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Grace Hopper 2014: breaking records, expanding the discussion

The theme was “Everywhere. Everyone.” And everyone turned out

A panel on “male allies,” and an appearance by the Microsoft CEO, made news and sparked lots of discussions

The 2014 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing was a record-breaker in every way. Eight thousand attendees. A waiting list of another thousand. Three thousand-plus attendees from academia, representing 144 colleges and universities. Students and professionals from sixty-seven different countries and 925 different organizations.

The 2014 event sold out months before its October 8 start. Attendance was nearly double the number that came to the 2013 conference, which was itself a record-breaker.

The first Grace Hopper Celebration, held in Washington, DC in 1995, drew 500 attendees and was considered a big success, Dr Telle Whitney, president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (ABI), reminded attendees in her opening remarks on the first day. ABI, along with ACM, the former Association for Computing Machinery, has staged the Grace Hopper Celebration yearly since 2006. There were five conferences between 1994 and 2004.

The large 2014 turnout “gives me hope,” Whitney said, but “there are still many obstacles to overcome.”

Whitney attributed some of the conference’s 2014 attendance to the release of gender-balance numbers by many U.S. tech companies in 2014, including several that have supported ABI for many years. The numbers told a consistent story of underrepresentation of women technologists at companies like Facebook, Google and LinkedIn, and may have spurred those companies and others to bring larger-than-usual contingents of women to the event.

Look who’s coming to...Grace Hopper
One surprise attendee was GoDaddy, the Internet domain name provider and web hosting company. Historically, GoDaddy has not endeared itself to a female audience, famously airing misogynistic TV ads during major events like the Super Bowl. Its CEO Blake Irving, who took over the company in January 2013, is working hard to change that.

He made immediate changes in the company’s marketing approach. “Most of our customers are small entrepreneurs, and fifty-eight percent of those are women,” he explained in an interview with Diversity/Careers, “and we want to align our message around our customers.”

Irving notes that the company’s marketing was not an accurate reflection of the company’s internal culture, but he has also made some internal changes. One of his first moves after taking over at GoDaddy was to bring in Elissa Murphy, who had worked with him at Yahoo!, as chief technology officer. Within two months, Murphy had started a networking group for GoDaddy women in technology. Irving himself spent the last day of the conference as part of the recruiting team at the GoDaddy booth, interviewing potential attendees.

GoDaddy provided funding for more than 100 students from Harvey Mudd College and California State Polytechnic University to attend GHC, and took them on a tour of the new GoDaddy tech center near Phoenix.

Male allies speak up
Irving was a participant in a conference panel that broke new ground for GHC. Four “male allies” – men who have actively supported the advancement of women in technology – talked about how, and why, they have supported women in technology.

In her introduction to the discussion, Barbara Gee, ABI VP for programs, pointed to the need to involve men, who still make up the majority of the tech workforce. “To make changes, we need to change the people of power, and enlist them as partners,” Gee said. Unconscious bias, rather than outright discrimination, can create a “toxic culture” that drives many women out of the tech workforce, she explained. “Men need to talk to other men about unconscious bias. In some settings, they take risks when they advocate for us.” ABI, Gee announced, will be developing a series of programs for male allies, starting with the GHC panel. Of the 8,000 GHC attendees, 1,483 were male.

In addition to GoDaddy’s Irving, the panel included Mike Schroepfer, CTO of Facebook; Alan Eustace, SVP at Google; and Tayloe Stansbury, CTO of Intuit. Stansbury spoke with Diversity/Careers about his participation on the panel. He is married to a computer scientist, and his mother-in-law and her mother both had careers in tech fields. In his work at Intuit, he creates software that is used primarily by small business owners, more than half of whom are women. The panel drew a tremendous response, which prompted the GHC staff to schedule a session for the panel participants to hear back from attendees on the conference’s last day.

A notable keynote from Microsoft CEO
Satya Nadella, who became Microsoft’s CEO in February 2014, led off the second day of the conference. He shared the stage with Dr Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, a member of the Microsoft board of directors and a pioneer in computer science education. Their conversation, based on questions submitted by attendees, included a much-reported exchange on how technical women should ask for pay raises.

