The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is an event dedicated to recognizing the role that women have played, and continue to play, in driving technology forward. Yet even as Grace Hopper celebrated technical achievements we could have only dreamed of ten years ago, it is still worth thinking critically about the fundamental thesis of all conferences like this: that technology will make the world a better place.
Grace Hopper is the world’s largest technical conference for women in computing. It is named after the scientist and U.S. Navy officer who was one of the most influential computer scientists, and was once quoted as saying “it’s easier to apologize than it is to get permission.” This year’s Grace Hopper was the largest to date, bringing 12,000 attendees from more than 60 countries to Houston from October 14 – 16 for three days of panels and discussions. It was an incredibly inspiring conference, and despite my reservations and non-technical background in computer science, I found it incredibly insightful. Attending the conference highlighted the complex challenges of creating the technological environment and architecture that digital media lives on. It was also a tantalizing glimpse into the future of technology.
Here were some of my key takeaways as a first-time Grace Hopper attendee and international student, as well as what I’d like to see more of in the future.
Technology Must Look Beyond Gender in Addressing Diversity
The idea that gender diversity and innovation go hand-in-hand was the general sentiment shared by many speakers. Creating a monoculture benefits no one, least of all the companies that want to stay on the cutting edge.
According the National Center for Women and Information Technology, only 26 percent of professional computing occupations are held by women. The audience at many technology conferences I’ve attended has reflected this fact, either skewing male or being a fifty-fifty split. Attending Grace Hopper, where the audience was mostly women, changed the experience of the conference for me in a number of ways. The predominantly female speakers and the audience had a noticeably more intimate rapport, especially in the larger keynote talks, where speakers were able to draw on common experiences shared by the audience.
“Stereotypes are deeply self-reinforcing, because humans process so implicitly,” observed Sheryl Sandberg (@sherylsandberg), COO of Facebook. She noted that humans tend to resist or respond more negatively to things that counter their implicit assumptions. One of the challenges in addressing problems of diversity is that we often need to actively fight biases that we are not aware of, which inherently makes them difficult to combat. After all, how can you fight an enemy you don’t even realize is there?
Sandberg joked that rather than being called “bossy,” little girls should be instead celebrated for having “executive leadership skills.” Amidst the audience’s laughter, she asked if the joke would be as humorous with the child’s gender reversed, and was met with silence. Sandberg wryly noted that this demonstrated the extent to which women have unconsciously internalized negative attitudes and biases towards themselves: even at a conference led by women, it seems the audience found it funnier to ascribe leadership to a girl than a boy.
Though gender was a prominent component in discussions of diversity at Grace Hopper, it was not the only one. Racial diversity is also lacking at many top tech companies.
“Diversity doesn’t just mean women. We can’t throw other minorities under the bus,” said Isis Anchalee (@IsisAnchalee), a platform engineer at OneLogin and advisor to Women Who Code. Anchalee began the #ilooklikeanengineer campaign to show the diversity of who works in computer engineering, and to challenge the stereotypical image of who “looks like an engineer.” She started the hashtag in response to the skepticism of her credentials after her face appeared on an ad promoting her company.
One thing I wanted to see speakers discuss more was the diversity of users, not just creators. There were panels discussing the challenges and goals of making technology accessible to the disabled, or people who have conditions that otherwise limit their ability to interact with conventional input systems. While engineers must often design around a “typical user” scenario, the truth is that as technology becomes easier to mass-produce, the “typical user” no longer exists. What does diversity look like in other countries, for example? As technology reaches previously untouched parts of the world, designers, product managers and creators must continually expand their definition of a “user.”
Technology Should Be Everywhere, for Everyone
Creating technology that can be used by anyone is one thing, but creating a culture that values technology and makes it approachable for everyone is another. Hadi Partovi (@hadip), co-founder of the education non-profit Code.org, spoke passionately about how he feels that the lack of access to the field of computer science is a civil rights issue. The Hour of Code, a worldwide movement to provide an introduction to the basics of computer science, is an attempt to realize the idea that technology should be everywhere, for everyone, regardless of their skill level.
The call to make computer science a mandatory part of the school curriculum was a sentiment shared by many other speakers at Grace Hopper, including Susan Wojcicki, CEO of Youtube. Telling the audience how her own daughter became averse to computer science because she internalized common misperceptions about it, she also shared how her daughter overcame those misconceptions. By being involved in a coding camp and learning about computer science in an environment alongside girls like her, she gained an interest in the subject itself. Unfortunately, not many girls get the opportunity to correct their negative first impressions.
While change at the school system level is slowly being realized, Jessie Wooley-Wilson (@jessieww) of DreamBox believes that women are limited by the view that education should follow a classroom model or traditional pedagogy. Thinking beyond online courses and distance learning, she envisions society moving to a location-agnostic, age-agnostic learning ecosystem which can adapt to individual learning needs and respond with the appropriate exercises.
Of course, the assumption behind the push for technology education and access is that the underlying infrastructure exists to support it. However, that in itself is a challenge. The global state of internet connectivity, released by the United Nations Broadband Commission earlier this year, indicates that roughly 57 percent of the world’s population, or 4 billion people, remains without Internet access. Despite rapid advances in technology, we are still far from achieving the UN’s goal of getting internet access to 60 percent of the population by 2020.
Aside from the set panels and keynote speakers, the Anita Borg Institute presented awards recognizing the achievements of women from many countries and communities, highlighting their efforts to champion technology even in areas where it is not easily accessible. I look forward to seeing future Grace Hopper conferences feature these individuals in many more of the panels and keynote sessions.
Technology Can’t Fix Everything
When all is said and done, Grace Hopper still struggles with the peculiar dichotomy of any technology-centric conference: how do you advocate responsibly for something that could have unforeseen and unintended consequences halfway across the globe? Technology’s bright potential casts a dark shadow, and as we move forward we must ask ourselves who we leave behind us and what it costs to sustain our momentum, including the materials we must mine to satisfy the demands of an increasingly digitized world.
Grady Booch, Chief Scientist for Software Engineering at IBM Research, delivered a talk on the history of software computing, from the first purely mathematical, manually operated devices to the highly complex physical and virtual networks that exist today. Even as he acknowledged human achievements in technology, he reminded the audience to remember that “Much of modern computing was woven on a loom of sorrow,” or developed in the necessity of war.
What concerns Booch more today are the many forces acting upon the industry that developers and engineers must navigate carefully.”We have to be intentional with [computing]. … Remember every line of code you write has an ethical implication,” he told the audience, adding: “We as an industry have built an edifice of software that is extraordinarily fragile. And that scares me.”
In a world where technology has become ubiquitous, Booch’s words are particularly ominous. The proliferation of smart devices and the increasing access to the internet means that for many areas of the world, their first screen is a mobile one. Yet we often overlook the remarkable feats of engineering that have made this possible, and the work that still needs to be done. Even as we focus on teaching machines to become smarter, are we remembering to teach people as well? Where do the weak points of this infrastructure lie, and what consequences might we face if it collapses?
Perhaps Janet George, chief data scientist for Big Data/Data Science and Cognitive Computing at SanDisk, said it best when she addressed the audience:
“Technology is great. It won’t change the world. People will.”
Notes taken by volunteers during the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing 2015 can be found here and here. Livestream recordings of main stage presentations and keynote speeches can be found on the Anita Borg Institute’s Livestream page.