Where are all the women in technology? Starting on Wednesday and running through Friday, you'll find 12,000 of them at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Technology, (GHC) held this year at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.
Anita Borg Institute's GHC conference was co-founded by Anita Borg and Telle Whitney in 1994, and was inspired by the legacy of computer scientist and U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper. As the world's largest technical conference for women in computing, GHC is designed to bring the research and career interests of women in computing to the forefront.
The conference has grown exponentially. The 2014 event hosted approximately 8,000 women, while this year's event boasts a sell-out of 12,000. "We were thrilled to see the 50-percent increase in attendance over last year, but what really surprised us was that we sold out in eight days. We were stunned - but happy stunned," says Elizabeth Ames, senior vice president, marketing, alliances and programs, Anita Borg Institute (ABI).
The conference results in collaborative proposals, networking and mentoring for attendees, who come from academia, government and the IT industry. Conference presenters are leaders in their respective fields, and the conference also offers professional development through a variety of interactive sessions, workshops, panels and other activities. A career fair will also be held to help attendees further their career pursuits.
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Our time to lead
This year's conference theme is "Our Time to Lead," with a focus on encouraging women to fully embrace the opportunities to effect change from their own corner of the world, and on leveraging the connections and community developed through GHC to provide leadership, mentorship and growth opportunities for other women technologists.
But GHC isn't just for women currently working in IT. It's also for those who are studying computer science and technology who want to make connections and build networks with other aspiring technologists, says Ames, and that's helping keep more women in the hiring pipeline. GHC Scholarship Grant winners are selected each year to attend, with all expenses paid by industry sponsors, conference co-sponsor the Association for Computing Machinery, grants from organizations like the National Science Foundation and individual donors. The winners often find inspiration and encounter a launching pad for their careers at GHC.
"We have about 500 students coming to the conference on scholarships, or from endowments at their schools. It's a valuable element in encouraging the participation of women in computer science studies, and the connections the students make here have a discernible impact on educational institutions' ability to retain women in their degree programs," Ames says.
Coming back for more
And as their careers progress, many of these scholars return to GHC as professionals representing some of the top companies in the technology space.
Paulina Ramos, currently a software engineer at ridesharing company Uber, attended her first Grace Hopper Celebration in 2014 as a computer science student at UC Berkeley.
"When I first got to GHC, I was blown away by how many women were there. I was thinking, 'Where have you all come from?' I didn't realize there was such a vibrant and lively community of women in technology. I felt that I belonged and that this was my community," Ramos says. After graduating and landing her dream job, Ramos has immersed herself in women in tech initiatives during her time at Uber.
"I was so hungry to find the kind of community and network that I'd been exposed to at GHC. I sought out every kind of employee resource group for women engineers and got involved any way I could," she says.
She's been a vocal advocate for Uber's participation at GHC, and this year she will be returning to the conference to recruit potential candidates and conduct on-site interviews on behalf of the company. She will also be participating in a media panel called "The GHC Effect: How to Become a Badass." [Editor's Note: CIO.com's Sharon Florentine will be moderating that session.]
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"I want to be able to have Uber's voice heard and show what efforts are being made internally to drive a more diverse and inclusive environment. It's important that this message comes from the very women who actually work at Uber," Ramos says.
Ramos says she's eager to pass on her knowledge, lend an ear and a helping hand to an incoming group of women at GHC to help facilitate a cycle of learning.
For Clara Shih, that cycle of learning is coming full circle this year as she returns to GHC more than a decade after first attending in 2004 as a scholar. Back then, Clara was a graduate in the computer science department at Stanford. Today, she is the founder and CEO of Hearsay Social, a social media marketing management firm.
"I remember feeling a tremendous sense of community, possibility and confidence-building. Being the only woman in the room can be lonely at times, and I appreciated the incredible camaraderie and friendships I developed starting with GHC 2004," Shih says.
This year, Shih will return to the celebration as a plenary speaker to share her technology leadership journey with other women who aspire to IT leadership roles. Thirty percent of Hearsay Social's engineering staff is female, and Shih has worked hard to promote a diverse and supportive work environment at her company and through the IT industry as a whole.
"It's an honor to return to GHC this year as a speaker and to speak to so many women who are where I was a decade ago. GHC represents exactly the kind of community, mentorship and skill-building that we need to change the numbers for women in tech," Shih says.
This unprecedented feeling of community is what stands out to Rose-Gaëlle Belinga, who attended her first GHC in 2010 thanks to a scholarship. Today, she is a software engineer at Morgan Stanley in New York City.
"The age range and diversity of attendees was really impressive. I finally felt, 'Hey, I'm not alone.' There are other people here who have walked in my shoes," Belinga says.
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These kinds of lasting connections help women feel more welcome and supported in the tech industry, where many can feel isolated and frustrated at the lack of visible role models and mentors. This is especially true for Belinga, who works not only in a technology role, but does so in another male-dominated field, finance.
Belinga, who, along with Ramos, will participate in the "GHC Effect: How to Become a Badass" media panel, says that perhaps the most important lesson she's taken from GHC is to have confidence in her skills and herself as a woman engineer.
"It's so important to remember to be yourself. When you work in a corporate environment, it can be easy to only focus on fitting in, and you can lose who you really are. But it's really important to stay true to yourself, keep dreaming and stay inspired by what you are really interested in," Belinga says.
Stories of success
While much of the media attention surrounding women in technology and the overall lack of diversity in the IT industry has focused on the negatives, ABI's Ames says it's important to recognize and celebrate the thousands of women who already work in the industry and who are making a difference.
"It's just as important to talk about the successes of women in IT as it is the challenges - we'll never encourage women to get into this field if we only focus on the challenges and the obstacles. Just seeing the thousands of incredible, talented, exceptional, groundbreaking women that come to GHC each year is inspiring - and we want them to go back out into the world and continue leading the way," Ames says.