Grace Hopper: Celebration or Eulogy?

— Credit to Elisabeth Morant for the title

This post is just a personal reflection of my thoughts post-GHC 2015. No analysis and no deeper message. Only a quick attempt by me to commemorate the event in my life and to understand how I feel by expressing my thoughts about my experience.

The Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of Women in Computing is the largest conference of women techies that I’ve ever been lucky enough to attend. It really is an absolutely amazing and unique experience, and whether you’re a woman or a man (especially if you work in a field even remotely close to tech), attending at least once should be on your bucket list.

But honestly I cannot say that the experience felt like a celebration.

Every talk, every speaker, every panel brought up more challenges than solutions and more obstacles than pathways. To me it felt as if the party was over, and we were just eulogizing ideals that are dead and gone. I’m going back to work with this aftertaste of helplessness and I’m not sure where to take my activism and energy in order to make a difference. While I got a lot of advice and heard many personal experiences, I am not taking back any actionable steps that I can apply to my own life. And it’s not that I don’t think I can make an impact… I know I can make waves and create change, but lacking the “how-to” part has left me feeling as empty as a drum.

I don’t remember feeling like this when I first attended GHC as a junior in college. Back then, it was my first time really hearing about the issues women faced in tech and I just felt lucky to be part of the conversation, excited to be getting the exposure. I was learning left and right about how to get an internship, how to technically interview well, how to start letting go of my imposter syndrome, etc. I also ended up meeting some amazing people (taking pictures with role models like Sheryl Sandberg). In the end, that year I left Portland feeling pretty phenomenal for a twenty year old!

GHC 2011 — Meeting Sheryl Sandberg for the first time as a fresh twenty year old in tech. This picture was so hard for me to find but brings back some really great memories! That was a year of a lot of great personal & professional firsts for me.

This year in Houston, I shared some of the same benefits as my younger self. Grace Hopper is a fantastic way to meet some of the greatest minds in our world and to leave with great stories and advice — in three days, I got to hang out with CEO Jack Dorsey at #twitterTeaTime and USCTO Megan Smith at the ABI Community booth. I saw Chelsea Clinton, heard from an all female panel from NASA (an astronaut, CFO, COO & CIO! Wow!), opened my mind to the life lessons passed on by the CEOs of Hearsay & GoDaddy.

The opportunities at Grace Hopper are one of a kind and the people you’re rubbing elbows with are some of the world’s biggest influences!

GHC 2015 — Hanging out with Megan Smith (and others, including some SUPER COOL individuals from the Peace Corps and from the USDS). Megan Smith is who I aspire to be in life. I’d love to work in government, but I haven’t really found a fitting path to take me into public service unfortunately. Also, random but was I more fashionable when I was twenty? Let’s not dwell on that.

So then why do I feel so jaded?

I’m thinking maybe, just maybe, that because this was my second time, I was able to look past all the glamour of the celebrity and celebration and see the reality of the situation: we live in a skewed world.

Only 26% of tech jobs are held by women! Is that better at all since I went to GHC five years ago? I don’t know, but it doesn’t feel like it. Women technical workers are still paid less than their male counterparts — has that gender pay disparity gone down at all in the last few years? I feel like none of the problems from before have changed — if anything, there are more issues every day? For example, I found Grace Hopper & many of its speakers very heteronormative, which is an outdated perspective.

And for all of these issues, I have no concrete solutions. There isn’t an inkling in my mind about what I can do as soon as I go back to work in order to make a difference. Why don’t we have any solutions? Why weren’t there more brainstorming sessions where the best ideas were put into place? What can I do step by step? Someone please spell it out for me because I don’t know and I feel dejected.

Maybe the answer was told to me at the conference and I missed it. But I went back to my friends and we all felt depressed. Isn’t that sad?

I don’t really have much more to say about this line of thought. If you have actionable steps that I can take in my life to make a difference, then please, please leave me a note.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with my three favorite takeaways from Grace Hopper 2015 and hopefully, you’ll feel more positive than this article ended up being:

  • Clara Shih, CEO of Hearsay, taught me five lessons — listen, know yourself, cultivate relationships, be bold, and pay it forward. All great advice but my favorite part of her segment was an anectdote she told about how she went to a conference for company founders. She was the only woman out of a few hundred men, and before the conference even started, exactly seven men came up to her and treated her like conference personnel rather than a conference attendee because of her gender. Clara brought up how there were different reactions that she would’ve had in different phases of her life, specifically hiding and crying or getting angry and confronting.
    I’ve felt both of those reactions before (not necessarily in the same type of situation) and I know, neither of those actions are constructive. Yet no one had ever brought up a better alternative until Clara. She’s explained that she decided to give the men the benefit of the doubt and killed them with kindness instead. If a man asked her to get coffee, then she’d say, “You know what? I’d love a coffee too.” If a man asked her where the restroom was, then she’d respond, “You know what? I want to know where it is too.” Maybe this isn’t anything new, but it’s changed my outlook: I’m not going to let situations that upset me make me cry or confront. Instead, I’ll ask for the same.
  • Catherine Coleman of NASA had an amazing panel with several other inspiring NASA women leaders. The whole talk was striking (and I actually think it would’ve done superb as a plenary event or as a keynote), but what stood out to me most was Catherine’s answer to a specific question she received about Space-X. I don’t remember what the question was exactly, maybe “How does NASA feel about Space-X and how has it affected strategy?” Catherine’s answer was completely aligned with my own beliefs and articulated beautifully and so I hope my paraphrase does it justice: NASA’s job is to be constantly pushing the boundary and once they have established the way, it makes sense for them to work with commercial partners, who can then take the time to optimize the process efficiently and economically.
    That perspective I believe should be applied to more industries and institutions. For example, our government shouldn’t be lagging behind technically and otherwise; it should be at the forefront, making our community better by trying new risks and pushing the envelope. The government should pass on the stuff it knows how to do already to commercial partners — e.g., we should get rid of the US postal service (a government service burning money and lacking efficiency) because there are so many wonderful private commercial alternatives!
  • I learned that I should just be myself. Always. There’s no point in trying to be “one of the guys”, pretending to be someone else so that you feel like you fit. Maxine Williams, Facebook’s Global Diversity Director, phrased it best when she said something along the lines that rejecting someone because of “culture fit is just a lazy way of saying ‘they’re not like me’”. We should be promoting our differences and really embracing standing out, even if we’re embarrassed at first. At the same time, we should also always be looking to accept everyone into our circles of friendship and work. I’m going to try and be much more aware of my own implicit biases.
Adding this picture here because during this past week, my friend Aimee Lucido pointed out that the group of us traveling to GHC all come from extremely different backgrounds. No two of us are alike and that diversity really makes all of us stronger as a group and as individuals. I want to keep expanding my close friend circles with people that push me to experience new opportunities. Thank you guys for helping me have an unforgettable Grace Hopper!