Nadella was the first male to deliver a major GHC keynote. Success in technology, he noted, is “not a zero-sum game,” and advancement of women shouldn’t threaten men. When Klawe asked how women can take time off for family reasons without losing career ground, he talked about launching an intensive program for women returning after a sizable absence. “An investment needs to be made to map people’s return to computer science careers,” he declared.

Panels and programs
Each day of the conference is full of programs for students at all levels, working professionals and university faculty members. Topics range from the highly technical to broad workplace concerns like office politics.

Denise Menelly, shared service operations executive at Bank of America, led a panel on measuring gender diversity in the technical workplace, and assigning accountability for achieving gender balance and using it to create value. In conversation with Diversity/Careers, Menelly talked about Bank of America’s networking group Women in Technology and Operations, for which she’s the executive sponsor. Thirty percent of the bank’s technology workforce is female, she reported. In May, ABI named Bank of America its 2014 Top Company for Women in Computing.

The social applications of computing are an ongoing theme at GHC. A session on the third day of the conference featured Julie Cluggage, executive director of Team4Tech, a nonprofit that matches tech industry volunteers with projects around the world that are designed to boost education. Other panel members were tech professionals who had volunteered in projects for Team4Tech and other global efforts. Participants, the panelists noted, learn how to adapt to unfamiliar and changing circumstances, and how to test and challenge assumptions. They learn what makes technology effective, or not effective, in emerging markets.

Communities are growing
Before ABI, the late Dr Anita Borg started Systers, an online community for women technologists. There are now several Systers communities, all of which had gatherings at GHC. Latinas in Computing, formed in 2006, was one of the first; communities now include Black Women in Computing and LGBT in Computing, plus the newer Arab Women in Computing, Asian Women in Computing, Turkish Women in Computing and several sub-groups.

“Birds of a Feather” sessions offer another way for attendees to come together to share and discuss common issues. BoF sessions at GHC 14 included groups for new managers, Agile practitioners, people concerned with software reliability, and people who wanted to learn more about programming for social good.

A surprise visitor from Washington, DC
Megan Smith, a former Google technical star who was recently named the U.S. chief technology officer by President Obama, made an unannounced visit to a morning plenary session of the conference. Smith was a keynote speaker at the 2013 event.

She spoke briefly, mentioning her concern about the “connectivity deserts” that still exist across the U.S., and the importance of technology to solving national problems. She spent more than an hour on the floor of the career fair later in the day, listening to the concerns of attendees.

Improving college computer science programs
In late September, ABI and Harvey Mudd College established the Building Recruiting And Inclusion for Diversity (BRAID) initiative. Under BRAID, computer science departments at fifteen U.S. universities will work to increase the percentage of their undergraduate majors that are female and students of color.

BRAID is an element of the Collaborative for Harnessing Ambition and Resources for Girls’ Education (CHARGE), a thirty-company effort of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), and was announced by former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton at the CGI annual meeting.

BRAID is supported by three-year funding commitments from Facebook, Google, Intel and Microsoft. Harvey Mudd’s Maria Klawe and Telle Whitney, president and CEO of ABI, will lead the initiative.

“Undergraduate computer science departments across the country are interested in attracting women and underrepresented minorities to their programs,” said Whitney. “Leveraging the experiences of successful programs like those at Harvey Mudd College provides an attractive path to redesigning their programs.”

The program is based on approaches that have been successful at Harvey Mudd: expanding outreach to high school teachers and students, modifying introductory CS courses to make them more appealing and less intimidating to students from underrepresented groups, building community among underrepresented students, and developing joint majors in areas like CS and biology to encourage interdisciplinary approaches. A sizable contingent of students from BRAID institutions attended the conference.

Awards, and on to Houston
Awards are a part of GHC. Recipients were recognized for both technical and social achievements and included several international attendees. For info on the awards, see gracehopper.org.

Diversity/Careers has been a media sponsor of the conference since 2009. The 2015 Grace Hopper Celebration will take place October 14-16 in Houston, Texas.

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