In the Name of Grace Hopper: Navigating the GHC Tech Conference As a Woman of Color

There are countless stories, including my own, that can confirm that Vassar is far from perfect. And yet, as a female-identified computer science major pursuing a career as a software engineer, I could not be more grateful to be at this school. Undoubtedly, there are downsides of Vassar’s CS department, but the community among the students and the professors continues to amaze me every day. I frequently have to remind myself that when it comes to being a woman or femme in computer science, much of the real world is not as safe as Vassar, and that terrifies me.

I never thought I could do computer science; I never even knew it was an option. During my first year at Vassar, however, a female-identified classmate talked me into taking an introductory class. Her reasoning was that “technology is becoming relevant in every field.” Less than halfway through the class, I was sold. I loved solving the puzzles, and I wanted to learn more. Since then, my professors and most of my classmates have been encouraging every step of the way. The students I have met in the department are extraordinary; they are the kinds of students who stay up until ridiculous hours to help you understand a difficult algorithm, the ones who remind you to eat and sleep when you are caught up in finding a job or working on a problem set. We can work in groups, and we truly understand our peers. Unlike CS departments at other schools, our department is collaborative, not competitive.

What we are not prepared for, however, are the harsh realities of the tech world. It is an unfortunate truth that the tech industry is a straight, white, cis-male dominated space. Society celebrates Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, but we forget that their work would be impossible without Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace and so many more important women in computing before them. Additionally, liberal arts students are thought to perform poorly in STEM. We forget, however, that Grace Hopper, who has made amazing contributions to technology, is not only a Vassar alumnus but also taught here for many years. To help us begin understanding how to navigate the industry and gain exposure to a lot of wonderful opportunities, the Vassar CS department sponsors a relatively large group of women to go to the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing, held by the Anita Borg Institute. In this way, Vassar’s women in computer science get to honor Grace Hopper as well as continue her legacy.

This past October break, I went to my second Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC). My first time attending GHC in 2015 had been stressful. I spent almost the entire time begging for interviews with any company that would take me, regardless of their reputation in technology– or their politics. When I got back to school, I kicked myself for tolerating so many sexist, racist, and transphobic comments so I wouldn’t seem “bitchy,” “too pc,” or “condescending.”

This time, I went into the conference without any plans to look for a job. So, I really got to observe the space, and I realized how conflicted I felt about it. The opening ceremony for GHC 2016 started with cheering for different groups of people in attendance at the 15,000-person conference. The first group we cheered for was the group of 1,000 men in the crowd. “We welcome you,” the host exclaimed to the men. Did we? Why were we thanking men for being a part of this women empowerment space? Why wasn’t anyone else mad? I’m not sure if it was my lack of sleep or my discomfort with the overwhelming presence of masculinity at the conference, but I was ready to leave. I could not understand why we had to applaud men for wanting to help and empower women and femmes when that is what they should be doing anyway.

From my previous experience at GHC, I had pretty low expectations for the keynote speeches. GHC 2015 featured many white cis-women and the male CEO of GoDaddy (endorsing gross ads that objectify women). I didn’t expect GHC 2016 to be different. To my surprise, the first keynote speaker they brought out was Latanya Sweeney, a Professor of Government and Technology in Residence and the Director of the Data Privacy Lab in the Institute of Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. Unlike the speakers I had anticipated, Latanya Sweeney is a queer woman of color whose work extends beyond what we normally think of when we think of computing. One of her recent projects used data to expose racial discrimination in Google search ads. She continues to make amazing observations with data science and teaches her students how to use data to make social change. Her work reminded me that STEM can be used for social awareness; it is not limited to making the next big social media platform or a new Candy Crush. It made me extremely hopeful for my conference experience as well as my future experience in the tech industry.

After the opening ceremony, the Expo began. The Expo is a huge, three-day long professional development fair, and I decided to check it out to gather information for Vassar students who were not able to attend themselves. There were representatives from non-profits such as Girls Who Code, huge tech companies like Google and Microsoft, educational bootcamps like Dev Bootcamp, and colleges such as Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon. Attendees are given the chance to network, pass out their resumes, learn about different opportunities and take part in interviews.

What struck me was the way that some men decided to behave in this space. There are mixed feelings amongst women and femme attendees about whether or not men should be in attendance at Grace Hopper. I personally believe that it is okay for men to attend. I appreciate men listening to speakers and learning about the different experiences women have in the field. I choose to believe that friendly, understanding male recruiters at the Expo are saying, “We want more women. We think tech needs more women. We respect women.” Unfortunately, these were not the only men I encountered.

