Why I did not attend GHC ’13 : How women in computing communities promote the status-quo

Posted on by Heidy

In the past few months, I’ve personally received both positive and constructive feedback pertaining my previous post on Feminism in Computer Science. This was quite refreshing, given my ever-so-lingering fear of retaliation to be instigated when discussing the “F” word. Alas, after a few busy months, I’ve again mustered up the courage to discuss an even more fragile topic: the conflicting nature of women in computing communities in parallel to feminism, particularly the well-known Grace Hopper Celebration(GHC, not to be confused with the Glasgow Haskell Compiler). As their website states, “the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is the world’s largest gathering of women technologists. It is produced by the Anita Borg Institute and presented in partnership with ACM.”

Disclaimer: GHC is an experience that every women in technology should absolutely experience. It had a significant impact on my career, and I am by no means discouraging attendance. I only wish to bring about constructive criticism to an event that is worth critiquing.

I was first informed of GHC as a junior undergraduate by a brilliant graduate colleague. Her recollection of past conference experiences conveyed a vivid portrayal of what seemed to be every women technologist’s wet dream. And so it was, so I thought. I attended my first GHC in 2011, and was overwhelmed by the amount of brilliant and engaging women that I met. I distinctly recall the electric chills of excitement radiating through my spine as I watched Sheryl Sandberg deliver an incredibly motivating and inspiring keynote speech, as I gazed over thousands of inspiring women. It was the first time in my career that I did not feel alone. I felt that I was connected to a community, that for once I was not the only woman fighting against the gender grain. Despite the memory of my first GHC remaining fairly untainted, I realize that that I was too star struck to look beyond this seemingly utopian haven. To my dismay, after attending GHC ’12,  I was left with the uncertain and seemingly paradoxical question: How could a conference promoting the equality of women in the technological forefront clash with my feminist ideologies?

Perpetuating Gender Stereotypes

I have found that a culmination of subtle contradictions has lead to the conflicting nature of women in computing communities in parallel to feminism. Before discussing the seemingly subtle interplay between these two movements, I will address the blatantly obvious sexism to be experienced at GHC. Every attendee  receives a gift bag containing an assortment of promotional products from tech-based companies supporting GHC. I was appalled by the a variety of the “goodies” provided, as it has appeared that a chauvinistic bigot was assigned to select products that would “promote” women to join their company. Products included: A sewing kit, Raytheon. A nail file – Salesforce.com, Medallia. Compact mirrors, Medallia, Juniper Networks. Chapstick, Dropbox, DoW, StateFarm. And last but not least, nail-polish, Aruba Networks. A more in-depth “schwag” analysis can be found at Clarye Bayley’s blog post. These appalling products are a clear reflection of  the misogynistic mentality in which these companies view their target audience: Working women who are successful, savvy, and intelligent; and yet must be caring, nurturing, and concerned with their aesthetics. A destructive image of an unattainable contrived perfection, bounding women to an eternal disparaging chase.

It is relatively unclear to me whether or not the organizational committee approves of these products prior to their distribution. If not, then perhaps the organizers should partake in this process, as to prevent further perpetuation of the inherently misogynistic gender stereotype. I would be highly concerned if the organizers were in fact aware of said products, as it would lead me to question the validity of the promoters and their understanding of gender issues, inequality, and disparity. I have observed that the lead majority of the organizer are in fact women in tech, and perhaps lack expertise in gender studies and the like. Further research into the organizational committee has confirmed that no member with expertise in either gender studies and feminism is consulted pertaining the organization of the conference. I speculate that this may be the cause of the active “us versus them” mentality ingrained and bolstered by GHC’s very own presenters.

The Us Versus Them Mentality

It doesn’t take expertise in psychology or gender studies to understand that  “us versus them” breeds a toxic tribal mentality which emphasizes the differences between “other” groups and those belonging to such as competitors. Von Bergen, Soper, & Foster argue that

Diversity encourages the process of including the perspectives of under-represented, non-dominant groups in organizations to ensure they have a voice … the dominant group must also be part of the diversity initiative or an “us versus them” mentality becomes entrenched in the organization impeding the effectiveness of any diversity initiative, thereby delegitimizing it.

With titles like “I DO WHAT I LOVE TO DO…AND I’M A GIRL!” and workshop descriptions emphasizing that “many women get stuck in their careers by…, come hear from women who doubted their strategic ability,” and “techniques and tools that are known to empower and advance women to be great integrators…” littering the GHC 2013 Program, the tribal mentality clearly lingers within every niche of the conference’s horizon. Understandably, the presenters and organizer of GHC are well-intentioned and only aim to promote a sense of community, belonging, and understanding to promote an under-represented group. However, they do so in vain without considering pending negative consequences.

Although GHC welcomes the attendance of males, it clearly excludes them as a target audience, despite it being of the utmost importance that they be involved in a discussion which promotes gender equality in a male-driven industry. How can we eliminate gender disparity within the tech industry if the overruling power is not educated, informed, nor involved? Organizations such as GHC have shifted the burden of systematic oppression onto the marginalized group, enforcing the creation of tribal niche communities which further the breach of gender disparity. By excluding men while deeming them incomparable, GHC promotes women to seek counseling among themselves, cultivating coping mechanisms which are mere extensions of a patriarchal society. They are simply attacking the symptoms of deep-rooted gender inequality, which is inherently present within our society. As Model View Culture eloquently criticizes “Leaning in”, a culture promoted by GHC’s very favorite Sheryl Sandberg:

The expectation that marginalized groups take responsibility for their oppression and seek individual achievement as a remedy to it;conform to the sexist and racist ideals of the industry to succeed; focus on personal advancement over systemic change; devote their lives to working for a system that refuses to treat them equally.

 Self Identity

The last point of discussion (and certainly not the last factor) which subtly contradicts feministic ideals, is the placement of self-identity. Despite GHC providing me with a sense of community and support, it has consequently reminded me that I cannot just merely be a Computer Scientist, but a female computer scientist. GHC has urged me to re-identify myself as a woman above all else, emphasizing that my gender is the only point of commonality in which I can find a supportive community to thrive within an oppressed industry. However, the issue of self and gender identity is not something that GHC is to be blamed for, but a natural consequence of the existence of a marginalized group. Nonetheless, GHC is to be blamed for delegitimizing many of its affirmative action efforts by not emphasizing gender equality, but instead fostering a community of victims which fruitlessly struggle to encourage each other through a system built against them. Self-identifying as a woman will not destruct the inherently misogynistic structure of either the tech-industry nor our society.

I am a human, a feminist, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a computer scientist, a climber, an American Egyptian, and lastly a woman.

One comment on “Why I did not attend GHC ’13 : How women in computing communities promote the status-quo

  1. Very interesting point of view.

    I should thank you for sharing your thoughts. If a man had shared the same thoughts, the response would be quite different from the “GHC feminist front”.

    It is encouraging to find people that, somehow, see a problem at least in some actions of some feminist movements.

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