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The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing: bigger and better

Overheard at the conference center: “A line for the women’s room at a tech conference – that’s progress!”

Networking and support were everywhere at the group’s biggest conference ever


The theme of this year’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing was “Think big. Drive forward,” and the conference lived up to its motto. Attendance topped out at just over 4,700 women and men representing fifty-four countries, the group’s biggest conference ever. Among the attendees were 1,900 students from 402 universities.

This was the thirteenth Grace Hopper Celebration. The first, with just under 500 attendees, was held in 1994; conferences have been staged yearly since 2006. The 2013 event took place in Minneapolis, MN at the beginning of October. Grace Hopper is the signature event of the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology (ABI, www.anitaborg.org).

Something for everyone
Over the three days of the main conference, eighty-plus sessions and a half-dozen plenary panels and talks offered a smorgasbord of topics with something for every attendee. The problem for many was choosing which to attend.

Some conference seminars and workshops focused on career issues, with sessions aimed at technologists ranging from undergrad to experienced professionals. Technical tracks included education technology, mobile development, medical technology, media and entertainment and of course hardcore software engineering.

A trio of women in tech
The conference opened with a lively dicussion led by three women who approach the technical world from different perspectives. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, is the author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, and founder of the LeanIn.Org foundation. Dr Maria Klawe, a mathematician and computer scientist, has been president of Harvey Mudd College since 2006, and has been instrumental in making its computer science program friendly to women and increasing the percent of women CS majors from 15 to 40. The third panelist was Dr Telle Whitney, a computer scientist and industry veteran, co-founder of the Grace Hopper Celebration and president and CEO of ABI.

The discussion looked at the ongoing problem of underrepresentation of women in computer-related professions. “If you could wave a magic wand,” Klawe asked the other panelists, “what would you change about computer science?”

Sandberg cited the drop in CS degrees awarded to women, from 37 percent in 1985 to 13 percent today, and the “self-perpetuating” message that CS is “for boys.” To break that cycle, she would get more women into the field, by any means possible. Whitney would use her magic wand to teach every women to “ask for what she wants,” and to make 50 percent of the creators of technology female.

Poster session and a huge career fair
Poster sessions give students from undergrads to post-docs and working professionals an opportunity to present and discuss their current projects with conference attendees and faculty judges.

Several different poster competitions were available at the 2013 conference, under the auspices of the Association for Computing Machinery on either the graduate or the undergraduate level; the Distributed Research Experiences for Undergraduates program of the Computer Research Association’s Committee on the Status of Women; the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates and the Aspirations in Computing program of the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT). Topics ranged from highly technical to very practical, including a presentation on “simplifying mobile computing for the senior citizen.”

More than 150 corporations, government agencies and universities set up booths at the three-day career fair. Many had interview booths as well. Students and seasoned professionals found lots of companies ready to talk about jobs; many were anxious to bring more technical women into their workforces. Familiar names from the Internet world were there: Google, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and more, along with more traditional tech companies like IBM, Microsoft, HP and Intel. There was a significant representation from the financial and healthcare technology sectors, and from the world of computer-based game design.

Networking at the core
For many attendees, the opportunity to meet and network with a large number of other women in computer technology is the core attraction of Grace Hopper. Connections made there persist long after the conference, and are renewed in subsequent years. Even within companies, women in the Grace Hopper delegation often meet for the first time.

Networking was the theme of a standing-room-only session on “building your professional network,” led by Elizabeth Bautista, lead for the operations technology group at Lawrence Berkeley Lab’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), and Gilda Garreton, principal engineer at Oracle Labs and co-chair of Latinas in Computing, a grassroots organization with a national presence. The packed room included seasoned pros and a number of students.

Bautista and Garreton led the group through a series of hands-on exercises. The first challenged audience members to find out three facts about a random partner, then tell them to the group. In another, the object was to get a business card from a different partner. By the end of the session, participants had some valuable tools to apply to their professional lives.

A panel on using volunteer opportunities to advance a career also drew a crowd. It was led by Lisa Schlosser, a VP at Thomson Reuters and CTO for the company’s Content Marketplace product. Panelists from CA Technologies, NetApp and salesforce.com shared their own experiences, and pointed out that a volunteer project can be a good chance to learn a new skill or demonstrate expertise.

Near the end of the conference, a panel of women from Microsoft, North Carolina State University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and NCWIT explored some innovative programs to draw young women into CS. Rane Johnson-Stempson of Microsoft Research moderated and reported that Microsoft developers use their flexible work hours to teach high school CS courses. Ruthe Farmer of NCWIT talked about the organization’s Award for Aspirations in Computing program, which recognizes high school women for achievements and aptitude in computer-related activities.

Recognizing excellence and achievement
ABI’s “Abie” awards were presented at an evening ceremony. An award for technical leadership went to Dr Margaret Martonosi, a Princeton CS professor who works with computer architecture and mobile computing. Among her past projects was a mobile sensor array, ZebraNet, deployed in Kenya for wildlife tracking.

