Mind the Gap: My experience at Grace Hopper

Last month, I had the opportunity to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing. For those not familiar with the event, it is one of the largest gatherings of women technologists at a conference focusing on technical talks, succeeding as a women in tech, and discussions on the lack of gender diversity in tech. The tech industry has some of the worst ratios of gender diversity in the entire US workforce. This was a problem that I recognized, but at the same time had absolutely no idea how to either address the issue or help become part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Grace Hopper wasn't my first experience at women in tech events. I had a prior experience at a local women in tech meetup that was...well...shall we say less than enlightening. While attending with some friends from my university I was called out by another female attendee asking why I was there (almost accusingly). After the event, I ended up backing off for a while on other women in tech events. I know I need to understand the problem, but if I was to expect being called out at multiple events that I would go to, I wasn't prepared to handle that.

Jennifer, a good friend of mine, attended the aforementioned event and suggested that I try to attend a larger one (specifically mentioning Grace Hopper). She helped push me out of my comfort zone, assuring me that the crowd I would meet at a larger event would be different compared to what I experienced at a smaller one. I credit her for pushing me to attend this year.

So, bags packed and tickets purchased I headed down to Houston.

On the first day of the conference, I have to admit it was a little odd being one of only a few dozen men at an event of more than 12,000 women. The environment I could best describe as a Mecca for women technologists. From descriptions I heard from other women and my own experience going to Hajj as an American Muslim, I imagined that being in that environment as a women was almost like a very large family of sorts. Meeting people that are in very similar situations as your own all experiencing the same challenges and working towards the same goals.

As a guy there, I expected to feel the exact way women felt in their own tech environments. I was bracing for comments and call-outs, the odd looks and the confusion. In other words, I expected the tables to flip. I wasn't really a stranger to this, being a Muslim in America and someone that looks Middle Eastern, I've gotten my own share of glances and glares. The most surprising part of it all?

Nothing happened.

I wasn't called out for being a guy in a crowd of women. I wasn't glared at in odd ways or talked to differently. The question of "How do you feel as a guy here?" wasn't even the first thing that was asked by people I talked to.

I suspect the reason for this is that while the ratio is flipped at Grace Hopper, everyone is so keenly aware of the problems of stereotyping and unconscious bias that my experience was rather pleasant. I didn't even have to address the questions about my race or religion (which is portrayed as one that inhibits women's rights).

Having had a chance to adjust, I moved on to attending the sessions. My goal for going to Grace Hopper was to get a better understanding of three things: the problem of gender diversity, the ways women address it in their own positions, and the ways that I can address it as a male in my position. With this in mind most of the sessions I attended were focused on career building, experiences of senior women leaders in their positions, and learning what has been or is being done to solve the gap.

The biggest lesson I learned from the whole event is how valuable diverse opinions are when brought to the same table. For example, since graduating college and beginning in the workplace, I decided that I would not work more than eight hours a day. In a lot of tech companies, engineers will work ten or eleven hours a day get a project completed or to make a deadline. I didn't want to bind myself to that lifestyle. My reason for working only eight hours was purely selfish, I wanted to have time for a social life and time to decompress. Because of that, I wasn't a strong advocate for keeping the full time job a 40 hour work week because "I'm just a junior engineer" or "I don't need to leave at 5pm, maybe I should just stay a few more hours."

The perspective I got from attending Grace Hopper is that some of these issues matter quite a lot more to different crowds of people. For example, the 40 hour work week is critical for engineers that have (or want to have) families. A large number of attendees I met were or wanted to be married, working, and have the flexibility to raise a family. Another example is the factor of a woman's ability to become pregnant as a factor in promotion decisions. I didn't even consider that something like that would factor into a career discussion.

These are factors I never would have thought of without being in that situation. It emphasizes the importance of having a diverse voice in gender, age, and race at all levels of an organization due to the wide range of perspectives you get from it.

The other major lesson I gained from the experience is that a lot of cases of discrimination or negative comments are usually unintentional. Generally explicit racism/sexism is easy to see and call out, but comments that are less easy to spot such as microaggressions or unconscious bias aren't as easy to remember.

For example, being an Indonesian-American male, I get remarks like "you speak English really well" or "where are you really from?" quite a lot. Likewise similar comments are often made towards women, but they usually take the form of degrading her ability to perform at her job.

Some of the workshops talked about this a little bit and how to combat it in a more meaningful way. Not combat in an aggressive manner, but in a way that subtly shifts the mentality of those around you. A large part of the discrimination occurs is due to human inexperience with a particular scenario.

With that experience, would I go again? The answer: likely not (at least not for another year or so). While I enjoyed myself and think it was good for me to be part of that conversation, it seems that it would be more constructive for me to encourage other women and men to go and witness this. Grace Hopper, from what a lot of my female colleagues have told me, is a chance for them to have the conversations about being a minority that are difficult to have in their normal environments. While it's important for men to be part of the conversation as well, unless the attendance is raised for the event, it feels odd to take that opportunity away from other engineers that need that community support.

Likely, I'll find myself there at some point soon, but we'll see what next year brings this way, what progress has been made, and how I can further my role in the best position.