Celebrating Women in Tech

New initiative aims to support female engineers across New York City

Mar 06 2019 | By JESSE ADAMS | Photo Credit: Timothy Lee Photographers

Watch excerpts from Ursula Burns's conversation with Dean Boyce.

The talk included a lively audience Q&A.

Bloomberg CTO Shawn Edwards, Dean Boyce, Burns, Paskin, and Donna MacPhee, president of the Columbia Alumni Association.

Burns with an NYU computer science student.

Dean Boyce, Burns, and NYU Tandon Dean Jelena Kovacevic, a Columbia Engineering alum.

Gilda Barabino (center), dean of CCNY Grove School of Engineering.

Engineering skills are as fundamental to 21st century literacy as reading and writing, according to Ursula Burns MS’82, the first African-American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company. The CEO of Veon and former head of Xerox, Burns returned to campus on March 5 as part of a special night launching New York City Women in Tech (NYC-WIT), an initiative devoted to leveraging the talent of women engineers as the city consolidates its place as a global tech hub.

A mechanical engineer by education, Burns argued that one of the most powerful aspects of an engineering degree is the kind of creative thinking it fosters. “No one is born an engineer: it’s a process,” said Burns, who also led Change the Equation, President Obama’s national program on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). “You are taught that we can get to a solution to anything through an organized, process-driven, step-by-step approach. That carries itself through everything I do.”

She sat down with Mary C. Boyce, dean of Columbia Engineering, for a far-reaching conversation moderated by Janet Paskin ’00JRN, workplace editor at Bloomberg. The packed gathering at The Forum in Manhattanville convened leaders from industry and government with students and alumni from engineering schools across New York City—Columbia, CCNY Grove School of Engineering, Cornell Tech, NYU Tandon School of Engineering, and Cooper Union—and Barnard College for an evening of reflection, discussion, and networking. Donna MacPhee, president of the Columbia Alumni Association, was on hand to welcome the over 400 attendees. Shawn Edwards BS’90 MS’95, CTO of Bloomberg, introduced Dean Boyce.

NYC-WIT formed last year to promote a receptive climate and broaden the engineering and technology pipeline by sharing best practices and identifying obstacles. The consortium is working to ensure that more young women are attracted to engineering and technology fields, and more women achieve career advancement with salary parity; to understand what variables impact retention; and to strategically intervene to make a significant and lasting impact for New York City women in engineering and technology.

“We have to increase the numbers in leadership positions,” Burns said. “We’re still paying women less money than men and we have to bring to the forefront the fundamental inequity in how women are treated in the workplace as opposed to how men are treated… Women have to be prepared to change the rules.”

Fostering a more inclusive environment in engineering and technology doesn’t just benefit women, the speakers noted; it also gives everyone the chance to work with a more diverse array of talent to address the key challenges of today with creative engineering solutions.

It changes the whole environment to have the presence of more women. It’s great for everybody because it’s bringing very different ways of thinking about problems together, about solving problems together, about what those creative next solutions will be.

Dean Mary C. Boyce

“It changes the whole environment to have the presence of [more] women,” Boyce said. “It’s great for everybody because it’s bringing very different ways of thinking about problems together, about solving problems together, about what those creative next solutions will be.”

Columbia Engineering has made remarkable progress increasing female participation in recent years, demonstrating one of the most successful track records among top-ranked engineering schools. While women make up under 25% of engineering students nationally, some 44% of the School’s undergraduates are women, and 49% of the Class of 2022. Representation of women among master’s students, doctoral candidates, and faculty also substantially exceeds the national average. That’s true of other New York engineering schools. For instance, NYU Tandon’s Class of 2022 is 43% female.

The conversation was followed by a lively reception co-sponsored by industry partners and “She Opened the Door,” a Columbia Alumni Association conference. Students, alumni, and industry professionals lingered exchanging ideas and joining forces for future problem solving.

“Now is an ideal time to promote women in engineering and technology across the city as NYC rapidly emerges as a technology hub. Engineering is transforming nearly every industry sector across the city,” Boyce said. “I’m delighted that all the engineering schools are represented tonight and that our industry sponsors—Bloomberg, Addepar, Google, Morgan Stanley, and Weight Watchers—are able to see the tremendous engineering talent that our schools are collectively adding to New York City.”

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