Photo by Tina chen

Is This What It’s Like for Men At Every Conference?

First impressions at Grace Hopper Conference

This is my first time at Grace Hopper, and the experience started from the moment we stepped into SFO Airport. The clusters of women in company t-shirts, toting Google, Dropbox, and Microsoft gear increased in density as we made our way to gate A2 to catch the last Tuesday flight to Minneapolis. As we descended on the escalator to the boarding area, laptops adorned with startup and hackathon stickers came into full view. The handful of men scattered about the gate who were not headed to GHC looked a little startled and confused.

Halfway through the flight, I walked to the bathroom and marveled at the passenger demographics—approximately 90% women. Terminal windows glowed in the otherwise dark cabin. I caught snippets of conversations about Python, upcoming problem sets, and on-call rotations. I tried to catch up on some much-needed sleep while my colleague Jamie chatted with a Stanford graduate student who sat in between us about our new homepage algorithm on Medium and “exploration vs. exploitation” strategies.

This morning, before I had any caffeine in my system, I made it to the keynote conversation between Sheryl Sandberg, Maria Klawe, and Telle Whitney.

I had watched one of Sandberg’s commencement speeches before, online, and had read her book, but it was my first time hearing her speak in person. While many of the points and stories she brought up were ones I was familiar with, the context was very different in a hall of thousands of women in tech.

I felt my heart sink as I saw hundreds of hands go up when Sandberg asked how many women have heard the question (in the context of having children and a career—very relevant for me, as the mother of a 6 month-old),

“Should you be working??”

I’ve been to tech conferences before, including Mobile World Congress, Google I/O, and Stack Overflow Dev Days, and in an industry where the majority is male, it didn’t feel too unusual to be one of a handful of women. Sure, I noticed it, but I wasn’t outraged by the discrepancy. But here, I look around and all I see is women—smart women in technology who care passionately about solving serious problems in this world. Now I have a small glimpse into what it feels like to be a man at an average tech conference. And it sure feels different.