Evolving Perspectives at Grace Hopper 2013
The mere fact that the Grace Hopper Conference (GHC) exists at all, not to mention that it is so well attended, should be taken as a sign of the times. Not only do we live an age where simply amazing technologies are being developed, but we've begun to acknowledge individual and societal unconscious biases and have started addressing them by celebrating women in computing and providing a gender specific environment in which to network, find mentors, find jobs, and to connect and form communities. In this light, GHC is a win-win for women and for the workforce. And that's powerful, but it's only a part of what I walk away from GHC embracing.
Inclusion is the other part, and, perhaps, the more important one. The women that attend don't need to be told the about the stats on females in computing or learn about the dearth of technical women in leaderships roles. They live this reality. It's the men that should be educated, after all, recent data shows that males compromise 75% of the workforce and as such preaching the gospel of diversity and inclusion to those outside the choir is perhaps the most impactful thing a male advocate can do. We can talk with our sons and fathers, friends and colleagues; we can help remove the blinders. I believe that's a key role for all men of conscious going forward - furthering the conversation amongst ourselves on how we can better recruit, recognize, retain, and promote technical women.
Pushing the needle of equality and thinking on inclusion aside, what I enjoyed most about GHC was interacting with the various attendees. Being in the presence of so many brilliant, competent, and determined women was a testament to the value in this technical space. It's worth noting that while I was unsure how my presence at a female oriented conference would be viewed by the rest of the attendees, the ladies I met were were warm and welcoming - I can count the number of business cards I was given (8), the free drinks offered (5), the fist-bumps I got (3) and, of course, the odd solo request for an interview. And, while I enjoyed the conversations I struck up at GHC, I gained the most when I stopped talking and simply listened. Hearing women talk about their successes and lament their troubles in mostly male-dominated classroom and work environments gave a face to the data and humanized the issue in a way that research never can. It's a long way to understanding and the simple act of listening helped move me on down the road.
As for the speakers and plenary sessions, I particularly enjoyed tech luminary and social change agent Megan Smith's Thursday keynote address where she encouraged the crowd to not only ask the big questions but to find joy in the effort. Punctuating her speech with humor and intimate details, it was hard not to walk away feeling like anything, including solving for "x" (her phrase), was possible. Then there was Irene Ross' words given during the "Keeping the YouTube Generation Engaged" panel which pounded home the point that if you do what you love, what you're passionate about, then the rest will come - the money and career will follow. And that's a resonating message for most people: follow your dreams, swim in your own lane, and don't worry about what others are doing. I also had the pleasure of listening to Brenda Chapman elaborate on her experiences as an animator, writer, and director. Her story on the making and directing of the Pixar 2012 hit, "Brave" can be found in detail elsewhere, but suffice to say that she brought a unique and creative perspective to the film's effort and challenged the traditional representation of females in animation and film. Finally, there were a myriad of fascinating and promising undergraduate and PhD posters on topics ranging from neural networks, parallel computing, mapping, ICT4D, open source to gender representation in gaming/media. The conference theme was thinking big and the ladies did not disappoint.
I'll close with a confession: I've been in technology since 2001 and until I began working for the National Center for Women & IT as a graduate student, I had never given any real consideration to the gross gender imbalance in our field nor to the benefits of diversity and the role I could play in supporting women. As such I never felt the need to address or rectify it; it simply wasn't on my radar. Where I once found myself a staunch believer that talent would rise to the top, I now realize that these meritocratic views are myopic and while they weren't necessarily wrong, they I certainly weren't right either. Attending GHC 2013 helped bring it all home. It was an experience I won't soon forget and if I could urge one thing for my technical brethren to embrace, it would be that they attend GHC at some point or, lacking the opportunity, strike up a conversation with a technical woman and make an effort to spend most of the time simply listening.
Chris Carruth is a recent graduate of the ICT4D Masters program at the University of Colorado, Boulder. During his graduate studies he worked as a research assistant with NCWIT, a position that he currently still holds. Additionally, he fills his days while performing the duties of a regional affiliate manager for the Aspirations in Computing Award, a part-time lecturer in the CU ATLAS Institute's Technology, Arts, and Media program, a mixed-media artist and perpetual idealist. He prefers red to white wine, old to new Dylan, and Picard to Kirk.