Tales from Grace Hoppers Past

As I prepare to head into Grace Hopper next week, I realize how excited I am for the week ahead. The Grace Hopper Women in Computing Conference is an annual event put on by the Anita Borg Institute to celebrate women technologists, and it’s touted as the largest gathering of women in computing in the world (men attend as well, just not as many).

Sheryl Sandberg speaking at the Grace Hopper Conference in Minneapolis, MN in 2013.

I first attended as a Berkeley Computer Science student in 2013 — keynoted by Sheryl Sandberg that year. I was younger, newly associating myself with the women in tech community, and a virgin to the “lack of diversity, unconscious bias, imposter syndrome” talks that are the crux of so many women in tech gatherings. In 2015, I attended again, by which point the conference size had nearly tripled to over 12k attendees. I was older, a year into my professional career, and fully immersed in the “building our women and diversity pipeline” rhetoric headlining the silicon valley tech community.

In the three-days spanning the conference, there’s a slew of keynotes and talks spanning career advice to emerging technologies, not to mention the overwhelming amount of networking parties and by-far the largest and most incredible career fair that I’ve ever seen. Let’s just say, it makes it much easier to work your way through a crowd when you’re not squeezing past guys to talk to a recruiter of a company that didn’t think they should order swag shirts in a size other than “standard brogrammer”.

As for the keynotes and career talks, they weren’t particularly interesting or revelatory from my two-time experience as they always failed the Tech Bechdel Test of women talking about something other than the burdens of being a woman in tech. But I’ll take being in a place overflowing with women ‘yes and-ing’ and exuding white Lean In feminism over the alternative any day. The alternative is working in a male dominated space, consciously coming to work as a brown woman and child of Sikh immigrants in today’s social-political climate and constantly reminding myself not to accidentally mention capitalist privilege or try to discuss the latest police shooting while the team is talking about their weekend hiking plans or flying lessons. (Trust me I talk my fair share of hiking plans too, but it would be nice to be have the option to conversate about the other stuff plaguing my heart too.)

Not to discredit the efforts taken by big and small tech companies to finally even have a diversity agenda (internal thought: is it because they’ve run out of white/model minority dudes to hire in the bay?), but I imagined the conversation would have evolved from applauding the increase of diversity hires by like 0.02% to creating sustainable, inviting spaces where people of color, women of color could thrive and feel unburdened while working much like a mediocre white man must feel. But the diversity and “unconscious bias” talks at these conferences and companies are still hovering at the level of “why do you think theres a community bias towards a black men vs white men?” or “whey aren’t we supporting career women by paying for them to freeze their eggs?”. Those are important conversations to be having, but at what point are we going to stop spending energy and resources bringing everyone to that same base at the cost of propelling the conversation further? There needs to be some sort of balance, that isn’t there yet. In that mix of self-suppression, passive oppression, and sheer wtf frustration, it’s certainly intriguing why women burn out faster than men and record not having enough energy left over to perform their work at the level of their male peers who didn’t have to think of a million and one other micro-aggressions daily.

Upon our return from the conference last year, my friends and I recorded how we instantly felt a change coming back to work the following Monday. We hadn’t realized it while being at the conference, but being surrounded by hoards of women and that energy for nearly a week straight makes you feel and act differently. I couldn’t pinpoint for you what exactly the difference is, but I bet the thousands of female hoppers would agree it exists — and if you are doubtful or interested I’d encourage my male peers to attend Grace Hopper in person. (Also, Sheryl Sandberg encouraged #womenintech to date men who attend conferences like GHC.)

I head out to Houston on Tuesday. I’ll be speaking on a panel, “From Impostor to Hero: How Being a Mentor Can Grow Your Career” alongside some badass women on Thursday morning and volunteering at Google’s Women of Color Hop Up event Thursday night. The flights to Houston, sidewalks, hotels, bars and restaurants of the city are going to be overtaken by women, and I have to say I am very much looking forward to it.

P.S. Let me know if you’re going to be there too & would like to agree/disagree/talk/vent/nerd-out about tech.