It’s hard to describe what I felt when I walked into that room. The lights flashing, the stage brightly lit, the screens screaming “Grace Hopper”: my breath caught in my throat, and I could only stare in wonder. But it wasn’t the rock-and-roll-concert feeling that caught me. What had me reeling was that everywhere I looked, all I saw were people like me.

The annual Grace Hopper Celebration, a celebration of women in computing that brings together women from across the world in all levels of post-secondary education and professionalism, reached an astonishing attendance of 12 000 this year in Houston. I had the utmost privilege of attending on scholarship from my school, and I cannot be more thankful for the experience.

People have been asking me if I learned anything at GHC. Though I attended some technical talks, I feel like that wasn’t my biggest gain. I came home with an absolutely unreasonable amount of company swag from the career fair and countless new connections with academics, undergraduate students, and professionals, but that wasn’t why I attended. There were debates on ethics, and workshops on interrupting bias. Incredibly useful, but that wasn’t quite what moved me. I couldn’t really put my finger on it until just now.

When it came down to it, I was moved almost to tears at every opening keynote. Why is that? I was confused at the severity of my own emotional reaction, until I realized that I was overcome with what can only be described as immense and intense hope. Let me explain.

In my past 4 internships, I have never worked with or directly for a female engineer. At one office of over 50 people, there were more bathroom stalls for women then there actually were women in the office. So you can imagine my shock when there were more badass female programmers in line for Starbucks than there were in the entirety of University of Waterloo Software Engineering (admittedly, it was a very long line, and programmers are obsessed with coffee regardless of gender).

But to sit in a room of people riveted to the stage, where the speaker is an incredible woman who’s accomplished so much but feels comfortable enough to be her authentic humble self, is something I’ve never had the privilege of witnessing. I watched a powerful CEO giggle about her #CurlyHairProblems when her curls brushed incessantly up against the mic, and not lose an ounce of respect from her audience. I listened to an industry-hardened leader share stories about her struggles to relive her own journey into tech with her tech-alienated daughter, and saw nothing but acceptance from the crowd.

Whenever I got up to a mic to share my story with the other attendees, I was met with good-natured laughter and nods of understanding. That was probably the most troubling to me — I described my hardships and the wars I waged with ill-placed commentary, and every person there knew exactly what I was talking about and had experienced it themselves. I found support, but to know that 12 000 other people had gone through the same was heartbreaking.

And yet, Grace Hopper was a celebration. It wasn’t just a place for us to meet up and share our struggles, but more to share our stories of success. Grace Hopper aimed to inspire young women like me to go back and try shift culture one person at a time. They introduced us to women who were merely average, and showed us that there is nothing “mere” about being average. They brought to our attention powerful leaders, and women who have made astonishing grassroots change with hardly any recognition. They gave us a place to be our authentic selves, and discover who that authentic self was without the pressure of destroying a stereotype or representing our gender.

In one of my previous posts on the #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign, I wrote:

Maybe we need to stop perpetuating the stereotype of a skinny, pale, geeky programmer with no social skills and try to accept and celebrate authenticity where we can find it. Maybe we need to work on taking people at face value, and expanding our circles of engineers so that when you are asked what an engineer looks like, you have so many different faces that you can’t pick just one.

Looking around that room, I saw people who looked like mothers, and some who looked like aunties. Women who were a bit radical like me, or quieter in demeanour and dress. I saw students in suits, in short shorts, in jeans, and in flowing skirts. I saw ladies who were old enough to be grandmothers, and strong leaders who still can’t figure out how to turn flash off on their phone cameras like my mom. There were only two things that tied every person together: their love of the computing world, and their passion for equality and support. I could not in a million years have possibly stereotyped what an engineer looked like from walking around the packed conference centre. I couldn’t have attached one physical or behavioural trait to female programmers, and have it hold true for even half of the women there.

Everywhere I looked, I saw what an engineer looked like. And it looked beautiful, strong, and comfortable.

And that’s where my intense hope comes from — the hope that one day, we could all walk out of Grace Hopper and back into our daily lives, still feeling confident and comfortable with who we are.

University of Waterloo women representing undergraduate and graduate computing programs at Grace Hopper 2015
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