Telle Whitney

AGE: 46

CLAIM TO FAME: Engineering executive for various Silicon Valley semiconductor makers, including Silicon Compilers, Actel Corp. and PMC-Sierra Inc. Co-founder of the biennial Grace Hopper Conference.

WHAT SHE'S DOING NOW: President of the Institute for Women and Technology. She focuses on how technology affects social issues.

When Telle Whitney picked up her doctorate in computer science from the California Institute of Technology in the mid-1980s, 37% of the field's students were women. Today that number has plummeted to 26%.

This shift hurts technology for the future, argues the current president of the Institute for Women and Technology in Palo Alto, Calif., a nonprofit organization that works to address social issues raised by technology.

"Men miss a huge market because they don't understand the dynamics of women and family life as well as women," she claims. That means they don't build products that would resolve issues in the home. For example, Whitney says, a wireless system for handling a family's calendar would be a great boon to many women and families, but that isn't something that would occur to the majority of male product designers.

She says she worries that the situation is worsening because more women are giving up on trying to get their ideas accepted by technical teams.

"In Silicon Valley, women engineers are starting to leave companies because it's becoming too male-dominated," Whitney says.

For technology to realize its full potential in the years ahead, it needs to reach deeper into the lives of more communities of users, suggests Whitney, co-founder of the Grace Hopper Conference, the largest technology event for women. That means its developers must know the needs in those communities.

Whitney, who made her mark as an integrated circuit designer in Silicon Valley, is concerned that a lack of diversity among technologists undermines technology's true potential.

"The problem with computer scientists is that we make things complex," she says, "when what we really need to do is think about the human side of computing."

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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