Friday, 8 November 2013

GHC13: What would you do if you weren't afraid?

The Grace Hopper Women in Computing Conference 2013 was held in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Almost 5000 technical women (and a few men) gathered together to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and computing. The sheer number of technical women gathered together in one place was pretty amazing!

The opening plenary, which included Sheryl Sandberg and Maria Klawe, definitely set the right tone to inspire everyone for the next few days. Before arriving at GHC13, I'd heard rumours about this "revolutionary" book called Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg and I'd watched her TEDtalk online. She reiterated a few of the key points in the opening plenary, and two of them which really stood out for me, and made me think of my own role as a technical woman. One of them was the fact that not talking about gender and realising that we have an issue with the low numbers of women in tech, was not working on making it better. Talking about gender in the workplace is seen as risky, and we steer clear of it - but we're not changing anything by doing so. The other was more of a question than a point -
 "What would you do if you weren't afraid?"
I carried this question, in fact The Question, with me throughout the conference, and my month in the US - and it still echoes in my mind daily.

The first day of the conference was not a huge success for me in terms of attending useful sessions. Most of the sessions I tried to get into were full, and the one I managed to make it to didn't really strike a chord with me. However, the time spent outside the conference rooms - whether chatting to other women while sitting on the floor and charging my cellphone, or engaging with people during the career fair - was so much more useful as time spent networking. It's always fun to chat to people about what I do and what I love about my job and to hear their own stories.

Conference shenanigans

Over the next few days I did attend a few really great sessions. One of them was about negotiation. This was a vital workshop for me, specifically because of the epiphany I'd had on the flight to Minneapolis. The interesting thing to note is that most women do not negotiate for salaries. I had never even considered that it's something I could do! The workshop highlighted some pretty important points about negotiation. Before going into a negotiation, you should know what you want and have reasons (based on data) ready. This requires doing some market research. It's important not to become emotionally attached to the outcome of the negotiation, and not to come across as having a sense of entitlement regarding the terms. It's important to gain visibility within the company and the team where you work - do something challenging and outside of your comfort zone, step up and volunteer for project. Self promotion is important - don't assume people will notice or recognise and respect you for your efforts. Promote the colleagues around you and network within the organisation to both advocate for and gain advocates. In essence, the preparation around negotiation starts long before the actual conversation takes place.

Another useful session was around creating LeanIn circles - a group of women (and even male advocates) coming together to share experiences and learn together. Often as women in tech we feel pretty isolated and don't really have a platform for sharing challenges that we face or breakthroughs that we have had. Working in tech can be very intimidating for women when there is a self perpetuating stereotype that it's not really a "woman's thing". What's even more difficult is that women do not advocate for other women in technology. It's important to have women leaders and role models in industry.

The closing night of GHC13 was grand event. There was a Google/Microsoft sponsored party including massive dessert bars with every sweet treat imaginable, thousands of glowsticks and free t shirts, and a pumping dance floor. We'd made new friends and new acquaintances, chatted to fellow women in industry from every well-known and awesome tech company, laughed and debated and cried, and had raucous fun while doing so.

Grace Hopper was a huge eye-opener for me. My own experiences as a technical woman to date have been rather fraught with obstacles and daunting times. Until recently, I actually didn't really want to get on board with the whole "let's hire more women" thing. I'd worked hard to get where I was, and I felt kinda special - one of the few "elite". I definitely didn't feel as though I'd had special treatment or opportunities during my studies and career. In fact, I felt the opposite: as though I'd had to work harder and exceed the successes of my male peers to garner their respect. I'd encountered sexism both during my studies and in the workplace, but felt proud of the "thick skin" I'd developed. What I didn't realise was that this was causing me to become desensitised. Also, the lack of diversity in the workplace was to my detriment - and is to the detriment of us all.

It's pretty terrifying to start having conversations about gender with male colleagues and senior members of the organisation. However, thanks to The Question, fear is not stopping me. In short, I now definitely consider myself to be a feminist. Not the kind that wants special treatment for women - or in fact all minorities - but the kind that wants to be on equal footing with male peers and the kind that believes that real change is possible.

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