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Society News

2008 Grace Hopper Celebration:
“We build a better world”

Networking and more networking sparked this global gathering of women techies


Fran Allen, IBM Fellow Emerita, gives the keynote speech (photo courtesy of www.samaystudio.com).Some 1,450 attendees from twenty-three countries, representing 131 corporations and 199 schools, came together in the mountains of Colorado this past October. They gathered at the beautiful Keystone Resort for the 2008 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing put on by the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology and its partner, the Association of Computing Machinery.

The women, plus a few men, were all ages and affiliations from undergrad college students to retired computer gurus. They gathered to explore technical and career topics, share their current research and do a lot of networking.

Signature ABI event
The Grace Hopper Celebration (www.gracehopper.org) is the signature event of the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology (ABI, www.anitaborg.org). ABI was founded in 1997 by computer scientist Anita Borg, PhD, as the Institute for Women in Technology. It was renamed in her honor after her death in 2003.

This year’s event was the eighth such celebration. The first was in 1994, before the official birth of ABI. The second was in 1997, and the conference has been held yearly since 2006.

Networking everywhere
Networking on all levels is the hallmark of the Grace Hopper Celebration. The conference is planned with many opportunities for unstructured interaction, and it was rare to see anyone alone anywhere in the sprawling Keystone resort and its conference center. Even the buses ferrying attendees around the complex were pressed into service for networking as they rolled.

A poster session and reception took place the evening before the formal opening of the conference. It gave researchers a chance to present their work one-on-one to members
of a large and interested group. Of course there were plenty of opportunities for networking there, too.

A scanner-based ID system, funded by a National Science Foundation grant, helped attendees record their contacts electronically and keep track of them via daily emails.

Awards and honors
Telle Whitney, Anita Borg president, left, and Cisco VP Kathy Hill, right, present the technical leadership award to AT&T Fellow Elaine Weyuker, center. Clearly, the conference is an opportunity to honor exceptional women in many areas of technology. This year’s awardees included a team of women who founded BlogHer (www.blogher.com), a Web community and blogging news hub for women. The development team received the Anita Borg social impact award, underwritten by Microsoft.

The Anita Borg technical leadership award went to AT&T Fellow Elaine Weyuker, the only female AT&T Fellow and a leader in the software engineering research community. This award is underwritten by Cisco.

The Denice Denton Award, also underwritten by Microsoft, is given to a junior, non-tenured faculty member under forty. This year’s recipient was Naomi Chesler, an associate professor in the department of biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Honoring change agents
Three women from outside the U.S. were honored as “change agents” for their work using technology to support women, and to attract more women to technical careers. The awardees were Reyyan Ayfer, chair of the department of computer technology and programming of Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey; Zahara Khan of Pakistan, CEO of Sehat First, a network of tele-health centers; and Dorcas Muthoni, CEO and founder of Openworld Ltd, an IT consultancy in Kenya, and co-founder of LinuxChix Africa.

Each of the change agents spoke about her work at a session during the conference. “These three women are real examples of how individuals can contribute to building a better world,” says Telle Whitney, cofounder of the celebration and president of the Anita Borg Institute. The Change Agent awards were sponsored by Google.

A panel of “impostors”
The “imposter” panel, from left: Tiffani Williams, Texas A&M; Tessa Lau, IBM Almaden Research Center; Marie Czerwinski, Microsoft Research; Maria Klawe, Harvey Mudd College. Among the many sessions and workshops was a panel of “impostors.” These were successful technical women, including a university president and a top
IBM researcher, who admitted they often felt inadequate to the demands of their jobs. They explored both the reasons for
their feelings and their strategies for coping.

From their discussion it was apparent that even the most successful women may doubt themselves at times; the key is to persevere anyhow. “Remember that whoever gave you this job thought you could do it,” one panelist advised. “You’re only an impostor if you allow yourself to be,” another stated. Several suggested gathering support from other women and men, and never forgetting to support others, even when you feel inadequate yourself.

Their stories struck a sympathetic chord with the standing-room-only audience. Attendees lined up to ask questions and add their own observations, and the buzz has continued in the Grace Hopper Celebration online community.

Army of women
Some of the hardworking ABI staff: Deanna Kosarau, left, B.J. Wishinsky, Jerri Barrett, Kathy Gee, Rachelle Siskin, Jody Mahoney. Photo courtesy of www.samaystudio.com. The conference is a huge undertaking. In addition to the ABI staff, eighty volunteer committee members were involved in the planning. Some 301 presenters ran sessions or spoke at keynote events.

ABI corporate supporters and other partners provided scholarships for students from the U.S. and elsewhere. They included Amazon, Computer Associates, Cisco, Goldman Sachs, Google, IBM, Microsoft, the National Science Foundation, Salesforce.com, the Systers online community and Sun Microsystems. ABI offered free conference admission to student “Hoppers” in return for eight hours on duty doing whatever the conference organizers needed.

The next Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing takes place in Tucson, AZ from September 30 to October 3, 2009.

Kate Colborn

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