Tülin Akin, co-founder of a Turkish software company that has built an information platform for Turkey’s three million farm families, received the Abie for social impact. Her organization has also introduced farmer-friendly mobile phone services and credit cards, and provided farmers with computers and farm management software in partnership with global corporations.

The A. Richard Newton Educator Abie award recognized Christine Alvarado, a tenured lecturer at the University of California-San Diego, for her work on CS curricula and programs designed to increase the number of women and other underrepresented minorities in computing.

The Denice Denton emerging leader Abie went to Dr Alice Pawley, a new associate professor in the Purdue University school of engineering education and an affiliate faculty member in the women’s studies program. She also focuses on the underrepresentation of women in STEM faculty positions, and runs the Research in Feminist Engineering (RIFE) group (feministengineering.org).

Three African women were named Change Agent Abie awards winners. Change Agent awards recognize women from developing countries who work to support women in technology in their home regions. The 2013 awardees were Violette Uwamutara, Rwanda country director of the Digital Opportunity Trust (dotrust.org); Dr Shikoh Gitau of Kenya, founder of Ummeli.com and a Google researcher; and Dr Unoma Okorafor of Nigeria, founder and president of the Working to Advance STEM Education for African Women foundation (www.waawfoundation.org). Award sponsors included SAP, Qualcomm, RMS and Google.

Grace Hopper goes international
Grace Hopper has regularly drawn women from around the world, and has a number of international involvements. ABI has been involved in the U.S. Department of State TechWomen initiative (www.techwomen.org) since the program was launched in 2010, helping to arrange mentors for the program’s international participants. TechWomen participants regularly attend the Grace Hopper Celebration.

For the last three years, ABI has staged a Grace Hopper Celebration in India. At this year’s conference, ABI announced that it has set up a permanent office in Bangalore, India. The 2013 Grace Hopper Celebration – India took place in Bangalore from November 13-15.

Nurturing the next generation
The larger corporate supporters – Microsoft, IBM, HP and more – bring dozens of women and men to each conference. This year, there were 260 people from Microsoft alone.

Among them was Kevin Schofield, general manager and chief operations officer for Microsoft Research. Schofield has been with Microsoft since 1988 in both tech and leadership roles. He’s a trustee of Harvey Mudd College and a committed supporter of diversity in computing.

Diversity/Careers editor in chief Kate Colborn sat down with Schofield to explore his perspective on the conference and women in tech careers. “It’s very important that this field represent the people that we build products and services for,” he said. “It’s a very diverse world out there and we need diverse teams actually building these products and services. So we want to make sure that the organizations we build and the people we hire represent the world as a whole.”

Microsoft has been a supporter of the Grace Hopper Celebration and ABI since the beginning, he notes. In addition to the large number of Microsoft employees who attended the conference, the company provided scholarships for twenty-five students. “You want students to have this experience,” Schofield noted.

Schofield’s twin daughters, Xanda and Elly Schofield, were also at the conference. They both graduated from Harvey Mudd College in the class of 2013. Xanda now works on the search team for Yelp, the online search and rating site. Elly is a Harvey Mudd employee, managing the development and rollout of the school’s first venture into massive open online courses (MOOCs). Xanda was a CS major; Elly majored in math. Both are working in jobs that call on their tech skills.

They came to technology naturally. “I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t think I was going to go into a STEM field,” Xanda said. “It wasn’t that my dad forced me to go into STEM. We have a ton of wonderful men and women in the family who have all gone into STEM fields, and I think it’s something we were born loving and talking about. When I was about three I wanted to be an astronaut; when I was five I figured out my eyesight was too bad and maybe I should be mission control instead. I’ve always wanted to do something scientific or technical.

“I would say that my dad helped nudge me in the direction of CS. I don’t think it was something I understood very well when I was a lot younger, and I learned a lot from his excitement about it.”

Kevin Schofield downplayed his own role in his daughters’ career choices. “I think my role, more than anything else, was to listen. Children tend to be very exploratory, to try a bunch of things. If you listen to them you find out what they’re passionate about. My role was to give them more opportunities to explore what sparked their interest.

“While they were growing up, both Elly and Xanda found things they were interested in, and my response was ‘let me go find more things that are like that and see if this turns into a trend or if they move on.’ And sometimes they moved on, and sometimes it was a trend.”

Elly described herself as the “move-on child.” She explored politics, law, art, architecture and engineering, but when she arrived at Harvey Mudd she “fell in love with the mathematics department.” Thanks to the Harvey Mudd core tech curriculum, though, she took courses that gave her the basics of both CS and engineering.

Both younger Schofields attended summer programs throughout middle and high school. “In one,” Xanda remembered, “I ended up doing two weeks of C++. I had no idea that was a hard thing to do or a weird thing for a girl to do. I don’t think I noticed until later that I was one of the only girls doing that stuff.”

Working to make it better
“One of the things you see when you come to a conference like this,” Kevin Schofield observed, “is that it brings together academia and industry and government because we all realize that there’s a problem. You can walk out in the middle of the career fair and you see us all competing for these amazing young women doing fantastic things. Then you go to the sessions that are going on during the day, and we’re all on the same side. We’re working together because we all want the situation for women in tech fields to be better. And we are all completely willing to work side by side to make it better.”

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