Please check out my main blog, Obi-Wan Kimberly Is Your Only Hope, where I write about web development and technical management!


Kimberly Blessing Hi, my name is Kimberly Blessing. I'm a computer scientist, Web developer, standards evangelist, feminist, and geek. This is where I write about life, the Web, technology, women's issues, and whatever else comes to mind.

Also by Kimberly

Women! Blog Archive

Tips for Women in the Workplace

From the New York Times, The Mismeasure of Woman:

“For the first time, women make up half the work force. The Shriver Report, out just last week, found that mothers are the major breadwinners in 40 percent of families. We have a female speaker of the House and a female secretary of state. Thirty-two women have served as governors. Thirty-eight have served as senators. Four out of eight Ivy League presidents are women. Great news, right? Well, not exactly. In fact, it couldn’t be more spectacularly misleading.”

Sadly, it’s true: making up half of the workforce has not brought women equality in the workplace. American work places are still largely ill-suited for us and our employers do not fully recognize or taking advantage of our talents. What’s more, we’re still far too often demeaned, belittled, and treated as sex objects — usually behind closed doors, but sometimes publicly, too. What must women continue to do to gain equal footing?

In Ten Things Companies — and Women — Can Do To Get Ahead, employers are reminded that a lack of gender diversity in executive and board positions hurts both the company, as well as professional women, and provides some great tips for companies seeking to increase female presence. While all of the tips were good, those which I’d personally recommend, from personal experience, include: (emphasis mine)

  • Make Mentoring a Priority: Research shows that mentoring programs can be powerful tools for advancing the careers of professional women. Every young professional can benefit from having a mentor. But for women in male-dominated corporate environments, the need is even greater. Women with mentors, research finds, are more likely to apply for promotions.
  • Retain Your Best Women: What does it take to keep talented women in your organization? Asking them directly is a good place to start in getting an answer. However, research finds that flexible work hours, generous maternity leave benefits and coaching for women returning to the workforce can make a difference.
  • Measure Your Results: When companies put goals in writing and track their results, things gets done. Companies need to know where they stand and make managers accountable for the level of gender diversity in their organizations.
  • Move Beyond Tokenism: According to McKinsey, companies with three or more women in senior management scored higher on measures of organizational excellence than companies with no women at the top. It is not enough to add a woman here or there. The best performers build a critical mass that gives women the power to have their views heard.

The article also provides some suggestions for women — again, all good tips. Here are the ones I’m always telling other women:

  • Dare to Apply: McKinsey, citing internal research from HP, found that “women apply for open jobs only if they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria listed, whereas men respond to the posting if they feel they meet 60 percent of the requirements.” That by itself, if it holds true across the corporate world, could be holding back a lot of talented women.
  • Know What You are Good At: Instead of just focusing on what you are lacking, take time to inventory what you have to offer. Evaluate your potential based on your skills and competencies, not merely the jobs you have held in the past. Many of your skills could be applicable in jobs — or in fields — you have not considered.
  • Know What Success Means to You and Move Toward It: If you want to get somewhere, it helps to know where you are going. In the book “Stepping Out of Line: Lessons for Women Who Want It Their Way…In Life, In Love, and At Work,” author Nell Merlino says: “You have to see it before you can devise a plan to get there.”

Some of the best advice I’ve read lately comes from an unlikely source — Forbes. (They’ve published a number of sexist pieces in the past year or two.) The article states what many people won’t acknowledge, telling women: “Sexism, whatever you call it, hasn’t disappeared. But it’s better to know exactly what you’re up against.” Amongst their list of unwritten rules: (emphasis mine)

  • Men get the benefit of the doubt. Men generally get hired on their promise and women on their demonstrated experience. Men are usually taken at their word, while women get challenged more, required to deliver data and substantiation for their views.
  • You won’t get sufficient feedback. Professional development depends upon rigorous, comprehensive, ongoing feedback. Your (male) boss may not feel comfortable delivering that information to you. You need to be direct in asking for it from him and from other colleagues and team members.
  • Women are rendered invisible until they demonstrate otherwise. If you want to be noticed, you’ve got to offer your ideas, approach a mentor, ask for the assignments, build a network, convey your aspirations and communicate your achievements.

I feel very lucky to have worked with some great women and men in the course of my career who — regardless of whether or not they acknowledged that sexism still exists — proactively mentored me, instructed me, and helped me overcome any roadblocks which could have set me back. Still, I see too many environments in which sexism, however subtle, is part of the status quo and managers and leaders are unprepared (and, sadly, sometimes unwilling) to change their own behaviors, as well as those of their teams. I realize that I make people uncomfortable in raising these issues and pushing to address them. But what others must realize is that I live according to a rule my mother taught me long ago, which is reiterated in the Forbes article by Ann Daly, and which I can’t say often enough to other women: “Don’t let them sabotage your ambitions”.

Honoring Ada, Inspiring Women

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. Ada Lovelace was a mathematician and, essentially, the first computer programmer (in an age where mechanical calculating machines were still ideas drawn on paper). Born in 1815, she envisioned machines which could not only compute calculations, but also compose music.

When computer science students are learning the history of the subject (assuming they get any historical teachings at all — our history is “taught” via small anecdotes as footnotes in textbooks), Ada Lovelace is sometimes the only women ever mentioned. However the history of the field is strewn with the impactful and inspiring stories of women: Grace Hopper, Jean Bartik and the other ENIAC programmers, Milly Koss (why doesn’t she have a Wikipedia page?), Fran Allen, Anita Borg, Telle Whitney, Wendy Hall, Ellen Spertus — and those are just the high-profile women whose names are likely to be recognized. There are so many other women out there who have done, are doing, and will do great things for computing, technology, and the world — and today’s blogging event will expose all of us to a few more.

