Jun 03 2022

Q&A: How the University of California Supports Women in Technology

The universitywide committee seeks to be a resource for professional development and raise awareness about issues impacting women in technology.

What started as a casual discussion among women IT leaders over lunch has turned into a committee that spans University of California campuses.

The University of California had several campus-based “women in tech” groups, but the women of the UC IT Leadership Academy wanted to think bigger, creating a universitywide group for women in technology. Rather than waiting for official sponsorship, the group approached their female colleagues for assistance in forming the group, and over two years they recruited representatives from every UC campus and location and became an established featured session at UC’s annual technology conference.

EdTech: Focus on Higher Education spoke with Vanessa Kaskiris, a Latinx technology leader, UC Berkeley staff member and chair of the UC Women in Technology Committee, to learn more about the organization’s goals and successes.

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EDTECH: Why is diversity in the tech industry important?

Kaskiris: The tech industry was lauded for a long time as a meritocracy for the brilliant and exceptional, when in truth it harmed women, Black people, Indigenous people and people of color (BIPOC). We now know that meritocracies reinforce structural racism and gender and ethnic stereotypes. The previous standards are outdated and benefit very few.

The Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley is, for me, a true source of knowledge and inspiration. Leaders there are unafraid to openly discuss and propose the dismantling of institutional and systemic racism, sexism and oppression. The institute is a beacon of transformational light in these very polarizing and traumatic times. I give thanks that it exists each and every week.

I know how hard it is to get this stuff right, and I acknowledge that and own my biases daily. The messaging that women in IT receive is that they need to show up differently or fix how they are perceived. On its face, that simply doesn’t make sense. Technology is genuinely about everybody, not the chosen few. And yet, here we are doing this interview. Because for all the hype and money and progress, we have so very far to go before technology recognizes, embraces and supports all inherently. There is so much work to do.

READ MORE: How using analytics can support university DEI goals.

EDTECH: How is the committee developing the talent of current and future women leaders in IT?

Kaskiris: As the current chair of the UC Women in Technology (UC WIT) Committee, I have the rare opportunity to convene and hear from an immensely impressive group of women IT leaders on a regular basis.

As a prior successful Latinx entrepreneur of a brick-and-mortar learning space, I was keenly aware of the challenges around equity in education. A founding principle of my business was to create space for folks who were not typically in a position to be exposed to the curriculum. I hired a diverse roster of instructors and promoted and offered donation-based classes. I cultivated a new community. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my lifetime, and I draw from those experiences in my current role.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, I immediately reached out to my good friend John O’Duinn to provide support for my remote staff and explore how to do what we were trying to do, which was transition traditionally in-person work to fully remote work in the midst of a pandemic. Connecting John to the University of California resulted in a remote keynote panel presentation with John, UCLA Health’s then-CIO Michael Pfeffer, and me as part of the annual UC Tech Conference. I was bombarded with support and requests following the keynote, because it was timely and much-needed info that the broader UC system was not able to provide.

Vanessa Kaskiris
Technology is genuinely about everybody, not the chosen few. And yet, here we are doing this interview. Because for all the hype and money and progress, we have so very far to go before technology recognizes, embraces and supports all inherently."

Vanessa Kaskiris Chair of the UC Women in Technology Committee

In 2021, I co-presented with the magnificent Breeze Harper to create an opportunity for the UC IT system to gain insights into inclusivity within the context of intersectional approaches to racial and gender equity. Gender and racial equity for underrepresented populations in IT relies on the structural integration of DEI methods that move beyond HR compliance and implicit-bias training.

I have formalized building a strong professional network with valuable and concrete expertise. I truly concentrate on cultivating a large group of active professionals, researchers and passionate higher ed experts. Your heroes are human, and when you reach out and ask them for their insights, I have found that they are more likely than not going to do their best to show up for you. My advice: Don’t be afraid to reach out in a gracious way. What do you have to lose? Definitely reach out to the people that you admire.

EDTECH: What are some successes the committee has had, and what are your future goals?

Kaskiris: As an IT leader, my vision is to create transformational technology solutions that solve real problems for the campus. The UC WIT Committee members are doing that at each of their campuses and beautifully bringing their shared wisdom and learnings to the committee.

The committee recently finalized and approved an open letter to UC leadership that describes observations on and suggestions for supporting women in IT across the UC system during this unprecedented time in higher ed. I have heard from the campuses that the letter has reached a number of CIOs, who are reading it and taking it seriously.

Before the pandemic, UC WIT participated each year in a UC-wide technology conference, where we held a panel talk that was typically at full capacity with attendees. This year, the conference will take place at UC San Diego in August, and we’ve proposed a panel talk. I look forward to attending and participating. This year, the conference is just before we have our election for the incoming co-chair, so it will be a momentous event to close out my chair duties.

As the chair, I also recently revisited, reviewed and updated our UC WIT Committee Charter, which includes our mission, goals, member responsibilities, governance, voting process and subcommittee structure.

When I joined as chair of UC WIT, I had very specific goals:

  • Create a safe space for members to facilitate genuine and brave conversations that result in tangible and measurable outcomes.
  • Respect all members’ lived experiences with a background in trauma-informed practices and in service to the UC system.
  • Be an active ally, advocate and mentor for women across the UC system.

LEARN MORE: Online learning can help minimize racism and ableism in and out of the classroom.

EDTECH: What advice would you give to other university IT leaders interested in providing more support for women in technology on their campuses?

Kaskiris: Do your homework. Research is your friend. Instead of expecting your current othered or marginalized staff to step up to do the hard and retraumatizing work of educating and inducing change, refer to the robust body of existing knowledge on healthy organizations and meaningful culture change. As leaders, it is our responsibility to apply a research mindset and bring pertinent factual data to the table in these difficult conversations.

Invest in your managers. In many cases, managers move up from being individual contributors, which I fully support, but the tools and training to run a healthy team aren’t always obvious or immediately available to these new managers, yet we are asking so much of them in terms of responsibility for metrics and recruiting and retention. People are your most valuable and precious resource. Learn to treat them as such in your organizations.

Make data transparent. The UC schools are public institutions. Share and benchmark IT workforce institutional data. What is the average length of employment for BIPOC tech staff? Women tech staff? Can we do sophisticated and anonymized surveys of IT across the UC schools? If current IT staffers are considering leaving, what are the primary reasons? We need to commit to getting at what is really going on across the campuses — what we are doing well and what needs more work — and unless we create a way to open the door, we are never going to cross the threshold. I closely follow the National Academies’ Committee on Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine and respect the work that Director Ashley Bear is doing.

Create a safe space for all voices. Intentionally create safe spaces for your current organizational staff to choose to express their pain points. These spaces require structure that may be out of your area of expertise. Do not call it anonymous and then ask for an email address. Do not say that it’s confidential and then out a participant. Genuine healing and hearing must happen as a first step. If you are most concerned with risk mitigation, take a step back and consider whether you are bringing your own fears and power dynamic to the topic.

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