The 16th Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing

23 Oct 2016

Last week I attended the largest conference for women in computing. To be fair, that was also the first conference I attended where keynotes were held in a stadium with a DJ playing house music (yes, this was equally confusing to me). The conference is named after Grace Hopper, an admiral serving in the United States Navy during and after the WW2 and a kickass computer scientist. She is attributed with developing the first compiler, high-level programming language COBOL and filing a very first bug report after discovering a bug stuck in one of the relays in a computer (mind you, back in mid 40s computers were everything but “personal”). The annual conference is organized by the Anita Borg Institute, a non-profit organization with a focus on women in Computing. Before I leave you with my impressions of the conference, let me reflect on a point: why do we need events like this and why is the focus on women? Attending GHC helped me better understand why events like this are crucial to making a difference.

Needless to say, the impact technology has on our lives is gigantic and omnipresent. The majority of those who have the strongest influence in making important decisions, and, most importantly, have deep understanding of scientific foundations underlying any technology are those with degrees in computer science and related STEM fields. Yet, only 17% of CS degrees are awarded to women, 3% of patents are held by women and women hold less than 14% of IT leadership positions [disclaimer: the reference is my notes from the conference, but I’ll do my best to add more refs later]. Papers published by female authors in journals issued by the leading society in computing, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) amount to 22%, with even lower percentages in specialties that are strongly technical. Interestingly, the numbers for female enrolment in CS looked differently in 1985, when CS degrees were awarded to 37% women. Since then, there has been a constant decrease in number of females enrolled in CS worldwide. Predictions are, these numbers will decrease even more in the future. Events such as GHC serve as gathering of those who are interesting in understanding these trends and finding ways to reverse them.

This year, 15,000 people attended the conference, out of which there were approx. 1,000 men. This was the largest instance of GHC so far. It took place between Oct 19th and Oct 21st in Houston, TX. At times, the scale felt surreal (in particular the long lines for women’s restrooms), and the opening ceremony with a DJ certainly justified the notion of “Celebration”. Of the keynote speakers, I was most astonished by Latanya Sweeney, a professor at the Harvard University leading the data privacy lab. She presented numerous studies showing how large companies fail to protect the data, as well as the vulnerability of widely employed anonymization methods. Moreover, she pointed to the issue of biases in machine learning algorithms and to responsibilities software developers have to deal with such biases. Another prominent keynote speaker was Ginni Rometty , the CEO of IBM. Intermixed with personal stories, her talk focused strongly on the research in IBM with a strong emphasis on Cognitive Computing (I’m still somewhat confused about that one) and personalized, gene-based medicine. Megan Smith, the CTO of the United States (yes, there is such a thing) and the keynote speaker at the closing ceremony stole the show by reminding us how close we are to times when women fought for for their right to vote.

Out of the sessions I attended, I was quite impressed by those at the Academic Corner. I was also lucky enough to be interested in all the talks and therefore stay in one room for the whole duration of the session, but anyone who attempted to switch between sessions had to wait in line to get in (which in this case was very long). One of the most useful sessions was: “Want to be a Bias Interruptor” . I particularly liked being in groups with a diverse set of people from industry and academia and doing hands-on together. In my group, we discussed what (if anything) we would say for the following scenario: You overhear a faculty member complain that Janelle is too abrasive. Nobody is going to want to work with her unless she learns to tone it down. Concepts such as unconscious bias, stereotype threat and fixed vs. growth mindset were also explained and presented with a few neat examples.

I also managed to join the popular Open Source Day. In the past, it was really a day, and this time it spanned only 6 hours, which was somewhat short. I joined the OpenHatch group that had a project focused around the Jupyter environment. Since I can’t really imagine doing my PhD or my assignments without it, I decided to join that group in the hope of making a small contribution. Unfortunately, multiple timeouts after attempting to download a 300MB file with a poor internet connection (Houston certainly had a problem there!) and the DDoS attack (it was one of these “Github is down” moments) were not doing us a favor, so lots of things went free-style from there. Since most of the people in my group never attended a hackathon, we decided to focus on first steps and learn simple git (which, as usual, at the speed of light became the worst enemy) and how to collaborate with Jupyter notebooks and do some cool data analysis. Given the constraints, it worked out pretty well with everyone making their first contributions.

Another important component of GHC was the career fair. Since I wasn’t looking for an internship, I did not take as much advantage of it as some other students, primarily undergraduates. But I didn’t miss my chance to visit a few booths a grab some stickers, bags and some other things that will successfully collect dust in my room (though this fantastic web-cam cover from ThoughtWorks made my day, so I could finally remove worn-out sticky notes that I frantically glued to my laptop after seeing Snowden). Also, some students uploaded their CV’s ahead of time to a database so that companies at GHC could reach out to them and schedule interviews. Plenty of others just scheduled interviews on site, which was also taking place in the huge hall next to the exhibit hall.

Overall, I enjoyed the conference and would like to attend again. It is a unique place to meet many fantastic and inspiring women, both in academia and industry. At the same time, it is a great venue for hearing about the most recent developments in a variety of fields: AI, machine learning, privacy&security, IoT and many others.