Young women computer scientists “think big”

10-14-2013
Writer(s): Jesica E. Hollinger
Aditi Gupta
Amber Johnson(L) and Alicia Jee Khoon(R)

Grace Hopper Conference (GHC), the largest technical conference for women in computing, hosted more than 4000 attendees at the sold-out symposium.

This year’s theme, “Think Big” focused on making an impact in areas ranging from technical to professional development.  Renate Mallus-Medot, graduate office coordinator, was especially proud of the Computer Science Department’s participation in the event, “We had the third highest attendance this year, but we have made it our goal to be first next year.”

Conference presenters have backgrounds in industry, academia and government, while leading researchers present their work during special sessions that focus on the role of women in today’s technology fields. This year’s featured speakers were Maria Klawe, Harvey Mudd College; Megan Smith, Google; Valerie Taylor, Texas A&M; and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook.

Anali Sakhala, a senior in the department of computer science, attended the conference and came back to campus inspired, “When I entered the hall where the keynote was going to be held, my jaw dropped. I had never seen something so grand, so huge—I had certainly never seen 4800 women under one roof. When Sheryl Sandberg, Maria Klawe and Telle Whitney started conversing, they set the stage on fire.”

The conference recognizes and promotes the research and career interests of women in computing, in addition to providing academic institutions and corporations with an outlet for recruitment. Social events abound during the conference, as women network with peers, mentors, academics, and industry leaders. 

Professor of Computer Science, Elena Grigorescu accompanied the students to the conference and noted GHC provides a great opportunity for students to network, finding out about graduate schools, internships and jobs. “With more than 4000 women attending, one gets a dramatic change of perspective compared to what we're used to in CS classes. This effort will certainly succeed in encouraging the presence of women in computational fields,” said Grigorescu.

While women employed in STEM occupations is slowly increasing, women are still underrepresented in computer occupations, according to a recent report by the Census Bureau. http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acs-24.pdf

Maria Klawe spoke about the unusual things she did at Harvey Mudd to increase women in Computer Science and it occurred to me that even at Purdue we face the problem of scarcity of girls in our classes," said Sakhala. “One solution that would be instrumental in changing this situation is to have girls attend the conference in their freshman year, when most drop out. We need inspiration, motivation, determination and patience to survive the initial rocky patch in CS . . . to be able to see that once we get a degree in CS how many amazing things we can do.”

The conference was founded in 1994 by Dr. Anita Borg and Dr. Telle Whitney, who were inspired by the legacy of Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, a computer scientist and United States Navy Rear Admiral. Hopper was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark 1 computer and developed the first compiler for a computer programming language.