Grace Hopper Goes Global: Tackling Gender Disparity and Bias in Tech

It was clear from the outset that GHC/1, the one-day conference held in London on June 22, wasn’t your average tech event. Women were the clear majority, and the order of the day was encouraging them to persevere in the industry with purpose, excitement and a sense of greater possibility.

Since 1994, the Grace Hopper Celebration has connected and guided women with a unique goal: creating a future where the people who make technology are as diverse as the people who use it. In 2015, the Anita Borg Institute sought to expand the spirit and learning of the Grace Hopper Celebration globally by creating local communities called ABI.Local. This one-day conference, organized by ABI.London, was the first outside the United States. It provided women with a chance to network and learn about the latest advances in the field across a range of industries.

More than 25 female leaders from government, business and academia spoke at the event and offered their thoughts on the issues holding back the industry and what it takes to be a successful woman in technology. Listening in the audience were many young women looking to break into the tech sector.

“If we continue to see women underrepresented in this profession, while the profession itself is becoming mission critical and grows, gender disparity across the workforce as a whole will get worse,” said keynote speaker Sarah Wilkinson, CTO at the UK’s Home Office. “And that will be a real problem.”

Wilkinson herself is a success story, having overseen several tech initiatives at some of the most recognizable companies in finance and the public sector. But her success is more of an exception than the rule. One startling statistic she called out: The app market will be worth $77 billion globally by the end of the year, but 80 percent of app developers are men.

Wilkinson’s talk wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. The former managing director and head of corporate systems technology at Credit Suisse encouraged the audience to be confident and unafraid of failure.

“The more of you in this room who push up the organization into the senior ranks, the more you will clear a path for the women behind you,” Wilkinson told the crowd.

Throughout history, women technologists have made substantial contributions, but few of them attained the notoriety of their male counterparts. The eponymous creator of the Anita Borg Institute did pioneering work in fault-tolerant UNIX systems and email before becoming a researcher at Xerox PARC.

Borg had been to her fair share of technical conferences where she was the only woman in attendance. That led her in 1987 to start and nurture a community of female technologists. In 1994, she co-founded Grace Hopper. In 1997, when she joined PARC, she founded the Institute for Women and Technology, which was renamed in her honor in 2003.

Replacing Ping Pong Tables with Baby Feeding Stations

Many speakers at the event discussed what they believe is unconscious bias at corporations limiting opportunities for women. But there were also discussions of how women themselves can break through and provide leadership.

Bloomberg’s Christine Poerschke led a technical session on open source technology. She shared the process and leadership skills involved in developing in an open source environment, an approach championed by Bloomberg’s own engineers. And she discussed how supporting open source can help companies to solve problems through collaboration with peers at other firms.

Bloomberg also operated a lunchtime session of its popular Codecon programming contest and learning workshop that enables attendees to solve programming puzzles by using their coding skills.

In the event’s closing speech, PowerToFly cofounder Katharine Zaleski discussed overlooked techniques for hiring and retaining the best women in tech. PowerToFly is an online platform that matches women with jobs where they can work from home.

Among a few of her bold ideas: Holding virtual reality interviews where candidate genders are hidden. Ditching the obligatory startup ping pong tables and replacing them with baby feeding stations. Or prioritizing childcare options over ‘take your dog to work’ schemes.

At the event, Christine Flounders discussed the importance of taking chances or “stepping through the door” with Zaleski. The head of engineering in London, Flounders started in Bloomberg’s NY office and after five years was offered the chance to work in London.

“There was no hesitation,” said Flounders. “Looking back, it’s been very positive.”