Leaning In at GHC

Update: Video of the talk up here.

The keynote talk the first day at the Grace Hopper Conference was a discussion with Sheryl Sandberg lead by Telle Whitney and Maria Klawe.

Telle Whitney is the CEO and President of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. She cofounded the Grace Hopper Conference. Maria Klawa is the president of Harvey Mudd College. Sheryl Sandberg is the COO at Facebook and author of Lean In.

I was looking forward to this talk quite a bit after reading Lean In. The book put to words misgivings I’ve had about being a woman in engineering, offered some advice about how to lead a successful career, and was full of data and research. I recommend this book in particular to women in tech and more broadly to anyone who works with women. :)

The panel started with Maria asking Sheryl questions. The first questions was why Sheryl wrote the book. Sheryl said that the world is still run by men, men have most of the great roles in technology and that’s not okay.

They talked about confidence and looked at reasons why women might be less confident. She cited research showing that when men and women performed a task at the same level, the men’s performance was remembered slightly better by both genders, and the women’s performance was remembered as slightly less. It’s these biases that conferences like GHC try to overcome. For a given job posting, most men will apply if they meet 60% of the criteria, whereas women will only apply when they meet 100%. One of the things I like about her book is that she always cites studies and research to back up her points. She talked about her own experience with GHC, when she was invited to speak for several years before accepting. She did not feel like she had the right to be on stage when she didn’t have a technical background, despite her success.

Sheryl was asked about how the book translates to other cultures and careers. She had different women write the forward for the book for different languages. She said that even though cultures vary widely, the stereotypes that we have for men and women are mostly the same: Women stay at home and take care of children, men go to work and support the family financially. She talked about some of the stereotypes we engender in children at a young age. For girls we teach them charity, being humble, and not needing to be as strong as their male counterparts. We call young girls bossy when they take charge whereas we never tell that to boys. This translates directly to how women can be called “aggressive” when they take leadership roles. Sheryl used an example from Facebook where a female had received peer feedback about how she was aggressive. This feedback gets submitted to the manager and when her manager read that, he went to those who had given that feedback and asked whether they would have said the same thing had a man acted that way. The answer was no. It’s easy to forget that we can be biased and can fall into the stereotype-trap even when we have the best intentions. I think it’s important to be vigilant about it. A little girl who takes charge is not “bossy”, she has “executive leadership skills”.

The panel then discussed the self-perpetuating stereotype about the type of people that go into Computer Science. Sheryl put it this way: “you can’t be what you can’t see”. There are not many women in CS so other women think they are not welcome or it is something that normal women can’t do. I’ve talked about the stigma around computer science with other women. It’s hard to convince someone to go into it when they have already made judgments about what it’s like (sitting at a computer all day) and the type of people they will encounter in CS (nerds).

Maria Klawe talked about some of the work she did at Harvey Mudd. Harvey Mudd had an initiative to have more female students take Computer Science courses. Since they started this initiative, the number of females enrolled in CS courses rose from 15% to 40% (I think this was over 5 years). Maria was humble saying that she had very little to do with this but Sheryl said that she couldn’t say that on the GHC stage! It was a funny moment and Maria finally admitted that she was more involved than she initially claimed.

Maria went on to list the three thing that stops high school-aged girls from taking CS courses. They are:

  1. It is boring
  2. They think they won’t be good at it
  3. They “won’t be seen dead” with the people already in CS

To address the boring issue, Harvey Mudd revamped some of their introductory courses and made the assignments and what they learned more fun. She also mentioned how they made some of the assignment more applicable to real problems in biology or physics. They also switched the language they were using to Python, which is more accessible than languages like Java or C++.

To make CS “less scary”, they split the courses into two groups: CS5-Gold and CS5-Black. Gold is for those students who do not have any Computer Science experience. This class comprised mostly of females and created an environment where they felt comfortable. They also made some of the assignments team-based and provided more help in the programming labs.

During the question and answer period, there was one question that really stood out for me. The question was about how some people think that events like the Grace Hopper Conference make women look bad. It gets people thinking that women might need help to get ahead.

Sheryl understood the question right away and mentioned that at some point all women feel that way and most will reach an inflection point where they change their minds. You think “I don’t want to go to this women’s-only event even though I know it’s good for me because I don’t want anyone to notice I’m a woman and I don’t want to be treated differently by my peers”. She said that ignoring the issue has not been working: there are only 23% of tech roles that are occupied by females. She wants to put gender issues back on the table and says the only way to overcome this and make things better is to talk about it and do something about it. It is an issue and it should be addressed; We need to acknowledge the biases and differences and change them.

Telle Whiney answered that when you see this type of reaction about coming to events that are for women you should encounter it head on. Tell them how something like GHC has impacted your life and why it makes a difference.

Sheryl ended with how technological change is driving so much progress in the world. It allows us to collaborate in ways we’ve never done before. Technology is going to change the world and to change it in the right ways we need women to lead with men.

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