What do today’s women working in technology have in common with a child of privilege born in 1906?
Plenty, as we learned from the Grace Hopper Celebration 2017. Hopper, a graduate of both Vassar and Yale, had to draw on all her brilliance and determination to break down barriers before becoming an early computer developer for the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II. And some 70 years later, women still struggle to find their place in the technology industry.
According to the 2017 Harvey Nash / KPMG CIO Survey, only 9% of IT leaders are women, and the National Girls Collaborative Project reports that only 18% of computer science graduates are women. And as Fast Company recently observed, 2017 has been a year when many upsetting gender diversity, harassment, and bias issues in Silicon Valley have come to light.
As women technologists, these topics are close to our hearts. We’re eager to see our industry improve. We want to connect with other women technology leaders. We want to recruit more women technologists to join us here at Course Hero, and to inspire other companies to be as forward-thinking as ours. And we want to help pave the way for all women who are studying technology in college and envisioning their own careers.
These are just some of the reasons why the Grace Hopper Celebration 2017 was so important to me and the 10 of my Course Hero colleagues who traveled from Redwood City, California, to Orlando, Florida, for the event last week. This annual conference is hosted by AnitaB.org, where they “envision a future where the people who imagine and build technology mirror the people and societies for whom they build it.” Every year, this event promises to bring opportunities for networking, recruiting, collaborating, and collecting inspiration from the community of women technologists. And it didn’t disappoint.
Today, my fellow Course Hero–Grace Hopper attendees and I met to compare notes. Here are a few of the takeaways we thought might interest other women technologists and computer science students.
1. This Event Is Mushrooming
If you’re studying computer science, or if you work in high tech, and you find yourself with an opportunity to go to a Grace Hopper Celebration — seize it. It’s inspiring simply to be part of an event of this scope, and the networking potential is immense.
As Course Hero Software Engineer Tara Krishnan noted, the size of the event was astonishing. It was the first conference she has ever attended, and she said, “Being able to sit in a room with over 18,000 other women in tech was one of the most encouraging experiences I have ever had in the tech industry.”
Software Engineer Aracely Payan Martinez attended last year’s Grace Hopper event. “This year, attendance was 18,000; last year it was 15,000,” she said. “And in 2013 it was only 4,500. It is incredible to see such a huge shift in such a small time frame.”
It wasn’t just the size of the crowd that impressed us — it was also the range of experience and ages. Associate User Experience Researcher Rachel Tobac said, “The coolest part for me was the ability to help and be mentored by women in tech of all ages. I connected with freshman in college to women in executive roles at Fortune 500 companies.”
Software Engineer Katie Tarng celebrated the sense of collaboration and inclusion during the conference. She said, “Every attendee that I spoke to was candid, friendly, ambitious, and interested in how we could diversify tech.”
2. A Lot of Talented Students Are About to Join the Workforce
As an engineering manager, I especially enjoyed talking with college students who are about enter the workforce, hearing about their projects and aspirations, and having the opportunity to provide guidance and insights into what it is like to be a woman in the technology field.
Senior Design Producer Wen Lee was struck by the talent of the newcomers. She said, “Being in a space with so many students and new professionals pursuing highly technical roles was an incredible thing to see. It makes me feel like the barriers I faced as a student are starting to weaken, and that more women are feeling like they belong at the table.”
One of the women who especially impressed us was Anna Webber, who was able to attend the event thanks to a scholarship from Course Hero. Anna is majoring in bioengineering and computer science. Her journey to become a computer science major showed real determination: She earned enough credits in high school AP courses to enter university as a sophomore. This let her dive into both majors and still graduate in four years. Anna joined us at our booth and also for a team dinner. We hope to meet with her again at the next Grace Hopper conference and find out how her career unfolds.
3. We Can Diversify the Workforce
One of the keynote speakers was Melinda Gates. She pointed out that the shortage of women in tech is problematic, because it has a snowball effect: Fewer women in tech means fewer women going into tech. When younger women don’t see female role models, they’re less likely to see technical jobs as potential options. Further, products reflect their creators, so if we lack perspective in the development room, we’re missing opportunities to create products for underrepresented minorities and women. She also had four specific ideas for addressing the problem:
- Broaden educational opportunities in tech beyond the classroom.
- Put more emphasis on how tech can solve real-world social problems.
- Bring computing to other academic disciplines via interdisciplinary projects in school.
- Allow members of underrepresented minorities to get into tech at different points in their careers — not every person will be able to go through the typical process of a four-year college degree followed by a job at a Silicon Valley start-up.
4. Diversity Is Especially Needed in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
If data collection and input is biased, then the outputs of artificial intelligence and machine learning will also be biased — this is a theme that arose in many of the talks we attended. Martinez heard a talk called Machines and Humans Unite to Save the World, where the speakers reminded attendees that machines reflect what we feed them, as described by Bayes’ theorem. In the Natural Language Processing talk I attended, the speakers summed it up this way: “Garbage in, garbage out.”
One of the most telling examples of machine learning data gone awry came from a talk about Google Translate. Oracle Engineering Manager Neelima Kumar showed how Google Translate reflected a gender bias. She typed in “He is a babysitter” and “She is a doctor” and asked for the Turkish translation: “O bir bebek bakıcısı” and “O bir doktor.” But when she put these exact Turkish phrases into Google Translate and asked for English results, the tool returned “She’s a babysitter” and “He is a doctor.”
The takeaway? We desperately need more diversity in this field so that we can begin to address and tackle the biases that may be affecting the collection and input of data.
5. VR/AR Needs More Women, Too
Several of my Course Hero peers mentioned that the talk on Virtual Humanity was a highlight for them. The speakers explored the ways in which virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) can bring innovation to healthcare, education, and social justice. They maintained that innovation is coming in these areas — but we’re still in early days, and to accomplish these goals we’ll need more diverse talent.
To illustrate the need for more diversity, Oculus Software Developer Erin Summers led the audience through an exercise. She asked everyone to imagine their ideal VR experience; then she asked how many people had pictured a shooter game, a zombie chase, or being in a hot tub and playing roulette. Very few hands went up. The speaker noted that these were some of the most popular applications for VR so far — perhaps because today’s VR engineers are mostly men. She then challenged the audience to think about how a more inclusive workforce, with different goals and desires, could lead to a more diverse set of VR/AR products.
6. Course Hero Has Great Swag
OK, this isn’t so much a takeaway as a shout-out to the team who tirelessly worked our booth during the expo. Course Hero had one of the most popular tables. We enjoyed the opportunity to talk with students who use our services, parents whose kids are in college, and candidates interested in working for us. And we loved sharing awesome swag designed by Marketing Designer Chinh Tu. Next time you’re at a conference with Course Hero, be sure to stop by our booth to say hello!