A Fish Out of Water: 1,300 Women Technologists & 5 Men at the 2008 Grace Hopper Conference


by Randy Guthrie – Microsoft Academic Relations Manager
http://blogs.msdn.com/MIS_Laboratory

This past few days (October 1-4, 2008) I have attended the Grace Hopper Conference at Keystone, Colorado with about 50 other Microsoft representatives.  To quote the organization’s website: “The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is a series of conferences designed to bring the research and career interests of women in computing to the forefront”.  In my role as on the US academic relations team, I attend many academic conferences each year, and this was my first time attending Grace Hopper.  Microsoft is a platinum sponsor, and we send a large contingent of representatives as a show of support for women in the information technology field in general.  So why did I attend this conference for women?  First of all, the conference is being held about 90 minutes from my office, so when any big event involving faculty and students happen in my region, I want to be there to help out.  Secondly, my colleague Jane Prey, who is a Program Manager at Microsoft Research invited my participation.  Lastly, any time there is a lot of CS/IT faculty in one place, it is a great opportunity for me to make connections and possibly land campus speaking invitations for myself or my colleagues on the US academic relations team.

My primary activity at the conference was to work at the Microsoft booth and answer attendees’ questions about jobs and internships at Microsoft.  I also did a  bit of resume coaching.  The most asked question?  “How do I get an internship with Microsoft Research?”.  My answer (which I will expand on soon in another blog post was “the same way you get published in a top journal ie: you have to know someone or your advisor has to know someone [at MSR]”.

So how was it being one of only a handful of men at a conference for women?  Odd at first, but because conferences are a very familiar venue for me, once I was at the booth it was business-as-usual.  Since I know a lot about internships in general, and could actually point students to career resources on this blog ( http://www.mis-laboratory.com/Student  ), plus having some insight into how Microsoft Research hires, the conference attendees treated me like any other company representative.  I also have to give some credit to my colleague Hilary Pike for acting as my chaperone at many of the events.  Since I was usually “with” someone, I didn’t feel so different, but I’m sure that if I had attended the conference without knowing anyone, I would have felt much more out of my comfort zone; at least at first.

Other observations:

  • The atmosphere was electric.  Most of the female college students thought they were alone in a universe of male CS students, but found real inspiration and support from being awash in a virtual sea of very-bright, like-minded ladies.  Just as inspiring were the speakers and other successful role models who attended that had “made it” despite gender biases and barriers in the technical field.
  • I did not verify this myself, but I am guessing that many of the “men’s rooms” were repurposed for this event, as I never saw long lines leading off of the hallways
  • The neat conference bag given to attendees had more cool goodies (and of a different sort) than I’ve ever seen before in a conference bag. Here is a partial inventory:
    • water bottle
    • box of aroma-therapy candles
    • hand-generator LED flashlight
    • binoculars
    • five kinds of lip balm
    • book of different kinds of sticky notes and flags
    • three different notepads
    • mints
    • a bunch of pens
    • Blackberry pouch
    • “code like a girl” temporary tattoo
    • Copy of MS magazine

The bottom line: I was never made to feel at all different, and was always treated with courtesy and respect.  I wonder if a woman would feel the same way if she was one of only a handful attending a all-male technology conference?  I would like to hope that my male colleagues in the technology world are smarter and more opened minded than society in general, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Cheers!

Randy Guthrie


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