Trailblazing Nokia Bell Labs technologist Anne Lee aims for gender equity in Tech
Several years ago, veteran Bell Labs Fellow Anne Lee attended an engineering workshop where a contemporary of hers presented a picture of her younger self at her first full-time job in which she was the only woman in her working group. Then the woman showed a newer image, this one of her current group decades later at the same company. She was still the only woman.
“She said: ‘The reason I work on improving gender equity in my field is because I do not want to leave my profession worse off for women than when I started. And if I retire now, there will be no women in my group,’” Lee recalled her saying. “When I heard that, it profoundly affected me. Because it seemed like that could happen to me, too.”
Lee, a groundbreaking researcher working in IP communications and artificial intelligence, quickly realized that it had been more than a decade since she had been recognized as a Bell Labs Fellow, the company’s highest lifetime achievement award. Looking around, she was struck by how few other women had progressed as she had.
So, she embarked on the latest challenge of her 30+ year distinguished career in technology – inspiring other girls and women to follow in her path and making sure that they had all the opportunities to succeed.
This ambassadorship has included organizing women-led Tech conferences, taking part in various initiatives marking International Woman’s Day and Women’s History Month and co-founding a group called “Vision 1948” that aims to bring gender balance back to tech, just as it was at the Bell Labs math department in 1948.
It all came in addition to her demanding day job as a Technology Leadership Office (TLO) Senior Technology Advisor and the location co-site leader for the Chicago-Naperville campus. Together, these efforts and others earned her the distinction of being named Nokia’s 2020 Ada Lovelace honoree as a pioneering software engineer.
“Everything in the world is either run by or will be run by software,” said Lee. “We need a diversity of talent creating the software for the diversity of applications that run our world.”
Breaking up the boys’ club in Tech
It’s no secret that gender diversity has long been an issue in Tech. Since the emergence of the home personal computer, consumer marketing has been almost exclusively aimed toward boys and we have become all but inured to the societal norms perpetuating the stereotype of the nerdy, anti-social, male computer scientist – a caricature Lee considers both inaccurate and insulting.
It hasn’t always been this way, though. In fact, computing used to be the domain of women.
The 19th century English mathematician Ada Lovelace is regarded as the world’s first computer programmer. Before the word “computer” became associated with a machine, it was a profession and those performing these mathematical calculations were often primarily women.
AT&T started its math research division with the hiring of Sallie Mead in 1915. And when AT&T and Western Electric founded Bell Labs in 1925, women formed the core of the mathematics department in the new organization.
Women were also early pioneers at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And the thousands of women at Bletchley Park made up a strong majority of the workforce that helped Alan Turing break the German enigma code, turning the tide in World War II.
So long as software was perceived as being less intellectually challenging than hardware design, women were deemed suitable for the job. But as software’s importance and prestige grew in the Information Age, the profession swiftly shifted toward men, as biases began asserting that girls were less biologically inclined toward computing than boys.
Lee has experienced that same trajectory during her own career. When she went to college in the 1980s, earning a bachelor’s in electrical engineering and a master’s in computer science, she said some 40% of her fellow computer science majors were women. Today that figure often dips below 20%.
Lee says this has far-reaching consequences for America if it hopes to remain a world leader. A recognition of that challenge comes in last year’s $250 billion CHIPs and Science Act bill, in which Congress designated increasing the participation of women and underrepresented minorities as a major goal.
“We are not leveraging all of the talent that is out there and that’s a problem,” Lee said. “We are not even encouraging the talent to enter the field in the first place.”
Creating female role models in Tech
While the women’s rights movement of the 1970s drove greater diversity in other male-dominated professions, the opposite happened in Tech.
“I think a lot of it has to do with how women are portrayed in media,” Lee explained. “You see ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ and the ‘Big Bang Theory’ and all these other images. We must change the image of women in Tech in TV shows and movies because it is driving girls away.”
The message is starting to get through. For example, the 2016 film “Hidden Figures,” about black, female mathematicians working at NASA as human computers and computer programmers in the 1960s, became a blockbuster hit. Other documentaries, like 2020’s “Picture a Scientist,” are also challenging stereotypes. Children’s author Andrea Beaty offers inspiration to younger readers with her popular book characters “Ada Twist, Scientist” and “Rosie Revere, Engineer.”
Those looking for real-life inspiration can also look at Lee’s own career. In the late 1990s, she spearheaded the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS), an ambitious project to move mobile and landline telephone networks from a circuit-based communications system to an Internet Protocol-based communications system. In recent years, her focus has shifted to novel developments in artificial intelligence. Both have taken many years of research to show signs of fruition.
Drawing on her professional interest in using a historical lens to tackle complex topics, Lee has also embarked on a personal ancestry project in which she is tracking the journey of her great-great grandfather who came to Canada in the mid-1800s during the Gold Rush.
Regarding the gender equity and parity project for women in Tech, she hopes it won’t be an open-ended mission, which is why she has aggressive goals in mind.
For Lee, the aim is to creep within five years toward the kind of gender equity that has taken hold in other previously male-dominated professions like medicine, law and journalism, at least when it comes to university admissions and entry-level hiring.
“I’d like to see Tech get to 50-50 gender parity in the next half decade,” she said. “I have no plans of retiring but I want to reach this goal well within my lifetime. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life working on this problem. I’d eventually much rather spend all my energies on other things that I am passionate about.”