Crush the Stereotypes: Campus Crusaders

By Heather Cabot and Samantha Walravens.

On a searing October afternoon in downtown Houston, the blinding sun was glinting off mirrored skyscrapers high above us and beating down on the wide asphalt boulevards as we made our way to the George R. Brown Convention Center. We were heading to the 2015 Hopper conference. Tickets for the event, named in memory of a pioneer many Americans have never heard of, sold out in a record eight days. U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, known as the queen of code, was one of the creators of COBOL, the forerunner of today’s modern computer programming languages, and the person credited with coining the term debug, which means fixing an error in a line of code. She is one of the most important figures in the history of modern computing, beginning in 1944 with her U.S. Navy assignment as a mathematical officer to maintain the Harvard Mark I, “a room- sized, relay- based calculator” that was the first programmable digital computer. Megan Smith, chief technology officer of the United States since 2014, has referred to Hopper as “‘an Edison- level American’ without Edison- level recognition.” But for this crowd, “Amazing Grace,” who was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery in 1992, is a rock star.

As we entered the massive hall, which stretches eleven city blocks, we were immediately swept up in the girl power vibe. Everyone seemed to greet one another with the warmth and openness of long-lost friends. And then it hit us. Being here, surrounded by nearly twelve thousand female computer scientists and engineers, really was like being on another planet for these women — for once, they were the majority.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

“I think it’s hard to imagine being in a field where you feel like you’re the only one a lot of the time. Then you go somewhere else and you’re, like, ‘Oh, my God, there are so many of us,’ ” gushed twenty- year- old Mopewa Ogundipe, a Carnegie Mellon University senior majoring in computer science and robotics, who arrived in Houston ready to interview at the epic career fair for six-figure entry-level jobs in the Valley. She already had one offer in hand and was in contention for another software developer position at a big company, but she wanted to see what else might be interesting, perhaps a product manager job. But like many of the college women we met there, Mopewa and her friend Niki Maheshwari, also a CS major, told us they weren’t eager to start their own companies, at least not right away. They wanted job security and benefits upon graduation. And they were not enticed by the rollercoaster ride of all- night hackathons, Red Bull, and a last-man-standing mentality.

In its two-decade history this was the biggest Hopper yet, nearly doubling in attendance from the year before. The young, racially and ethnically mixed crowd was clad in backpacks, jeans, and t- shirts. Most attendees were younger than thirty- four, still in their first or second jobs or studying their hearts out in grueling academic programs. The college contingent was why we were there. We had heard many people blame the small numbers of women in tech on a paucity of women pursuing computer science and engineering degrees since the mid-1990s. It’s true: although the numbers appear to be inching up, female students still make up a fraction of the recipients of degrees in computer science in the United States. Only 14.1 percent of CS degrees were conferred on women in the 2013–14 school year, down from the all- time high of 37 percent in 1985, as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics.3 But as we looked around at the tribe of confident young women hugging each other hello, swapping strategies for acing the whiteboard portion of their job interviews, and trading inside info on internships, we realized we had hit the motherlode. The future innovators were in Houston, and they were ready to roar.


From GEEK GIRL RISING by Heather Cabot and Samantha Walravens. Copyright © 2017 by the authors and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.