On the first day of the Expo, it became clear that male-identified people were utilizing the career fair to search for jobs and internships.  I was upset that men would be using the space, which was specifically meant to celebrate and empower women and femmes, for their own personal promotion and self-interest.

The second day of the Expo was not any better. My friends and I attended a raffle drawing for an Apple Watch. Before announcing and choosing the winner, there was an introductory speech about past raffles and a little insight about the company. I was surprised to see that the introduction was given by a white man. When he introduced what the raffle prize was, he stated that the rose-gold-colored watch was “for women” and that it was “not like [his],” which was black. The women from his company standing around him laughed along and did not seem affected by his words. Before I could even think of how to express my disappointment, I heard my friend next to me angrily say, “That’s offensive!” The people around us looked at her as if she had done something wrong by disrupting the raffle. While my friends and I were clearly offended, it seemed as if the women around us did not understand why we were upset. That was the worst part about it.

The Expo made me remember everything that was wrong with GHC. Luckily, the day was saved by Google’s mixer for women of color in computing. Unlike other mixers I had been to, the atmosphere of this one was comforting. I did not feel pressured to talk myself up all night to recruiters and engineers. Instead, the space was welcoming and the food was great. While there were opportunities to network and get your name out there, I felt as if the purpose of the mixer was to remind us that there are women of color in tech, and that we can and should be supporting each other.

By the last day of the conference, I was drained. I almost didn’t go to hear the closing keynote speakers, but I knew I would regret it if I didn’t. When the host of the keynote introduced the first speaker, she started talking about a well-known, prolific, female tech journalist. I was really excited, because I wanted to hear how she became successful in a field that isn’t very welcoming toward people who are not cis-men. Then, the host said that this successful woman would be leading an interview with the CEO of Salesforce, Marc Benioff. She was literally only there to ask scripted questions to this male CEO.

Benioff was asked to speak about how his company very recently began paying women the same amount as men. I believe the idea was to show us that large companies like Salesforce are taking the steps to promote equality in the workplace. Benioff told the crowd that he originally did not realize there was a difference in pay between men and women until a few women in his company pointed it out. While I think it is very important that the women are getting equal pay, I began wondering what it must have been like for those women to approach their cis-gender, white, male CEO about such an important and sensitive issue. I wished I could have heard from them instead.

However, the biggest problem I had with what Benioff shared was his insistence that he understood what it meant to be part of a marginalized group. “I am also the oppressed,” he stated before saying he was a cis, white, straight man with a wife and family. He followed by saying, “I am also lesbian, I am gay, I am queer, I am transgender, I am black…” and eventually listed all the colors in the rainbow as thing that he was. His overall point was that while he has privileged identities, he represents all the different people in his company. While his  intentions may have been good, I was shocked that he thought that supporting and fighting for people of different gender, sexual and racial identities was the same as having those lived experiences.

The interviewer ended by asking him what advice he would give to women pursuing careers in tech. He essentially said that women do not normally say what they want, but that we should in a short, to-the-point way. “What do you want? What do you really want to achieve?” I was really puzzled by how many people in the crowd cheered for that advice. As women, femmes, and other people whose identities are not supported in the tech industry, we already know what we want. We already try to express our goals and ambitions. Men just tend not to listen. Needless to say, I was furious by the time he left the stage.

Luckily, the next session was a short screening of the Hidden Figures trailer followed by a panel with women of color involved in related fields. For me, it was extremely important to acknowledge and celebrate not just women in the field, but also women of color in tech.

One of the best parts about the conference was getting to know the other women in tech from Vassar and realizing the impact they will have on the tech industry on both a social and professional level. In addition to being able to see how intelligent and qualified my classmates are, I also got to learn about their experiences. I was able to see my friend call out a white man for making a sexist comment. I had people to commiserate with when they picked a middle-aged, cisgendered man to DJ the entire conference instead of any of the amazing female-identified DJs there are. And I was able to discuss the transphobia and trans-erasure in a place where no one else seemed to care.

Overall, both my experiences of the conference had ups and downs. I cycled through feeling extremely empowered and safe to feeling uncomfortable and angry. I’ve realized that there are others who would have felt even less comfortable at the Conference than I did; as a cisgendered woman, for instance, I felt a sense of acceptance in the space that others may not have.  I feel extremely grateful for my ability  to attend with relative ease and safety, and also for the  increased emphasis on including women of color at the conference. In a span of only a year between the two conferences I attended, I was able to see change. With the scholarship applications out now, I only wish I had another year as a student to go again. There is a lot of work that needs to be done in making GHC a more inclusive space, but I believe that it can happen soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *