WASHINGTON — Congress is hardly a bastion of diversity. The Senate is 93 percent white. The Republicans in the House don’t have a single African-American or Asian-American member. And men in both chambers outnumber women 4 to 1.
So what were Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Suzan DelBene of Medina doing at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Washington, D.C., last week?
Lecturing Microsoft and other tech titans to beef up their ranks of women.
Cantwell and DelBene, both Democrats, were the lone lawmakers to appear at the five-day event, Microsoft’s annual global fest for networking. Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane was invited, but canceled at the last minute because of a conflict with scheduled congressional votes.
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At a Women in Tech panel Wednesday, Cantwell noted a record 20 of the 100 U.S. senators are women. That’s the same as their share among software developers and tech executives. The lack of female perspective, Cantwell said, is a serious shortage in an economy where women make 85 percent of the spending decisions.
Cantwell drew a sharp contrast between the genders — at least in politics.
“We have a saying in the Senate: When the TV cameras are on, there are two kinds of senators. There are those who immediately check their hair and makeup … and then there are the women.
“I think women are more interested in getting things done than claiming credit,” said Cantwell, who before running for the Senate was senior vice president at RealNetworks, the Seattle-based Internet audiostreaming pioneer.
Cantwell said women’s increased presence in the Capitol was responsible for key legislation, including boosting funding to the National Institutes of Health for research on women’s health issues and the 2013 passage of the Violence Against Women Act to toughen penalties for domestic batterers.
Yet, Cantwell said, women are often underestimated.
She talked of last year’s budget agreement negotiated between Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin. The deal helped set the overall 2014 spending levels, a dispute that earlier had triggered last October’s 16-day federal government shutdown.
For that achievement, Ryan was “lauded on TV as maybe the next presidential candidate,” Cantwell said at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
But when it came to the 5-foot Murray, “the only thing they talked about was her stature, which just shows you that we don’t always get all the credit.”
“I think it is very important for women to stand up and take credit,” she said.
DelBene, a former Microsoft executive whose husband, Kurt DelBene, retired last year as head of Microsoft’s Office division, spoke briefly at an earlier reception at the conference.
Aaron Schmidt, DelBene’s chief of staff, said she discussed the importance of diversity to innovation. Assembling people of different skills and background, DelBene said, will fuel creativity as computing migrates away from desktop PCs to tablets, smartphones and new devices.
Christina Pearson, a Microsoft spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said several other members of Congress were invited, but the two who could attend happened to both be from Washington state.
DelBene, Pearson said, was tapped because of her work in encouraging more science and engineering education and for her perspective as a former business executive. She said Cantwell, who serves on a Senate committee with jurisdiction over communications, technology and the Internet, was chosen because she’s in position to shape public policy in those areas.
If Cantwell and DelBene’s message needs to be heard anywhere, it might well be in Silicon Valley and other tech corridors. The industry, dominated by mostly young men, has come under fire for both the dearth of women and for sometimes overtly misogynistic culture.
Only a quarter of computer and math jobs in the country are held by women, according to 2013 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The imbalance partly reflects that women are less likely to pursue studies in relevant fields. In 2012, for instance, women earned only 18 percent of the 48,000 bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer sciences by American colleges.
The share of women who earned master’s degrees in computer sciences was higher, nearly 28 percent, according to the National Science Foundation. But about half of those were awarded to foreign students, not U.S. citizens or permanent residents.