Thursday, October 10, 2013

GHC 2013 Highlights Reel

Since I wasn't able to blog during the conference, I thought I would write a short (actually not that short) highlights reel! Enjoy!

The opening keynote for GHC was, in a wait. I can't encapsulate this in a word. It needs several. Amazing, Passionate. Thought provoking. Poignant. And every word true. The keynote, by Sheryl Sandberg, and discussion that followed, with Maria Klawe and Telle Whitney, brought a lot of things to the forefront of my mind that I hadn't considered before. And all of them were true. I'd never really thought about why I was one of only four girls (that I knew of) when I started my CS undergrad. In fact, that number soon dropped to 3. 

The speakers really explored deep-rooted biases and stereotypes. There were two things that really stuck with me through this session. The first of these was the analogy of women in the technical field being likened to a race. If a woman and a man were to start a race at the same time, both equally fit, what voices would the hear? Sheryl stated that the man would hear things like, "Good job! You've got this! Great start!". However, the woman would be hearing, "Are you sure this is something you want to do? Should you start a race you won't finish? Is this the kind of example you want to set for your kids?" As the race goes on, these voices get louder on both sides. The man is hearing, "You're doing great! Just a bit farther! You're almost there!". And the woman hears, "Should you be working this much? What about maternity leave? Are you sure this is the field for you?" This lead nicely into the second point that stuck with me--that this bias starts very, very young. Sheryl asked us to think about this scenario: If you go to a park and watch a bunch of children playing, what are the reactions to the children that take the lead? If the child is a boy, a lot of the time the reactions are, "Oh look! How sweet. He's going to be a great leader one day." However, if the child is a girl, the reactions, both from children and adults, is more along the lines of, "You're so bossy!" Why are little boys leaders while little girls are bossy? This story really drove home the point that we need to start fixing these biases, and we need to start doing it early if we want our little girls to grow up and feel like they have a shot at a leadership position. Sheryl told us the next time we saw this happening that we should march right up and go, "That little girl isn't bossy. That little girl has executive leadership skills."

The second keynote speaker, Megan Smith, was just amazing. She focused on the really cool things that she's been doing lately, and that she did in the past. She showed as that being a woman in this field doesn't always need to be a bad thing. It can be taken advantage of to learn new things and have great opportunities. Just hearing about all the projects she has worked on, and all the projects she still wants to work on, was inspiring. It sounded like she had done more in one year of college than I have my entire academic career! It seems I'll need to set my sights higher.

There were three panels in particular that really stuck out to me through the conference. The first panel was a, "Quiet Success" panel, which focused on how introverts can be successful and thrive in the extrovert-centred environment of leadership roles. The entire panel was made up of self-identified introverts who were really pushing themselves forward in typically extrovert-dominated roles. One of the things that was discussed was a key difference between introverts and extroverts that I had heard outlined in a TED talk before: where introverts and extroverts get their energy. Extroverts get their energy by being with people and getting hyped up, being alone too often can be stifling for them. However, introverts get their energy by "recharging" with some alone time. They can spend time with people, it just costs us energy to do so, contrary to an extrovert. The panel also emphasized that this wasn't a hard-and-fast rule as everyone can be any mix of introverted and extroverted tendencies. Each panelist outlined some of their coping mechanisms both for dealing with other introverts, extroverts, and being in stressful situations. The one tip that I really loved was something along the lines of, "Love yourself and project that to the world. You don't need to have mountains of confidence, just project that you are okay with who you are, and it will all be fine." This reminded me very much of another TED talk (are you sensing a theme here?) where a woman was talking about the typical advice of, "Fake it 'til you make it." She stated that, instead of faking it until we make it, we should fake it until we become it. That's always stuck with me.

The second panel that I really loved was the talk by Thad Starner on wearable computing. He walked through a bunch of the wearable computing devices that have been made and research--many of which he has worked on himself, including very early prototypes of a Google Glass like system (spoilers he worked on Glass too). It was amazing hearing the different types of wearable computing that he's been working on both to benefit a typical end user as well as those with special needs. Two of the particularly inspiring projects he detailed were a glove that trained a hand's muscle memory (they used it to teach a hand to play a song on the piano) and the work he's been doing to use wearable computing to help young deaf children, as well as their parents, learn American Sign Language.

The final panel I'm going to talk about really took the cake for me, as I'm sure many other people would agree to as well. It was the panel by Brenda Chapman, the writer and director of the Pixar movie Brave. And who has worked on just about every other awesome movie from my childhood (e.g., Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, etc.). She talked about trying to break into and working in a male-dominated field, and some of the key principles she has learned over the years to really help her succeed. One of these was to make the most of opportunities. She outlined how she had been thrilled to learn she had been hired as a novice story artist by Disney after she had graduated from art school. For about three seconds, after which the guy telling her she'd gotten the job said it was because she was a woman, as they needed to really start filling out that quota. She told us how crushed she was, and then her resolution to make the most of it. I loved when she told us that, "It's okay. I have my foot in the door. I don't *like* how my foot is in the door, but it's in the door. Now I'll just work as hard as I can to prove to these guys that I deserve this job. And to prove to myself that I deserve this job." What an absolutely fantastic way to deal with the situation, and what an inspiration. I'm definitely going to be keeping the things she told me in mind as I move forward in my career.

The final highlight I'll go into detail about was the dancing. I don't know how to explain to coworkers that there was dancing at a conference! And not just one night of it, but two! And it was the most fun I've ever had at a dance in my life. There was just this amazing unself-conscious atmosphere. There was no one there to impress. Everyone was just there to have fun. And boy was it fun! I had a great time dancing with the other girls from the group from Carleton (plus one from Western). We all went in saying we couldn't dance, but I think we had some great moves! I'll have to say one of the most memorable things was watching Telle Whitney not only dancing, but encouraging others to have the time of their lives! And of course, who can forget the dancing dots of the Anita Borg Institute? (I can't really figure out how to explain the dancing dots..perhaps that will be another blog post)

All in all, this conference made me realize a lot of the things that women in technology have to face. These were things I hadn't previously been aware of so, for me at least, the conference was eye-opening. However, these revelations also made me feel incredibly grateful. It made me realize how lucky I've been throughout my life, as I've never personally experienced these things. My parents have always supported my education and career choices. Every job I've had, everyone around me have been incredibly supportive of the roles that I've filled. In high school, I had an absolutely fantastic female role model in my computer science teacher. I've been very lucky. I hope that conferences like GHC will help make this type of thing more prevalent. I would love it to be a common thing that when women discuss being in a technology-based field, they won't have to have been lucky to have gotten opportunities or to receive support, that it will be the norm. I hope that I'll be able to contribute to making this vision a reality.

Sorry for the long-winded post. Thanks for reading!