In 2013, I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference in Minneapolis. This was a remarkable experience for me, and I’m extremely grateful for the Association for Women in Computing and the Virginia Tech Computer Science department for making the trip possible. I learned a lot, and I’ve been meaning to write this follow-up blog post ever since.

This is mostly an experience report. I recommend attending Grace Hopper even if you are a man, and the reasons why are known. Obviously, more women should be attending than men, but if you are very interested in gender in computing, don’t feel like you will be unwelcome.

Why Did I Attend?

5 different women independently came up to me during Grace Hopper and (very politely) asked me why I was there. It’s the obvious question - why would a man want to attend a 99% female event?

Most of the men at Grace Hopper are there to represent a company, but at least one guy was there to present research. I didn’t have anything to show off, I simply wanted to observe. I am fascinated by gender in computing. As everyone should be aware by now:

  • There are not enough programmers in the world
  • Very few programmers are women, so we could solve the deficit just by convincing more women to lean in.
  • Our lack of diversity has created a toxic environment for the women that are in computing
  • Potential women in computing are dissuaded from joining our community
  • The lack of diversity means lost dollars, lost opportunities, and many other terrible outcomes

I refuse to give direct citations to those claims - it should be common knowledge now. If this is all surprising to you, then start checking around the Anita Borg Institute.

So I went to Grace Hopper to learn two things:

  1. What is a conference designed for Women in Computing like?
  2. What things can I do (especially as an AWC officer) to support women in computing?

What is a Conference Designed for Women in Computing Like?

Inspiring. You could see it on everyone’s faces, the energy that they were gaining. It was extremely motivating to hear the keynote speakers talk about the problems we face, the work being done, and what still lies ahead for the community. I can’t compare the experience to any other conference I’ve been to.

A very good friend of mine was attending also, and attending the conference had a direct impact on her life. She’d been applying for a new job, and the message of Leaning In inspired her to ask for $10k/year more during her negotiations. Compared to my annual salary, that’s an awful lot of inspiration.

There were informative technical sessions (sometimes involving gender issues, sometimes not). There was lots of recruiters. People were making friends left and right. There was free food everywhere. It was all very impressive.

What Things Can I Do?

I’m the webmaster of the AWC at Virginia Tech, and I always am looking for ways I can support the organization and VT’s female computing community. I can’t always be directly involved - it wouldn’t make sense for me to be a public face for the group. However, I can help bring food to meetings, organize speakers, etc. Still, I want to do more.

We were allowed to organize break-out sessions, so I organized one: “What can women in computing university clubs do for their members?” Probably 8 or 10 people joined it over the hour-long lunch, including undergraduates and graduate students. Here are some of their more interesting suggestions - I’m not filtering them or editorializing:

  • If you want women to come to the events, make sure that they’re useful - students are busy.
  • Communicate, but don’t get spammy. Attending classes is one of the best ways.
  • Make it fun!
  • Girls often live in groups - find the “keystone girl” of a group, and use her social influence to bring more women in
  • Don’t have a formal membership, keep it loose; membership is too much of a commitment
  • Good event ideas:

    • Technical interviews
    • Sessions on tools (command lines, web design, Git/SVN, etc.)
    • Watching computing movies (She++, Turing movie, Social Network)
    • Mixers
  • Always put “Free Food” in the subject line

What Were My Biggest Takeaways?

I can’t pick just one. Here are some of my favorite anecdotes:

  1. At one point, an inspirational video of famous scientists was shown. It was a fluff piece, and I didn’t give it much attention. However, one of my department’s professors leaned back and pointed out, “There are no women in this video.” I didn’t notice at all! No one else next to me noticed it either! Gender bias is so subtle sometimes, and only with constant vigilance can we really start fighting it.
  2. During Sheryl Sandberg’s keynote, she quoted “Men apply when they meet 60% of the criteria. Women at 100%”. I’m confident in my ability to pick up skills as my job demands - I can learn a new web framework in a few hours, at this point. I need to convey that same attitude to students - don’t expect to have all the skills when you apply, because you’ll be learning many of them as you go.
  3. At one point, someone asked me if I thought a boy should be allowed to win the Student Research Competition at Grace Hopper. This is complicated, and gets at a recurring questions about reverse sexism - merit says that the best research should win, and there are strict rules against excluding people for their gender (in either direction). But despite what certain people believe, marketing matters. How young women perceive the field affects directly whether they should stay in it. If a boy wins the research competition at GHC, I think that sends a sub-optimal message. I would hope that any young men who want to compete in a SRC will instead compete at a different conference, in order to maintain the spirit of GHC.

Will I do it again?

No. I learned a lot, but I think I learned most of what I needed to learn. As much as I loved the energy, I’m not the one who needs it. I strongly encourage men interested in gender issues of computing to attend Grace Hopper. I strongly encourage ALL women in computing to attend Grace Hopper. I hope that in maybe a decade or two, I can attend again and learn about new gender problems in computing (perhaps we’ll be asking how to balance things in the opposite direction!). But for now, I’ll be happy just reading the blogs about GHC’14 afterwards.