that was 34% women.  My goal has to been to affect change where I can when it comes to the disparity of women in STEM, and I believe that an inclusive learning environment is just the beginning.

WINI has been more than a social club for our women—it has been an important resource that allows the cultivation of leadership qualities and that actively gives back to society, as they are involved in community projects on campus, in Pittsburgh, and across the world. WINI provides mentorship and networking opportunities among current INI students and alumni, creating a professional connection that extends past graduation and equips our female students with the confidence and skillsets needed to succeed.

Our recruitment goals have included an active attempt to recruit women and underrepresented minorities into our programs, because diversity matters.

We have made it an institutional policy to create a nurturing and inspiring environment that promotes and celebrates gender and cultural equality, both within and beyond the INI.  A recent Gallup student found that graduates who interacted with people of different backgrounds during their education were two times as likely to say that their education was worth the cost.   Scientific American writer Katherine Phillips said it best; “people who are different from one another in race, gender, and other dimensions bring unique information and experiences to bear on the task at hand,” while citing several students on how both racial and gender diversity lead companies to financial and creative success.

Despite our efforts, there is some resistance, perhaps from a lack of understanding, by our male students. At the end of each semester, the INI hosts a “Town Hall,” in order to have an open dialogue with our students about departmental and general student issues, so that their concerns can be heard. The feedback from this event is invaluable as it helps us to further our mission and ensure the INI’s future success. In advance of the Town Hall, students are encouraged to submit feedback that we can present and discuss with them—and without fail, for the past several years, I have been asked about why we have Women@INI (WINI) and no men’s club.

The reality of the situation is: the tech field already is a men’s club.

Attend any tech-related conference, and you’ll find company representatives selling their products and attempting to woo your interest in their business. Who these companies choose as representatives speaks volumes about their perceived target audience, and at tech conferences, “booth babes” are everywhere. Underdressed and lacking professional involvement with the trade at hand, these female representatives exist to attract one audience: men. My former colleague, and co-founder of WINI, Chenxi Wang said it best when she wrote,

“(Tech companies) made the implication that, for those companies that chose to do so, the promotion of their technologies/products was not possible without scantily-clad women, it feels like a cruel insult to the efforts of the men and women who worked hard to create, build, Q/A, and demo the product. It was no less harsh an offense to the intelligence of many, both men and women, who walked the show floor with the goal to learn, to engage in intellectual exchanges, and to debate serious issues.”

This post, co-authored by Zenobia Godschalk, CEO of ZAG Communications, recounted an unsavory experience with booth babes at the RSA2014, a global security conference, and was eventually read to the leadership of the RSA organizing committee alongside posts and articles of similar concern. With this in mind, the RSA2015 was one of the first – and certainly not the last –conferences to ban booth babes. For the RSA2015, Chenxi and Zenobia created a pin that used the phrase “Equal Respect,” for conference goers to wear as a sign of solidarity and support.  They created 250 pins in the first round of production, and I was proud to help fund this effort. By noon on the first full day of the RSA2015, all 250 pins were claimed by men and women wanting the same thing: respect for all at tech conferences.

To continue this trend, we’ve proudly sponsored the production of 375 tee shirts for this year’s RSA conference. The shirt reads “Equal Respect” on the front, and “thank you for supporting equality & diversity,” on the back, along with our co-sponsors. Our co-sponsors include CISCO, IOActive, the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS), Duo Security, CyberSN, LYNX Technology Partners, and Women in Security and Privacy.  As I write this, it is the last day of the RSA2016, and Chenxi is reporting to our marketing team that the shirts are incredibly popular with tech companies and conference goers alike.

Within our own community, we still face challenges and stereotypes that push women out. Just this fall, after Carnegie Mellon’s Technical Opportunities Conference (TOC), an upset student approached me after a difficult conversation with one of her male classmates. In a group, they had been discussing the opportunities that the TOC brought them—job interviews, internship offers, etc. When she had boasted about the offers presented to her by companies like Google, Pinterest, and Microsoft, her classmate informed her that those companies had only approached her because she was a woman and that they needed to meet a “quota.”

I assured her that she received these offers because of her talent, not to meet any quota. I could say this with confidence, because she is in the top of her class, at one of the best schools in the country, and has ample experience that would make her an asset to any company. When I consider moments such as this, I consider the future of WINI and what its challenges will be going forward. I want to ensure that all of my students feel safe, valued, and equal—we must work towards affecting change.

With women making up about 59% the U.S. Workforce and 51% of its population, I challenge myself regularly to help inspire and create the next generation of both female and male leaders who will help us create a more inclusive environment in both tech and enterprise, so that representation rates in these fields match that of the real world.

In order to address our male students’ sense of exclusion, and to help them understand why it is important for WINI to exist, we are currently working towards a programming format that will allow men to attend some of WINI’s events, especially ones where they will be able to hear the stories and experiences of our female students. Given the recent report by the AAUW, we will need 1.7 million more computer scientists and engineers within the next 10 years in order to succeed.  It is of the utmost importance to create a cultural shift that follows suit.

Other Women in Tech stories:

If you’ve read this far, perhaps you’d like to support what I do. That’s easy. Sign up for my free email list below or click on an advertisement.

About Bob Sullivan 1444 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.