Restoration, or something like it
I’ve just returned home from a week in Houston, an attendee of the ornately-named Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference. Verbally, we truncate to Grace Hopper. Online, we are briefer: #GHC. I’m in that bleary-eyed, disoriented state that reliably comes from existing outside one’s own routine for long enough.
Disclosures: I work at a high-profile startup; I’m hashtag-blessed in that I was able to attend #GHC — an intensely expensive conference — free-of-charge, courtesy of said employer. While at #GHC, I interviewed and attempted to recruit young women on behalf of my employer.
Admiral Grace Hopper is the technical HBIC I dream of becoming. Born in 1906, she studied mathematics and physics at Vassar, followed by a Ph.D. in mathematics she earned at Yale. During World War II, she enlisted in the Navy, and was assigned to the computational unit, working on America’s first programmable computer.
While Admiral Hopper is well-known for her incredible technical abilities, unmatched perseverance, and mettle, I’m always drawn to Grace Hopper, the teacher. It is not hyperbole to assert that education is transformative, that teaching is a revolutionary act. Hopper herself points to educating young people as her chief achievement:
“The most important thing I’ve accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, ‘Do you think we can do this?’ I say, ‘Try it.’ And I back ’em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir ’em up at intervals so they don’t forget to take chances.”
In 1994, inspired by Admiral Hopper, Anita Borg — an intensely accomplished technical woman in her own right — co-founded #GHC. Its first year would only see 500 attendees. This past year, close to 12,000 women were in attendance.
The conference has, in recent years, struck a dissonant chord. In 2014, the organization held a now-infamous male-allies panel, in which male-executives would tell thousands of technical women that the answer to overcoming a sea of systemic misogyny is working harder. Women flocked to Twitter, excoriating the panel, #GHC, and the Anita Borg Institute.
Ahead of the panel, “The Union of Concerned Feminists” (later revealed to be the brainchild of Leigh Honeywell) disseminated “Ally Bingo” sheets. It was a five by five grid, printed on white paper. Contained within each block were the hackneyed phrases and weak rhetoric all-too-frequently utilized by out-of-touch men. “I am related to a woman,” one space reads. In another, it simply says, “Lean In”. The free space? A black square, save capitalized, white lettering: “~~PIPELINE~~”.
Two-thirds through the plenary, someone yells, “BINGO!”
In the weeks before the 2015 edition of #GHC, a critical eye turned to examine the Anita Borg Institute. It seems they have learned nothing, the technical women of Twitter decried. Business as usual, they concluded. Anti-GHC sentiments made the rounds, questioning the power structures behind the conference, taking note of its lack of racial diversity — in the panels, in the keynotes, on the Anita Borg Institute’s board.
I attended #GHC for the first time this year, bracing for a bonafide, full-on catastrophe. Like many of the spaces I occupy, I expected #GHC to be overwhelmingly white. Oh, how I was wrong! There were women of all ages, races, ethnicities. Queer women, straight women, trans* women. I spent the first few hours bewildered, choked up: after spending many years as the only one in the room, I was surrounded by thousands of technical women. In my home city, I’m despondent; I feel a nostalgia for a cohort I can’t seem to find. At #GHC, I find them: I’m surrounded by a physicality I cannot shake — they were here, all along.
For me, #GHC15 felt restorative. I left Houston feeling buoyed, invigorated, and ready to return home, to tackle the realities of my working life.
In considering the sheer scale of #GHC it’s clear: of course there is more they can do. The conference is wildly expensive, charging attendees and speakers alike. The evening plenary on the first day gave undue stage time to a male CEO, when that platform undoubtedly could’ve been better utilized by a woman. Networking opportunities between women of color abounded, but to see more women of color presenting would’ve been a boon. “We are dying to see ourselves anywhere,” after all.
I believe that it’s easier to snark on systems and ideas than to work incrementally to improve them. If paper beats rock, iteration beats rewrite — every time. I do believe the criticisms of #GHC and the Anita Borg institution are valid — however! I struggled to divorce en-mass critiques of #GHC (from mostly non-attendees) from straight-up job protectionism. It was difficult! I witnessed women already in industry gripe about a conference whose main draw is a career fair — one that provides access to hundreds of so-called “top” employers across a variety of industries, across a variety of roles. For all their awareness raising, anti-GHC sentiments do not place young women into technical roles. Not at nearly the clip, not at the nearly quantity.
To date, these criticisms haven’t presented any solutions. In fact, some critiques led in a boycott of #GHC, which, to me, does more harm than good. Not only is on-site protest more effective (as we observe in the case of “Ally Bingo”), but we miss out on rare chances to warmly welcome new women to the fold. If I’m being honest, I attended largely in part to act as a shining beacon to aspiring engineers of color. To every curious face, I signaled: I’m here! You can be here, too. Come on! Come on. We need you, now, more than ever. As I learned from the wokest kids I know, you can’t be what you can’t see.
With this in mind, should we dismiss the one (and potentially only) gargantuan apparatus we have? Especially one as well-connected, with the existing relationships, reach, and resources as #GHC? One whose stated goals envision “a future where the people who imagine and build technology mirror the people and societies they build it for”? This is a sentiment I can get behind.
As a woman of color in tech, I want more representation in this “meat-grinder” of an industry. I want more of everyone — people of all stripes, creeds, orientations; every box checked. Indeed, I believe there’s room for us all. It’s a fallacy to think otherwise.
I want to emulate Admiral Grace Hopper.
I want to raise us up.
This essay could not have come together in its current form without the help and support of the following unbelievably excellent women: Kelsey Gilmore-Innis; Brenda Jin; Leah Reich; Aminatou Sow; Megan Anctil. One million :heart_eyes: to you.