Conference provides transformational experience for women pursuing computing degrees

The number of women in computing fields is not only well below the number of men pursuing similar careers, the proportion of women majoring in computer science has actually decreased in recent years. At this challenging moment for gender equity in the field, many college women pursuing computer science careers are using conferences and other networking opportunities to connect with mentors, support their peers, and learn about emerging developments in tech research and industries.

A group of 31 undergraduate students and nine faculty, staff, and post-doctoral candidates from UMBC attended the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of Women in Computing held this fall in Houston, Texas. The event brought together women exploring careers in technology with the goals of increasing the visibility of research by women in computing and supporting women pursuing computing careers. Organized by the Anita Borg Institute, the GHC is named for U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, an early computer programmer who invented the first compiler for programming languages.

Susan Martin, associate director of the Center for Women in Technology (CWIT) at UMBC; Marie desJardins, associate dean in UMBC’s College of Engineering and Information Technology and professor of computer science; and Cindy Greenwood, assistant director of the CWIT at UMBC, supported the UMBC group during the GHC event.

Sessions offered during the conference provided participants with a broad range of perspectives from within the industry and inspiration to move forward with their career goals. 

“It is a unique and transformative experience for a female computer scientist to attend the GHC,” says desJardins. “For many of them, it will be the first time they’ve been a room full of computer scientists in which women were the majority.”

desJardins continues, “It’s quite powerful to walk into the plenary session, with thousands of computing professionals, look around, and see a sea of female facesbut still a truly diverse group of people, with women of all ages, ethnicities, geographical origins, educational backgrounds, and industry/academic positionsas well as a supportive group of men.”

GHC attendees also report that the conference gives them greater resilience in facing the challenges of being a women in computing. “Being in the minority in these majors can take its toll on women’s overall confidence and perceptions of their technical competence,” explains Martin. “Women in computing often encounter microaggressions, subtle or hidden messages that may invalidate their identity as computer scientists or computer engineers, or their experiences as members of a minority group.”

After the conference, UMBC’s GHC attendees completed a survey about what the conference meant to them and how they predicted the experience would impact their futures.  

“It was a great opportunity to experience an inverse of normal gender ratios within technology,” one sophomore computer engineering major wrote. “That experience overall is valuable to women and men. It was a great opportunity to travel and meet new people, within the context of our majors, interests, and fields of study.”

The conference also allowed UMBC students to work on collaborative proposals and meet professionals who are already pursuing careers in their fields of study. “Attending GHC enabled our UMBC students to connect with each other at a deeper level and to plug into a national and global network of highly successful women in technology,” says Martin. “It is these connections that will sustain them as they encounter the typical challenges associated with their academic and professional careers in computing.”

Post-event survey responses indicated that before attending GHC nearly 56% of the participating students felt “very sure” they would complete their degree in a computing major. After the conference that proportion jumped to 83%.

As one sophomore computer science major who attended the event wrote, the Grace Hopper message was clear: “It is time for women to be inspired to do more and to go further in computing.”

Image: A panel of images at the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC), named for U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper.

Photo by D Coetzee, CC0 1.0.