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Is this what it’s like for women at every conference?

Experiencing Grace Hopper as an interloper

Departure Lounges Full

This was my first time at the Grace Hopper Conference (GHC), and it was clear it was going to be a unique event as soon as we arrived at the SFO departure lounge. On this last flight to Minneapolis on the eve of the conference, the vast majority of passengers were attendees, most of whom could be found toting startup-sticker-adorned laptops, swapping tech company gossip, and discussing esoteric topics like natural joins, graph theory, and hackathons. The primary difference to every other technology conference: Virtually all were women.


Bathrooms Full

Prior to the conference, my CTO asked me if I had any concerns about attending GHC. The thought hadn’t occurred to me, but he was checking that I’d be okay being vastly outnumbered. Having previously lived in Japan for a couple of years, I’m somewhat accustomed to being in a minority, but even so, the scale of the imbalance was staggering. There were 4600 attendees, and I would be surprised if there were more than 100 men. I now understand how the four women on my CS undergrad course of 220 students felt.

A trite example: The men’s restroom was appropriated for the dominant gender, while a guy was still in one of the stalls. Nature was calling for too many, and nature found a way, as the bathroom underwent spontaneous inorganic protandry.


Conference Halls Full

Sheryl Sandberg’s opening interview was inspiring and horrifying in equal measure. I felt ashamed for my gender as she shared anecdote after anecdote, demonstrating how far there is to go in making the tech industry representative of its customers, and relating the casual misogyny of nameless men:

“I‘d like to hire more women, but my wife’s worried
that I’ll sleep with them… And I might.”
“Sheryl’s not like other women. She’s competent.”
“Are you sure you should be working?”

As women around me nodded their heads with wry smiles, I could only cringe.


Networks Full

One of the primary functions of Grace Hopper is to facilitate networking, but I was still surprised by the density of the connections. Two of my fellow Medians, Jean and Tess, seemed to know or have heard of everyone: “I took a couple of classes with her”; “A few of my friends tell me she’s super smart”; or “I did a hackathon with her a few months ago.” The same story was true at most booths I saw.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised by this; in the same way that other minority groups form tight bonds, so too have the women developed a close-knit community in an industry where 85 percent of technical jobs are filled by men.

Throughout the conference center, young women clustered together, renewing past acquaintances and discussing their work, their studies, and their futures. Their body language and demeanor made it clear, politely, that my presence was not required. A multitude of closed-off conversations, the antithesis and equivalent of an old boys’ network, impenetrable to one who does not belong.

I wasn’t dismissed, per se; just ignored — surplus to requirements.

Do women see clusters of men talking at overwhelmingly male-dominated conferences and feel the same way? Do they feel tangential or ornamental? No matter one’s self confidence, it’s disheartening to feel separate from the group, to be on the outside looking in. I can easily see how it would become damaging and demoralising when repeated, ad infinitum.

As a white man, the feeling is rare enough for it to register as more novel than hurtful, and I didn’t resent it one bit. Grace Hopper is explicitly not about people like me.


Binders Full

We took six Medians to Grace Hopper. We expected that we’d rotate three people on and three people off, as various sessions of interest came up. We expected to be quiet, to give away a few T-shirts, and receive a few dozen resumes.

We didn’t sit down for three days.

The depth of talent was astounding. Not that the mere existence of talented female engineers is all that astonishing — after all, computer science is not innately oriented to one gender or the other — but to see so many prodigiously gifted, young, and enthusiastic technologists all in one place? Revelatory.

We collected the resumes of more than 300 candidates, both for our full-time positions and our internship program. At least fifty of them were exceptional. If I had the authority to do so, I would have made a number of offers already. We’re excited to continue talking with them, and in a climate of such intense competition over development talent, this feels like a significant competitive advantage.

Talented technical women most certainly do exist, and in volume. If you don’t have any on your team, you’re just not trying.

And to those who do care about representation and inclusiveness, and who are unconvinced by talk of box-ticking and a talent shortage, I’ll be in the departure lounge again next year, outnumbered and excited. See you there.