background-shape

You Can't Be What You Can't See: Our time at the Grace Hopper Celebration

by Ana Simmons, Claire Goldstein, Katrina Schoen, Joanne Wu, Kat Truong

The last week of September, Outschool sent a cohort of our female software engineers to the virtual Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) conference. Those of us who were able to attend these virtual sessions came away feeling inspired, enlightened, and energized to take on our responsibility as developers to Do The Right Thing, both in our code and in our communities. We’d like to share a little bit of that excitement with you.

History & Impact

GHC was founded in 1994 by Anita Borg and Dr. Telle Whitney to create a space for women in technology to grow their skills and connect with other women in the field. The conference is inspired by its namesake, Navy Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, who was a pioneer in computer programming with a body of foundational work that includes the first concepts of compiled languages, machine-independent languages, and using English and English-like words (as opposed to to machine code or numerals) for programming languages.

Fighting the stereotype (and documented trend) of a male-dominated industry, you’ll see from the sessions highlighted below that this year’s GHC also loudly rang the bells of genuine Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work, alongside accessibility and intersectionality. It’s clear that the work of AnitaB.org and other groups like it are having success, but there is still room to bring others in. A 2018 study by Pew Research Center found that women make up 25% of the workforce in computing fields, the second-lowest percentage of the STEM occupations surveyed. Outschool sits just better than that with 27% of our engineers being women at time of writing, and because of our strong culture of diversity & inclusion, that percentage is sure to grow. As optimistic as these numbers are, the most compelling part of GHC were the presentations themselves, and we’d like to highlight a few can’t-miss sessions for you.

Sessions that stuck with us:

Code/Art

Code/Art is a non-profit whose mission is to increase the number of girls studying computer science by delighting and inspiring them with the creative possibilities of computer programming. We had the pleasure of listening to Lisa Hauser, Code/Art’s educational advisor, during the conference.

Hauser began her talk Code/Art: Inspiring Girls to Code by asking us to imagine our younger selves and imagining a programmer. Is the person your younger self imagined a man? You are not alone. Many of the girls and teachers Code/Art aims to serve share a similar hurdle: young women–especially young women from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups–do not see themselves as programmers. In turn, young women are less likely to pursue computer science degrees, which leads to a shortage of women in the computer science field, perpetuating this cycle.

Code/Art aims to address this problem by designing and leading art-based computer science programs that inspire girls to code. Their multi-pronged solution consists of (1) training over 160 elementary and middle school art teachers on how to teach coding with their lessons and (2) organizing coding clubs and organizations for girls. To date, Code/Art has reached over 6,300 girls.

Here’s what some of the girls had to say about completing a Code/Art project:

“What I found the most rewarding… was adding the last shape to make my project complete. I remember looking at it all and saying to myself, ‘I did this.’ It is a gift to know you did something amazing all by yourself.” - 6th grader

“What I found most rewarding is seeing the complete picture and reading through the lines of code that I made. This project made me realize the variety of things you can do with coding and how it’s used in so many everyday things.” - 7th grader

Ethics and Responsibility

Many sessions talked about what the future of technology looks like and how we can make sure it is equitable for everyone. Others talked about how we are responsible for building better workplace environments where everyone can have their voices heard. The overarching theme through many of the sessions could not be missed: We need to build and be more ethical and responsible, and we definitely can be.

Kathy Pham challenged us to think about what is the builder’s role in creating responsible technology with her talk Integrating Ethics and Responsibility in the Product Development Cycle. A few of the compelling examples she provided were facial recognition’s inconsistent results for faces of color, and crash test dummies sized as men but not women. These are just a small glimpse of how technology has been biased by the lack of a diverse group of people in the development cycle. Pham said that having leadership mandates and ethics committees in companies are not enough to root out bias. She focused on our product development lifecycle so that every engineer can really help build a more inclusive world. This means thinking about what communities we are leaving out when we move fast and bringing in cross discipline experts into the development process. Pham showed us how we can build a better tomorrow if we always think about the historical context, challenge ourselves to be radically inclusive, and build equity by design.

Timnit Gebru gave an eye-opening keynote about her time at Google and how she was subject to firing and litigation for speaking internally about systemic bias and discrimination. This was happening while Google was being praised for supporting the Grace Hopper Celebration.  We were moved by Gebru’s courage and this injection of transparency and honesty. She was brave enough to help everyone remember the difference between lip-service DEI work and actual change in the industry that is happening.

Not only did the speakers featured at GHC teach how it is important to build ethical technology, it also proved that we have a responsibility to sit down and have a hard conversation about where as an industry we are and how much more there needs to change.

Accessibility

This year’s celebration also emphasized our shared responsibility to build accessible technology. Inclusive design is not only the right thing to do, it’s  good for business because reaching more users leads to better-quality products for everyone (this is known as the “curb-cut effect”). Elodie Fichet of Amazon walked us through a comprehensive introduction to creating accessible and inclusive digital content including best practices and helpful resources. Fichet pointed out that particularly when we build web technology, we need to consider not only the ability to access  content, but the ability to contribute  content as well.

Human rights lawyer and author Haben Girma participated in an interview and later delivered a powerful keynote highlighting misconceptions surrounding disability. Girma warned against solutions that claim to address accessibility by dropping in a line of code or adding a simple automation when these tools are not actually adequate or accurate. As we design and build technology, we need to actively imagine people who are different from us using our products. Even better, we should hire people with disabilities to work with us. Girma explained that the biggest challenges faced by people with disabilities are not the disabilities themselves, but ableism and incorrect assumptions about their capabilities. She called on us to prevent ableism from being continually baked into our technology. Instead, we should consider disability an opportunity for innovation.

Conclusion

If you’re considering attending GHC next year (or you’re a company considering sending your employees!) we really couldn’t say it better than some of the women who attended from Outschool:

“GHC gave me space and inspiration to think critically about my working style, particularly as it relates to gender norms and traditional definitions of success. How can I craft daily patterns that work for me and enable my authentic contributions?”

“With only 28.8% of the tech workforce being women, going to a conference of all women technologists helps to remind us that we are not alone and change is happening. GHC is inspirational. It’s not everyday that we get to hear from female CEOs and CTOs. Hearing these stories helps to prove to women everywhere that representation matters. You can’t be what you can’t see.”

“These sessions opened up my eyes to other issues that I would have never thought about. Having a safe AND REAL space for women to speak up, having a community where women talk about the same struggles I am facing so I know that I am not alone was such a valuable part of attending GHC.”

“It’s inspiring to see so many women in tech and in leadership positions. When I was choosing between different job offers, and found out that Outschool was going to sponsor some of the engineers for the Grace Hopper Celebration, that really stuck out to me because it demonstrated that Outschool really cares about supporting its engineers.”

“DEI work doesn’t stop after hiring a few minorities. Sending engineers to an intersectional conference like GHC that focuses on DEI and lifting up minority voices in tech is both valuable and inspirational to staff, as well as visibly demonstrates a company’s commitment to ‘do the work’ and keep doing it.”