Observations from the land of Amazons

Amazons, not Amazon (although there were certainly people from Amazon there). Warrior women, in legions, with the young huddled around the old seeking advice and peers talking about battle scars. There was even two victorious festivals, complete with drinking and dancing and wild shouting.  I don’t think there was any mead, but it wouldn’t have been inappropriate.

The actual name for the event was the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Long name for a short conference, but it boils down to thousands of technical women geeking out for several days in Minneapolis. Thousands of women and about twenty guys, mostly recruiters. And one random behavioral scientist, which is really Betsy Aoki‘s fault. Months ago, she sent me a note and told me I should apply for this thing so that I could spread the gender wage equity gospel and talk about GetRaised.com. I applied, got accepted, and then promptly got swallowed by Bing for Schools.

My first inkling that maybe this was a bigger deal that I had previously realized was when I started getting organizer emails from people at Microsoft. Apparently, of the thousands of attendees, hundreds were coming from the mothership. And they were, bar none, the most organized troupe of attendees I’ve ever seen at the company. It was suddenly clear that not only was this a big deal, but that for a tremendous number of women, this was something they were immensely excited about.

It isn’t pretty, but truthfully, I don’t get as excited about conferences anymore. If we’re sticking with the battle theme, I’m some sort of young captain at this point, having seen enough to know that my job is to show up, do my duty, and try not to get killed by a random arrow (or question). But this was something different, something even the veterans were fired up about.

I don’t really want to talk about my speech there, other than to say that it was probably the best audience I’ve ever had. It turns out, when there are no men in the room and spirits are riding high, you can get a crowd of a couple hundred to get really feisty about gender wage equity, which generally isn’t a particularly sexy topic. I’d be more likely to watch TED talks if there was that much cheering and shouting and jeering.

And oh, the dancing. I should have known the talk was going to go well, given the tenor of the dance the night before. It turns out, when there are no men around to impress or feel shamed by or nervous about, women can let loose in a very different way. It was lovely to feel permissioned to be incredibly silly to Stayin’ Alive and Love Shack.

I don’t normally do the “overheard” thing, but there were several moments where just listening at GHC made me incredibly happy. Two in particular stand out. One was the first night, where as I was walking to the dance, a woman was excitedly talking into her cell phone going the opposite direction. “I just danced with a VP from COMPANYNAME!” I don’t think anyone has ever been that excited about dancing with me, ever, and I’m actually a pretty good dancer.  Whoever that VP is, my hat is off to you.  And how wonderful is a conference that makes anybody, even if it was just that one woman, feel that way?

Second, and more socioculturally relevant, was “Do you want to, like, umm, go to the mall later?” GHC had a lot of college students in attendance, and a group happened to sit near me, and this came out of a woman who could probably more properly be called a girl. And it is an awesome, awesome statement that makes me hopeful for the future of tech. Because while I love folks that are as nerdy as I am, if tech is limited to just nerds, we’re screwed. We need mainstream people in computing, and while that has been common in the male population for years, this was my first experience with seeing hypermainstream women in incredibly technical roles. And maybe I’m stupid for celebrating a desire to go to the mall but it really does feel like progress. We need that diversity.

There were a lot of lovely moments at GHC and I have to hand it to the organizers; all the hard work they put into making it an accepting, tolerant place for women seems to have paid off. And honestly, having dramatically more women than men around actually made me relax too. There was no implicit competition, no being bothered by obnoxious crowds of guys crowded around the sexually attractive women and ignoring the less attractive ones. For example, casual seating was a bit limited, so I asked a young woman if I could share a table with her and it was lovely for her to be able to say yes without having to evaluate whether I was actually hitting on her. And it turned out that I could make an introduction that her friend needed. At a normal tech conference, we never even would have drilled down to that layer, because the layers and filters would have made it much harder for her to make that ask across age and gender lines.

To be clear, though, I had some privilege at GHC. As a speaker, it felt like I had a very public reason to be there as a male and I’m not sure it would have felt the same if I had just opted to come as an attendee. I talked about this with some friends and it was a mixed bag of reactions: some felt like it would be entirely acceptable and not all damaging to have men attend in larger numbers, while others felt it would interfere if non-speaker/recruiter men were about. This seemed to break a bit along age lines, with the older more confident women feeling like unidentified male allies were a benefit and the younger women feeling like it would mess with their mojo (this may be because the younger women would likely have to shoulder the burden of any unwanted flirting).

I’m not sure I really have an opinion, other than I know I likely would have felt uncomfortable if I wasn’t speaking or at least there in some sort of official role. But I’ll tell you this: as long as GHC keeps inviting me, I’ll keep coming. Because the future of computing is a gender-balanced one and I intend to be there.