November 11, 2014

Reflections on 2014 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing

By: Jamie Lockwood

Rashmi K. Vinayak, 2012 Fellowship Award recipient, recently chronicled her experience at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing 2014 ( #ghc14 ) which was held at Pheonix, Arizona, from October 8 to 10. Here’s her take on GHC:

Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) is an annual conference organized by the Anita Borg Institute (ABI) in partnership with the Association of Computing Machines, and is the world’s largest gathering of women technologists. This was my first time attending GHC. In fact this was my first time at a conference where women were a majority. I was thus intrigued about this event. Furthermore, the scale at which GHC was happening this year was phenomenal: Close to 8,000 women in the field of technology were participating in this conference! This added to my eagerness to attend the conference and I was excited to be a part of the celebration.

From the moment I landed at the Phoenix airport, I could feel a festive environment all around. The crowd at the airport, in the shuttles and taxis, and around downtown were mostly GHC attendees. This immediately created a sense of familiarity among us — everyone smiling and greeting each other and eager to meet, share, and learn. The three days of the conference went past very quickly with a flurry of super-interesting events.

ABI President and CEO Telle Whitney kicked off the conference with a brief but energetic speech. She highlighted that each woman in the field of technology is contributing to the cause of gender equality by choosing to stay on the path.

The positive impact of role models on young women was highlighted by Ruthe Farmer, who was one of the winners of the Grace Hopper Celebration Social Impact award. It was interesting to hear about her work on creating group spirit among young women interested in science and technology. Through her involvement in the National Center for Women and IT (NCWIT)’s Aspirations in Computing program for young women, she found that it is critical to create a sense of belonging and to reassure these young women that they are on the right track. She said that it was important to show that technical women were not the odd ones out. In their program, they achieved this goal by using social media to create an active group that celebrated each other’s successes and empathized over failures and kept spirits up. The works of the other Social Impact award winners were equally inspiring. Their passion about technology and their contribution toward motivating women in their respective countries to enter the technology field was laudable.

All the keynote and invited technical speakers were amazing. Their incredible career paths, remarkable leadership skills and technical depth were immensely motivating. This year’s surprise guest was the newly appointed CTO of United States, Megan Smith. Although she spoke very briefly, her presence in the conference created a lot of excitement among the attendees. Maria Klawe’s conversation with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was engrossing. I loved the concept of super powers that he mentioned: each of us possess a superpower and we need to identify and make it our strength.

GHC 2014 had a number of amazing workshops, and they were one the main attractions of the conference for me. There were so many workshops I was interested in that in spite of there being repeat sessions, I was not able to cover them all.

The CRA-W workshops were resourceful. They were geared toward both industry and academic research positions and hence were successful in catering to a wide audience. The workshops related to networking and communication skills were hugely popular. The workshop on team dynamics was a lot of fun and a great learning experience. In this workshop, the organizers made us learn about different types of team members — including airtime hoggers, nay-sayers, silent observers, and interrupters — through a group exercise. We also learned some good strategies for improving team meetings. For instance, in order to elicit contributions from the silent members of the team, instead of pin-pointing, one could elevate the entire group’s voice by saying that you would like to hear from each person in the group; one can ask the nay-sayer as to what would he/she have the team do instead of the current idea being discussed; one can deal with interruptions by saying that you would like to hear completely what X had to say before moving on.

Some of the interesting takeaways from the other workshops (in no particular order) were:

  • People you don’t know well know people whom you don’t know.
  • It is often the number of weak ties that move you closer to your goal.
  • All ideas are built on other ideas; do not hesitate to build on existing ideas.
  • Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it does buy freedom.
  • Statistics show that for the entry level technology positions, women are paid ~$6000 lesser than men annually.
  • If you are not negotiating your salary then you are making it harder for every other woman to ask for a raise.
  • Getraised.com is a useful resource to take help from when asking for a raise.

I always try to learn from whatever I do and wherever I go. In addition to the workshops, GHC offered numerous other avenues for learning: technical talks, keynote talks, hackathons, and most importantly, meeting talented women! Most of the events were structured to promote interactions: the team dynamics workshop had a round-table seating, and each person on the table was given a role to play in mock meetings. In the networking workshop, we were asked to go around the room and introduce ourselves. The She++ group had an interesting on-going event called “Give 2 Cents and Take 2 Cents (G2T2).” They had set up G2T2 booths with lots of empty post cards through which anyone could put their two cents into a box, and also one could pick up a filled card to get their two cents! My two cents were “You have a superpower. Find it, and make it your strength.” This conference provided me an opportunity to interact with incredibly talented women in technology with various diverse career paths — an early-stage product manager who is a computer scientist by training, a software development team manager who is a theoretician by training, a journalist turned developer, a faculty, and an industry researcher. Interacting with them and learning from their experiences was valuable.

There were a couple of sessions that shed light on to the root causes behind the lack of diversity in the field of technology, how the culture in many tech companies needs to be more inclusive to foster a diverse work force, and the measures that could help in alleviating the problem. Although I have been actively involved in the women’s group in my academic department at UC Berkeley, it was at this conference that I became aware of the magnitude and the manifestations of various biases in the field of technology. Identifying and openly talking about these issues is the first step toward solving it, and I applaud the efforts of the Anita Borg Institute in this direction.

Overall, attending the Grace Hopper Conference was an enriching and inspiring experience. True to its name, GHC was not merely a conference, but a celebration of the contribution of women to the field of technology. I left Pheonix motivated, inspired, and full of energy. Thank you Facebook for supporting my travel to this awesome event!