If you talk to anyone who’s attended the Grace Hopper Celebration — a 20-year-running conference for women in tech — they’ll likely mention the experience of being in a room full of women, coming from an industry where that’s seldom the case.
This year, though, GHC is moving online. Given the coronavirus pandemic, essentially every event, from San Diego Comic-Con to Apple’s WWDC, has had to translate its speakers, crowds and workshops into a virtual forum.
“[We’re trying] to make it so that it’s easier to adjust to this new paradigm: trying to attend a world class conference that’s jam packed with information and opportunity to interact with others. But, do it at home, where there are lots of distractions,” said Brenda Darden Wilkerson, president and CEO of AnitaB.org, the organization behind GHC.
GHC covers a wide range of topics. Some are directly related to diversity in the industry. You’ll also find talks on everything from how to overcome imposter syndrome to technical topics like AI and database building.
Last year in Orlando, Florida, GHC brought in 26,000 attendees. This year, the number has already broken 30,000, according to Wilkerson, perhaps due in part to the fact that an online conference means a cheaper ticket and not having to convince your boss to let you take the better part of a week off and pay for accommodations.
On the speaker front, though virtual, this year’s GHC boasts some bigger names known outside the tech world. Tennis legend Serena Williams will deliver the opening keynote. Off the court, Williams founded investment firm Serena Ventures in 2014, with a particular eye on companies with diverse leadership. According to the firm’s site, 60% of investments go to such companies. Williams is also married to Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian, who stepped down from his board position in June, and requested that he be replaced with a black board member.
Co-captain of the US Women’s National Soccer Team Megan Rapinoe will also speak. Along with making headlines for winning two World Cup championships, Rapinoe’s been an outspoken advocate for equal pay, a subject applicable to not only national soccer teams but the tech industry.
Within the industry, another notable speaker will be Ellen Pao, former Reddit CEO, who sued investment firm Kleiner Perkins over gender discrimination in 2015. She also founded Project Include, a non-profit that focuses on diversity and inclusion in tech.
“This year more than ever,” Wilkerson said, “what I am hoping from Grace Hopper is that people understand that they are important to their community and their society and that they’re able to gain some relationships and gain some knowledge that they can keep going 365 days a year.”
In these pandemic times, publications including The Washington Post and The New York Times have discussed how the burden of family care often falls to women. Many have already quit jobs to tend to children and, as the Post headline warned, it could “set a generation of women back.”
In short, not every woman who wants to might be able to tune in to a session.
Wilkerson said that’s partly why GHC is offering recordings of the session on demand for 60 days or a year (depending on the ticket tier) so people can watch or rewatch when they have time.
“People are at home, their kids are home, their spouses are at home. There might even be competition for devices,” she said, “We made sure that it’s all in bite-sized pieces. Most things are no longer than 30 minutes, so if people need to jump in and get a taste, and then stop and help their children with the lesson, they’re able to do that.”
In addition, in a report on diversity, equity and inclusion, GHC gathered feedback from attendees on how they’re feeling about the state of the industry. Although big-name tech companies have put money, resources and a good bit of PR into diversity and inclusion efforts, the numbers tend to speak for themselves. Change is slow for women, and even slower for women of color.
The comments in the report reflect some improvement in the industry over the years, but not enough, particularly when it comes to the needs of women of color.
“Awareness of bias and D&I has increased, which is great. However, the boys club remains strong and women must still prove themselves more than men,” one respondent said.
Another offered: “As ubiquitous as diversity and inclusion has become as terms, many leaders give lip service to change without making the commitment it deserves.”
Yet another noted that elevated awareness of the biases women experience has been a good step, but some male co-workers are becoming resentful.
Still, Wilkerson sees hope in how many employees do feel there’s been progress and are paying attention to what their employers are doing, or not doing.
“We’re seeing the ripple effects across the industry where not only are the women asking for the issues to be solved, but the companies are coming to the table,” she said.