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December 2011/January 2012

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Grace Hopper Celebration breaks records in Portland

Tech women came together for three days of talks, panels and intense networking

Speakers shared guidance and insights


Almost 3,000 tech women and supporters from thirty-five countries gathered in Portland, OR in November for the eleventh Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. GHC is the signature event of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (www.anitaborg.org). The first Grace Hopper Celebration took place in 1994, and the conferences have been held yearly since 2006.

The celebration is named for Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, a mathematician who played an important role in the early development of computer science. The event has inspired a series of regional celebrations, and the first international conference, in India, took place in December 2011.

Biggest yet
The 2011 Grace Hopper was the first conference held in a conference center and had the largest attendance ever. Ninety-eight corporate, government and academic sponsors set up recruiting booths; 146 companies and 235 academic institutions were represented among the attendees, who included 1,036 students from high school to post-doc.

Networking and more networking
Making connections with other attendees, speakers and corporate reps is the core of the Grace Hopper experience. Connections happened at meals, at seminars and presentations and at company career fair booths.

New this year: a custom app developed for the conference that allowed sharing of contact information between attendees. Users could also build a customized schedule of "favorite" events and see details of each session and its participants.

Thought-provoking keynote #1
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, was the first-day keynote speaker. In a surprisingly personal presentation she shared her own struggles as a woman at technical, heavily male companies. She opened her talk by pointing out that tech companies offer one of the few areas of growth in today's economy: "The driver of good jobs is growth, and tech is growing," she stressed.

Technology is becoming an increasingly important part of most jobs, even those traditionally considered "non-technical." But women's entry into the tech world is a "stalled revolution," Sandberg said. In 1987 women were 37 percent of the computer-related workforce, but the number has been declining ever since to the current 25 percent.

Women who start out in computer science leave the field at twice the rate of men, Sandberg noted, and "even fixing that would help." She offered several pieces of advice for women who want to persevere and move to the top of the profession: believe in yourself; most women underestimate their own achievements and abilities. Be ambitious, even though ambition is seen as a negative in women. Choose a supportive partner. Avoid making career decisions too early; and keep on talking about women's challenges, otherwise change will never happen.

Keynote 2: promises & pitfalls of interconnectedness
The second day's keynote was delivered on the last binary day of the century, 11-11-11, by Dr Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY). Jackson's bio includes a long list of firsts plus many honors and awards. She has a BS in physics and a PhD in theoretical elementary particle physics, both from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has been president of RPI since 1999. She serves on Obama's President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

In July 2011 Jackson was appointed to the U.S. Department of State's international security advisory board, which provides its recommendations directly to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Before she became president of Rensselaer Jackson chaired the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She worked as a theoretical physicist conducting basic research at the former AT&T Bell Labs, and taught theoretical physics at Rutgers University.

In her address to the conference she spoke about the interconnectedness of the modern world and some of the promises and pitfalls that brings. Like Sandberg, she offered some guidance. But hers was aimed at successfully "living on a world stage," where interactions are multicultural and often multinational.

Cultural differences, of course, aren't confined to residents of different countries or those with different cultural heritages. "I suspect that some of you have noticed that, at times, it is easier to establish good communications between computer scientists and engineers anywhere on the globe, than it is to get an engineer to work effectively with a salesperson or business person from her own country," she said.

Among the areas she cited were building trust, both personal and machine, in order to make efficient use of the vast amount of information available today; understanding technological effects; and anticipating unintended consequences. Even with all today's technical advances, she concluded, "capability and compassion" are required to solve world problems.

Almost a decade ago Jackson identified a "quiet crisis" in the production of new scientists and engineers. In an interview after her address, Jackson saw progress in bringing more women and underrepresented groups into science and technology, and hope for the future, even in the face of sometimes fragmented efforts and economic cutbacks.

From high-performance computing to the business case for diversity
The heart of the conference is a wide-ranging selection of panels and presentations. Some sessions focused on the experiences of women in specific technical areas, like high-performance computing. Others addressed work in specific industries, like defense. A well-attended session offered advice to tech women on negotiating for everything from research dollars to a raise for themselves.

A panel on the business case for diversity explored the advantages of mixed-gender teams in producing innovative and meaningful results. Patents granted to mixed teams of researchers, for example, are cited more often and tend to be more profitable for their companies than those granted to single-gender teams. A plenary session explored sponsor-sponsee relationships in industry and academia.

Awards and honors
The Anita Borg Institute honors technical women at both its spring Women of Vision event and at Grace Hopper. In Portland, women from Australia and Kenya as well as the U.S. were recognized with awards for change agent, social impact, technical leadership and emerging leader. See the complete list of awards at gracehopper.org.

The 2012 Grace Hopper is scheduled for October 3-6 in Baltimore, MD. The theme is, "Are we there yet?"

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