The Geek-girl Invasion

When nearly 1300 geek girls invaded San Diego on October 4, their mission was not hostile. In fact, a more ebullient invading force would be hard to imagine.
From October 4th through the 7th, San Diego was the site of the latest Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. The event, named in honor of the late Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, was established in 1994 to unite the dwindling numbers of women in computing, and give them opportunities to forge professional and personal networks while attending presentations on the latest technological advances being made by their peers.
I have attended the last three “Hoppers,” in Vancouver, Chicago, and San Diego. This was by far the most enriching and best-organized.
The program opened on Wednesday, October 4th with a reception and research poster session. Nearly sixty posters were presented. This part of the program turned out to be an excellent venue for the conference attendees to reconnect with colleagues and catch up on activities from around the world. The energy level was high, and even after two long flights, multiple delays, and lost luggage, I found it infectious. For some reason, I never see this much laughter and hugging at my other professional conferences.
The enthusiasm continued through Thursday and Friday. Each conference session offered five or six options for participants, ranging from the very technical (cryptography) to the contextual (mentoring.) With so many choices it was impossible to feel bored. And each new session offered the possibility that I would meet someone new and gain a fresh point of view.
Between sessions there were sponsor and institutional tables to visit. Apparently several companies have finally realized that women in computing represent a scarce, yet valuable human resource. The competition to recruit the young women attendees was vigorous yet good-spirited. A new addition to the conference this year was a room with tables hosted by different colleges and universities. These schools were also very invested in recruiting women – into their graduate degree programs. Between the vendors and the colleges, all of the attention quite turned my head. I have never felt so desirable.
Amazing speakers, friendly colleagues, stimulating discussion: all of this is wonderful. But what really distinguished this Hopper conference were the dance parties. I think that this tradition started very informally years back, when a large contingent of girls broke away from the conference site and took over a dance club in the host city. Rumors about the geek-girl party circulated for days afterward.
Wait: did I just say geek girls, partying, singing, and dancing, all in the same sentence?
At the last Hopper conference in Chicago, Google took the initiative to host its own geek-girl party. With karaoke, vintage video games, fortune tellers, glo-cups, and an open bar, it was quite an event. The other industry sponsors took one look at Google shoveling resumes into a bag and baby, it was ON.
This year there were nine industry sponsors, each with its own party. The parties were scattered around the hotel’s resort campus and promoted as part of a massive treasure hunt with a grand prize. Attendees were given maps of all the party locations, and entered themselves into the grand prize drawing only by visiting each one and collecting a stamp. I have to say the parties were all pretty awesome. Most had live music or a DJ. Some had their own signature drinks (Googletini or Yahootini anyone?) There was lots of food and games and cool swag.
It was pretty challenging, but I’m proud to report that I did manage to get to every party. I couldn’t have done it alone, though. I hooked up with about a dozen new and old friends from the ACM-W committee and we plowed, staggered and pushed our way through. (My sincere apologies to anyone we might have bruised. We were in pretty good spirits, but not the most coordinated bunch.)
I don’t know why it should feel so liberating to get swept along by a group of women like that. I suppose for many of us who are in computing, most of our lives are spent in the company of men. I like men, and I’m comfortable working with men, but I think that there’s always an undercurrent of physical anxiety that comes with being smaller and weaker. (I’m pretty small so I feel this way a lot.) Being with a mob of women didn’t create the same sensation. Wow.
Saturday morning arrived way too fast, and the Hopper conference was over. I said goodbye to the friends that I could find (some were inexplicably still in bed) and headed to the airport.
Now I am back at Ohio State University, teaching my courses, running my programs and doing my mentoring thing. I have a bundle of notes and tasks to do, fresh ideas that I got from sessions that I attended and people I spoke to. I also have this photograph on my desk. It shows me with Paula Gabbert, Gloria Townsend, Annemieke Craig, Tracy Camp, Mary Ann Egan, Reyyan Ayfer, Wendy Hall, Catherine Lang and Reena Pau.
We’re all wearing leis and laughing at the camera. If I close my eyes, I can still hear us singing:
I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an’ pretend
’cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again

Bettina Bair is a Senior Lecturer in the Ohio State University Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and is a 2006 recipient of Ohio State’s Distinguished Diversity Enhancement Award.

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