Grace Hopper Conference Draws Women to Computing, Bit by Bit
San Diego, Calif., Nov. 16, 2011 — For all the progress made by computer scientists over the past half century, there’s one thing members of the discipline have continuously struggled to achieve: Recruiting more women to join their ranks.
Last year at the University of California, San Diego — one of the nation’s top universities for computer science and engineering — only 16.6 percent of the 156 students who graduated with undergraduate degrees in a computer science discipline were women. (Those disciplines include computer science, computer science with a specialization in bioinformatics, and mathematics/computer science). The number of women graduating last year with an undergraduate degree in computer engineering? A big, fat zero.
To put it another way, for every one woman enrolled in computer science classes at UCSD, there are more than five men competing with her for grades, mentors, research opportunities and eventually, jobs.
Given those low numbers, it was something of a revelation to see the 2,300 “technical women” from 34 countries assembled last week in Portland, Ore., for the the 2011 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, an annual event that began 11 years ago and has finally grown large enough to merit a full-sized convention center. Also in attendance: 54 babies and toddlers who were able to join their mothers at the conference courtesy of free childcare sponsored by NetApp.
Named for Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper — a pioneer in the field of computer science — the conference is organized by the Anita Borg Institute (ABI) for Women and Technology and this year featured representation from a number of departments and research units at UCSD. The UCSD-based San Diego Supercomputer Center sent two representatives to the conference: Director of Education Diane Baxter and Program Liaison Natasha Balac. The California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), which has divisions at UCSD and UC Irvine, was a gold academic sponsor of the conference, and Telle Whitney, the president and CEO of ABI (as well as the co-founder of the conference) is a member of the Calit2 Advisory Board.
A number of undergraduates and graduate students from the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering also joined more than 130 other students at the conference, including the outgoing president of the campus chapter of Women in Computing, Laura Grupp.
Jessica Block. a geologist who specializes in environmental data visualization, represented Calit2 at the event and was attending for the first time.
“It was an incredible experience to be in a place full of technically minded women who have gathered for the purpose of creating goals that serve both the industry and their lives as women,” said Block. “It became clear at the conference that the way women think and the way women structure their lives is different from men, and therefore those ideas and strategies need to be shared. I became much more self-aware through the process of attending.”
Panelists from academia, industry and government addressed the overall conference theme of “What if” in debates such as “What if we could alter the perception of the software developer?” and “What if there were more African women in computing and technology?” and “What if all women knew how to program?” Discussions touched on the ways women can distinguish themselves in a male-dominated profession, the many opportunities that female computer scientists have to harness their interests (be it for humanitarian work, healthcare or education) and the complications that arise when women in computing become mothers.
Jo Miller, CEO of Women’s Leadership Coaching, encouraged the 850 participants in a leadership workshop on “Building Your Brand as a Technical Expert or Leader” to take a page from the male playbook and actively market their skills and talents as a brand — a tactic that women, as the more typically ‘collaborative’ sex, tend to find more palatable than “boasting” about their merits. By branding themselves as a “subject matter expert,” “change agent” or “quiet leader” and walking the walk, Miller says women can make themselves indispensable to their organizations (or make themselves more appealing as job applicants).
“You know you’re in your career sweet spot when you feel a rush of exhiliration,” she remarked. “But your brand must evolve as you develop your career. Ask yourself: ‘Am I the best-kept secret in my organization? What brand do I need to become known for now in order to get there?’”
Another consistent theme of the conference was keeping women in computing once they “get there.” Attrition is a huge thorn in the industry’s side, even in tony Silicon Valley, where companies like Facebook and Google court women with substantial perks, such as four months’ paid parental leave and hefty discounts on childcare. CNN Money recently reported that in 2008, women made up just 33% of the workforce at Silicon Valley’s top 10 largest and most influential employers, which is down from 37% a few years earlier.
So what’s keeping women from joining the computing industry, or causing them to leave once they get there? Keynote speaker Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, enumerated some of the obstacles standing between the current reality and conference founder Anita Borg’s goal of 50 percent representation for women in computing by 2020.
First and foremost, said Sandberg, is women’s tendency to downplay their strengths. She admitted that even after working as chief of staff for the United States Department of the Treasury, serving as Google’s Vice President of Online Sales and Global Operations and being named one of Forbes’ “50 Most Powerful Women in Business,” she still sometimes feels like a fraud.
“The data show very clearly that women underestimate their achievements, and men overestimate theirs,” she remarked. “Even more importantly, men attribute their success to themselves, while women attribute it to working hard, help from others and being lucky.
“Joking aside, I don’t think the men are wrong,” she continued. “Believing you can do something is the first and necessary step to success. You have to dream big. We women have an ambition gap, and that’s driving the achievement gap."
Also important, said Sandberg, is “making your partner a real partner.” A 2010 American Time Use Survey conducted by the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that “on an average day, 84 percent of women… spent some time doing household activities such as housework, cooking, lawn care, or financial and other household management,” compared to just 67 percent of men.
“We’ve made more progress professionally in the workplace than we have in the rest of the world,” Sandberg added, noting that despite the progress women have made in obtaining college degrees since 1981, in terms of corporate leadership roles they have stalled out at 15 or 16 percent. Last year, for the first time in history, women actually lost seats in the U.S. Congress.
Balancing their professional and personal roles no doubt has a role to play in women not getting ahead, she suggested, and too many women “leave before they leave” and refrain from seeking out promotions because they expect one day to leave the workforce to become mothers, if only temporarily.
“You’re only going to leave your child at home and go to work if it matters and you’re having an impact,” she advised, “so the best way to make room for yourself in the workforce is to lean all the way in. Keep your foot on the gas pedal.”
Finally, said Sandberg, women have to stop pretending like the status quo is all right with them, be it the dearth of female computer scientists, the failure for women to ascend the ranks or the lack of support for working women with families. More than anything women need to start stepping up and speaking out.
“None of this can change if we don’t talk about it, so let’s start talking about it,” she noted. “My generation is not going to change this. My generation is way too late to change the numbers in computer science, way too late to change the numbers in leadership. So we turn to you.
“What would you do, if you weren’t afraid? Ask yourselves this, and whatever it is, go do it.”
Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, firstname.lastname@example.org