Guest Post: “#GHC15: Calling out the Wrongs & Celebrating the Victories”

Terri Burns (@TCBurning) shares her #GHC15 experience

After #GHC15 I headed back to New York, with luggage (filled with schwag) and heart (in anticipation of leaving the warmth of Houston) heavier than before.

For me, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (thrown by the Anita Borg Institute, ABI) was a good conference, There’s no denying it. I was able to connect with old, virtual, and future friends while re-igniting my passion for technology amidst my tough computer science courses, code challenges, and whiteboarding interviews. GHC, like last year, has been fun and refreshing.

These last few days, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the state of GHC and what the conference should strive for in the coming years. I know it’s not all up to me. But as I’ve encouraged a lot of women to attend the conference this year, I may not do the same in the future if GHC doesn’t do a better job including women of color in every aspect of the conversation, as well as encouraging smaller companies to have a fair chance of making a huge impact.

There are great things about the conference, and there are bad things. Let me kick off with the negatives:

I think it’s pretty common knowledge now that GHC is in many ways, the pinnacle of white feminism and lack of intersectionality when speaking about “diversity” in tech. I recommend reading Erica Joy’s piece on GHC, the tech industry in general, and it’s “colorless diversity.” (She ultimately decided to not attend the conference, which I understand.)

Most of the speakers at the conference were indeed white women; pretty much all of what Erica mentioned in the article rang true. I, too became aware of the lack of diverse speakers before the conference, and after a series of tweets on this issue, I was really excited and honored to be asked by ABI organizers to do an Instagram takeover for their account.

Instagram Takeover at #GHC15

I was specifically encouraged to highlight the voices of women of color, which I did to the best of my ability. For example, I spoke with Kaya Thomas, Brianna Fugate, and Omayeli Arenyeka about their perspectives on being black women at the conference. I think it was a small but positive step in the right direction, and an indication that the need for intersectionality is something that the ABI organizers are aware of and working on. I’m not sure what other steps were taken by the ABI organizers this year to help get more people of color in the discussion of diversity, but I have hope that next year it will improve.

In addition to intersectionality, I question whether or not GHC is providing a safe and supportive platform for small startups and lesser-known companies to have a fair chance of outreach and recruiting at the conference.

Company sponsorship slots are already filling up for next year, and the diamond sponsors are of course taken by the biggest tech giants in our industry. In the same light, the number of interview booths available for some of these larger companies largely outnumber available for smaller and newer ones. While one might make the argument that it’s proportional to company size, it makes me question the symbolic implications of allowing the tech giants to literally take up so much space.

How much should we allow smaller, lesser-known companies to be overshadowed? For the companies that can afford it, they have grandiose booths at the career fair which attract the attention of attendees much more than the smaller ones. I heard stories of people being moved from hotels because another company was willing to pay more, I overheard students saying they were intentionally avoiding “no-name companies,” and from what I can tell, GHC isn’t doing much to stop or improve that.

These issues are really concerning to me, for the reason none other than this conference is meant to celebrate inclusivity and yet is actively isolating players who should be a part of the conversation. Whether this affects you as a smaller startup trying to make it in the industry, or as a woman of color who barely saw anyone that looked like you speak at GHC this year, it is wrong and should be improved upon.

All of that being said, there are a lot of incredible things that happened at GHC.

I, as I did last year, met some brilliant, excited, passionate, and fascinating women with whom I will be connected to for a long time. Some of my friends who never thought they would have an opportunity to work or intern at various companies got job offers specifically for coming to this conference.

I was able to sit down and have interesting conversations from pretty much anyone around me at a given time. I was given really valuable advice from people I may not have met otherwise. I was able to see my friends from Tech@NYU, Code Camp, and hackathons, and hear and learn more about their experiences in tech.

I was motivated and inspired, and I know I am not alone in this. All of these elements of the conference are very good things, and I am ultimately grateful to have been given the opportunity to attend. (Thanks Buzzfeed!)

I know that as a student, sometimes it can be difficult to have any idea what kind of work is possible after graduation, even as a computer science major. GHC does a great job of making you feel like it is possible to be successful in this field, no matter what its is you want to work on, and it connects you with people who can support you every step of the way. For me, that has been critical to my growth as a budding product manager and member of the tech industry.

So in the end, I’ll continue encouraging people to attend GHC, and continue speaking out and working (to the best of my ability) with the ABI organizers about fixing the most egregious problems with the conference.

GHC has the potential to change people’s lives, and I just hope that the conference does a better job of being more inclusive about those lives it’s changing.

For me, I’ll continue to do what I can to make that happen, and celebrate the small victories in the meantime. It’s certainly #OurTimeToLead — and that includes all women. Thank you for ABI for giving me a voice with which I can lead, and for supporting me in uplifting the voices of other women as well.