GHC and Me: Silencing, Support, Networking, and Transphobia in an Industry in Flux
Vassar has a multitude of famous alumni: Meryl Streep, Lisa Kudrow, Justin Long, Jeff Davis, and the beautiful, intelligent Grace Hopper. Grace Hopper was a computer scientist known best for inventing the compiler and coining the term “debugging.” In a world where technology is integrated with everything we do, her work is more important than ever. Yet, mass media look at Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as the geniuses of the tech world, ignoring the fact that all of their work is directly affected by Grace Hopper’s innovation. There are, however, many people who appreciate and honor Grace Hopper and her contribution to society. In fact, the Anita Borg Institute, an organization aimed toward promoting women in technology, holds an annual conference called the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) to gather together thousands of women in computing science. The conference is a collection of speeches, talks, receptions and a career fair (with lots and lots of awesome swag).
This year, Vassar’s Computer Science Department (and some other school funds) paid for a group of students from the school to attend GHC, and I was one of them. From the second Jenny Walter told me about the conference, I couldn’t wait. I would finally be in a space filled with intelligent women that shared my academic interests and would actually care what I had to say about technology. So, this October break, I woke up bright and early on Tuesday, October 13 to board a plane from New York City to Houston, Texas.
GHC was everything I thought it would be and more. Unfortunately, the more was not always a good thing. Every day, I went to at least one “plenary” (what does that even mean? can someone tell me how to pronounce this? free random unused nail files to whoever can answer these questions), whether it was the morning keynote or the afternoon plenary. Speakers like United States CTO Megan Smith and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (I accidentally missed her speech, but I heard it was amazing) gave speeches highlighting their experiences as women in the tech industry and tips to how we mere mortals could attain their level of success. I came into the conference respecting these women and the women surrounding me so much for their hard work and their efforts to change the tech world.
Although I still admire these qualities in the speakers, my Vassar brain couldn’t let go of the problematic things that were said. The first and most prominent thing I noticed was the trans-erasure. Conversations very much worked within the binary and society’s gender stereotypes. Also, while some speakers reminded women that they have a voice, a few others advised those in the audience not to speak up angrily when confronted with sexist behavior in order to get ahead. One told us to not compromise “being a woman” for a job, but her definition of “woman” meant “feminine” and “brushing your hair.” The stuff was cringeworthy.
The worst part, however, is how true these women were and how much I embodied what they were saying.
The first night I went to a reception for Asian Women in Computing. The event was created and described as a safe space for Asian women to bond and support each other. It was networking heaven. After a round of introductions, my friends and I worked our way toward some big name at HP. She told us that women were usually very emotional, so that was our weakness. She advised us to “pick our battles,” otherwise we would be called a “bitch.” As true as the latter part is, I couldn’t agree with her ideology. Women are not all the same. Some constantly have strong emotions and others do not. Women should speak up if they want to because we need to change the current structures in place. But I didn’t say anything. I picked my battle and decided that my opinions were unimportant. The woman ended up telling us we were wonderful and nice.
The next night I went to a CapitalOne reception for Data Scientists, current and aspiring (that’s me!!!). I met some wonderful women. One told me about how the men in her group encouraged the company’s executives not to attend the conference to keep it a safe space. Another told me about how wonderful her old boss (a man) was for continuously having her back. But what I remember most vividly is a conversation I had with one woman who told me that the treatment of women in the workplace is “not a gender thing” and how women asking to be included is bullshit. I bit my tongue. I was so shocked that a woman at a conference like GHC could ever say that. I wanted to tell her that she is playing the “honorary man.” I wanted to shake her and ask her how she could even think that gender doesn’t play a role in workplace dynamics. Instead, I nodded my head. She ended up introducing me to some people that handed me business cards, asking me to visit their offices in New York City.
My behavior at the conference was living proof that staying quiet helps women get ahead, and it was disgusting. My career-driven side is happy for the connections I made and the knowledge I gained about the communities within these corporations. However, my everything-else side is sad for the fact that I unintentionally compromised myself and my beliefs to get those connections. I am so proud to be a woman in tech, but I am so scared of the bargains other women like me make to be successful. GHC was amazing for allowing me to see the power women have in technology, but it also hurt me to see how they got there. I wonder how far I (and any other women) are willing to go in order to be treated with respect in a company. But mostly, I am terrified.