36 Hours Celebrating Kick-Ass Women in Tech

Five things to know from this year’s Grace Hopper conference

I had the privilege of attending the Grace Hopper conference for the first time this year, an annual event that brings together women from all parts of the world to celebrate each other and their achievements in computing. It’s an event that honors technologists who happen to be women, not women who happen to be in tech (an important distinction).

In its recent years, Grace Hopper has become a major recruiting opportunity for tech companies eager to address their diversity issues, and a platform for both industry and political leaders to take a stance on the gender gap. Notably, the audience has grown to include non-engineering women-in-tech like me, which I believe is an important step to building an inclusive industry that values diversity of all kinds.

Here are my key takeaways from this year’s event, important for men and women alike:

1. There are (still) a surprising number of “lone soldier” women pioneers in computer science. And GHC is an opportunity to connect these women to a bigger community of people like them. I met female CS students attending on scholarship who told me they were the only women in their classes. I heard women speak from all corners of the globe who are defying cultural stereotypes to spearhead grassroots tech initiatives that empower women in their communities. For those of you that feel alone in your endeavors, like you are facing unsurmountable challenges that only you can understand, know that you are not alone.

2. Getting women to code is not a nice-to-have; it’s essential to the future of our global economy. As Hadi Partovi founder of Code.org stated, “I used to say that 15 years from now, the only jobs you could get that didn’t involve technology would be flipping burgers or driving a truck. Now they are making robots that can flip burgers and trucks that can drive themselves.” If we leave 50% of our workforce out of this future because they don’t have the skills to participate, we are all in trouble.

3. Diversity problems won’t be solved by good intentions alone. It requires deliberate actions and a change in priorities from leadership. As Megan Smith, Chief Technology Officer of the United States and former Google exec pointedly said, if diversity is on your list but not in your “top 3,” nothing’s going to change.

4. Is it a pipeline problem or a “leaky” problem? There’s an interesting debate about where we should focus our efforts; on fixing the pipeline problem — helping more women and girls from a young age get computer science skills so they can get tech jobs and close the gender gap — vs. solving the leaky problem — the very sad reality that so many qualified women in tech leave the field or don’t get promoted to the top at the same rates as men. While both are problems that need to be addressed, I worry we focus too much on the former and not enough on the latter. Unlike the pipeline problem, this leaky problem is not tech-specific and is an unfortunate reality of corporate America at large (for more on this, read Sheryl Sandberg’s WSJ op-ed “When Women Get Stuck…”). Net-net: we will never close the gender gap without equal numbers of men and women at the top of our organizations.

5. Men can be (and need to be) champions of women in tech if we want real systemic and cultural change to happen. Sprinkled in the mix of 12,000 women at Grace Hopper were a handful of men who are taking bold business and management decisions to change their cultures from within and help women in their organizations thrive. I was particularly impressed to hear Jack Dorsey talk about Square’s female leaders who collectively manage about 70% of Square’s employees. Interestingly, he posed a challenge to tech companies to get rid of age-old recruitment practices like referral bonuses that perpetuate hiring people “like us” instead of people that are different than us. We need more male leaders like Jack Dorsey who embrace diversity as an “our problem” that affects us all, not a “their problem .”

If you have a chance to attend Grace Hopper in the future, make the trip. And to steal Jack’s call to action, bring a guy along with you for the ride :)

P.S. For you aspiring women in tech (engineers and non-engineers alike), here are some of my favorite resources and programs worth checking out: