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Grace Hopper aims to inspire women in technology

October 12, 2018

Last week, 13 Bowdoin students attended the 18th Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) in Houston, Texas. The conference is meant to encourage the next generation of female innovators in STEM fields.

The conference has been held most years since 1994 in cities around the U.S. and Canada. Attendance has grown every year it has occurred, reaching more than 20,000 guests this year—most of them undergraduate students—and making it the world’s largest gathering of women in technology.

“I wanted to be exposed to women in the tech industry because I think at Bowdoin there’s a pretty big gender disparity,” said conference attendee Alina Lam ’21, one of the attendees.

This year, the invitation was extended to sophomores like Lam thanks to a donation by Lyla Kuriyan ’94, who works as a director of marketing at Google and is committed to inspiring, mentoring and supporting the next generation of women leaders in technology.

In addition to the Bowdoin students, faculty and staff attending the conference, there was also a community of alumni there who, after attending the GHC in past years and being recruited by companies, represented and recruited for their employees as well as presented research.

Assistant Professor of Computer Science Sarah Harmon presented research at the conference when she was an undergraduate at Colby College in 2010. Her poster, “Human Perception of Gendered Artificial Entities,” won second place at the ACM Undergraduate Student Research Competition. This year, Cory Alini ’18—now working as a Disney Imagineer—presented research on sea-level rise from her summer working with Associate Professor of Computer Science Laura Toma.

Toma attended the conference when she was in graduate school. At that time, it only hosted 1,000 attendees. Toma now has the opportunity to mentor students and see how attending the conference affects them. In her opinion, the GHC allows young women to see themselves represented in tech in a way they usually do not.

“Picture this: in a class of 20 students, usually three or four are women … All of us are used to being one of the few in the room,” Toma said.

The GHC accomplishes its mission of empowerment by holding an extensive graduate school and job fair. Bolor Jagdagdorj ’19, who attended both this year and last, was impressed by the effort companies put into recruitment.

“They rented out hotels, bars, restaurants and even a large area to create a museum of technical art for a chance for conference attendees to network in a more informal area,” Jagdagdorj said.

Attendees could also sign up for interviews for jobs and internships, as well as to gain insights from prominent women in the field.

This year’s keynote speakers included Justine Cassell, associate dean of technology strategy and impact at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science, two tech company CEOs and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell.

Toma believes a key takeaway from the conference is the empowerment that comes from being around so many like-minded women. However, there is still a lot of work to be done on integrating women more fully into the tech industry.

“Despite efforts in the last decades, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women [in technology] still lingers below 20 percent,” she said.

To Jagdagdorj, the GHC is a step towards such integration.

“Overall this conference allowed me to erase a lot of my own doubt about how qualified I was for prestigious positions and roles and what I want to do in the future” she said.

Jagdagdorj also expressed her appreciation for the Bowdoin alumni in attendance.

Grace Hopper was a pioneering computer engineer who helped develop the Harvard Mark I Computer technology used during WWII to help the Allies model the implosion of the atomic bomb. President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Hopper the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her efforts. The initial Grace Hopper Celebration was held in Washington D.C. by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology to honor the life of such an innovator.

Anjulee Bhalla contributed to this report.

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