Although I’ve found many female role models in computing and technology, none were as important to me as the women I was surrounded by in college, when I was pursuing computer science as a major. Bryn Mawr’s computer science department didn’t exist yet — in fact, we had only one full-time CS professor back then! But there were plenty of women on campus interested in technology and they were my primary motivators and supporters in those days.

Amy (Biermann) Hughes, PhD graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1995 and received her PhD in computer science from the University of Southern California in 2002. She is currently a member of the technical staff at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. I think I first met Amy when we were working together for Computing Services as student operators (“ops” for short) and she was an immediate inspiration. Amy seemed to know everything there was to know about networks, and she taught me a great deal. The fact that she’d decided to major in CS without there being an official major made the idea of me doing it seem feasible. Amy had done research as an undergrad — another fact which amazed me — in parallel computing! (That just flat out floored me.) On top of all of that, she loved Duran Duran. I’m not kidding when I say that there were times at which I’d say to myself, “Amy got through this somehow, I can too!” In fact, I’m still telling myself this, as every time I think about going back to school for my PhD, I wonder how I’ll get over my fear of qualifying exams and I remember that Amy did it, so can I!

My compsci partner-in-crime from my own class was Sarah Hacker (yes, that’s her real name). She graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1997 and went on to do graduate studies at SUNY Buffalo. She currently works in health care information systems at the University of Iowa. Sarah and I were in many classes together before we ever struck up a conversation. I was intimidated by her natural programming abilities — to me, it seemed that she could pick up any language syntax and any programming concept so easily! — but I came to greatly appreciate and sometimes rely on them. We also worked for Computing Services and frequently worked the night shifts together, drinking soda, eating candy, and making bizarre photo montages (such as Sarah’s brilliant Child of the Moon series). In fact, it was Sarah who first showed me how to create a web page, so I really owe her quite a bit! Sarah introduced me to Pulp (the band), reintroduced me to Real Genius, and taught me LISP for an AI assignment. We started the Computer Science Culture Series together and were featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer for our robots, Jimmy and Timmy. Generally, she just kept me company and in good spirits, and I can only hope that I did the same for her.

Fortunately Amy and Sarah are still friends, so I continue to draw inspiration from their current lives and achievements as well. Of course, they weren’t the only women who helped me make it through my undergraduate experience and early career — Elysa Weiss, Helen Horton Peterson ’79, and Jennifer Harper ’96 (all Bryn Mawr Computing Services staff) were instrumental as well. And I have to give props to the men who were able to put up with supported a community of such strong women: Deepak Kumar, John King, Rodney Battle, and David Bertagni.

Those of us interested in computer science and technology are constantly looking forward, but today gives all of us a great opportunity to look back and highlight our common history and all of the people — both men and women — who’ve made today possible. Thank you, to all of them!

Speaking up for Women in STEM

With the Obama administration finally in office, women’s issues have gained new focus. Of particular interest and importance to me is the focus on the lack of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

The New York Times is writing about it (In ‘Geek Chic’ and Obama, New Hope for Lifting Women in Science) and public radio is talking about it (Breaking the glass ceiling for women scientists), as are so many other media outlets. So far I’m not hearing anything new — meaning I’m not hearing any new ideas on how to affect change and bring in/retain women — but I’m trying to remain positive. I have to hope that more coverage means more eyes and ears will consume this information, and that it may start to take hold with those unfamiliar with the issue.

Unfortunately, events of the recent past make that hope difficult to drum up sometimes. When pointing out statements made by men that were (intentionally or unintentionally) offensive or hurtful or discouraging towards women, I was told, in various ways, to shush and not get so emotional. Now, I have pretty tough skin, so I’m not pointing out statements and actions to defend myself, but to inform others of what their statements and actions may mean to other women. Maybe that’s why I get the reaction I do — perhaps my statements aren’t seen as genuine, because I’m really not expressing emotion, and thus they are dismissed. Maybe I’m over-thinking this, but it does bother me, because I want to be a good servant in this area to my fellow women. Your suggestions and thoughts on how I can accomplish this are most welcome.

More reading…

The Girl Effect

What happens when a girl gets a chance?

  • When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later, and has 2.2 fewer children.
  • Educated girls grow into educated women, who — research shows — have healthier babies and are more likely to educate their children.
  • When girls and women earn income, they reinvest 90% of it into their families, as compared to only 30-40% for a man.
  • An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ future wages by 10-20%.
  • An extra year of secondary school boosts girl’s future wages by 15-25%.

Start making a difference.

Send a girl to school. Help fight her legal case. Give her a microloan. There are many ways to help. Learn more from The Girl Effect.

I helped elect a female president!

Yes, I wish I were talking about Hillary! But I’m not.

Instead I’m talking about the ACM elections, and the woman I’m referring to is Wendy Hall, CBE, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the British Computer Society, co-founding director of the Web Science Research Initiative, and (if you couldn’t tell) one of my role models. So the votes have been counted and, come July 1, Wendy will also serve a two-year term as President of the ACM. Congratulations!

I should also mention that Wendy received the Anita Borg Award for Technical Leadership from the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology at the 2006 Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of Women in Computing, for which I was the webmaster — an awesome volunteer opportunity which just happens to be available! If you’ve got skills in WordPress then please apply!

And speaking of GHC, I also need to mention that registration for the 2008 conference is now open! After so many years of attending, stalking Telle Whitney, and volunteering, this year I’m finally going to be speaking on a panel! (Go me!) So, don’t miss this opportunity to interact with thousands of smart, successful, techie women — including Fran Allen!

Gosh I love being a woman in computing.