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Women in tech: Why the small victories matter

The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Tech brings 15,000 women together to focus on what's going right with the industry's diversity push.

The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing aims to create a better culture in the industry for the next generation of female geeks.

The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing aims to create a better culture in the industry for the next generation of female geeks.

Brent Lewis/Getty Images

If you're wondering where all the women in tech are, this week the easy answer was Houston, Texas -- at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

It's an annual conference hosted by the Anita Borg Institute, an organization focused on the advancement of women in technology. The event is named for Grace Hopper, a rear admiral in the US Navy who helped create the COBOL programming language, among other achievements. This year, 15,000 attendees, mostly women, with about 1,000 men thrown in, congregated for three days of speakers, workshops and as much branded swag as they could stuff in a tote bag. And, hopefully, some job opportunities.

In the past, the event has gotten attention for attracting big names and, occasionally, trouble. Two years ago, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella incurred much ire for telling women they should trust the system instead of asking for raises. Last year, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki talked about sending her disgruntled daughter to an all-girls coding camp.

This year, the word on everyone's lips is progress. In just one year, the conference has grown by about 3,000 attendees. Side chatter revolves around how refreshing it is to be around so many other women. And when a speaker like Intel CEO Brian Krzanich mentions something like men taking credit for women's ideas in meetings, the crowd chuckles. They know exactly what he's talking about.

The way out of this problem is to not lose heart, a message the conference continually reinforces.

"If we don't celebrate the wins, we lose sight of the bigger picture," said Reshma Saujani, founder of nonprofit education program Girls Who Code.

"Celebration" might seem like an offbeat way to put it. A conference is a conference, after all, but considering the current climate in tech, women in the industry might need a positive boost more than ever. A report came out Thursday from Girls Who Code and consulting firm Accenture projecting that women's share of tech jobs in the US could fall, amounting to only one in five by 2025.

Maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise. In 1984, 37 percent of computer science majors were women. That number steadily dropped and now stands at about 18 percent.

As much as the industry is finally talking about the dearth of women in tech, no one is really considering that the situation could get worse. The report also found that the salary gap between men and women in the US widened even further, from $8,540 in 2011 to $12,661 in 2015.

'Sisterhood matters'

The news is seldom good. Published diversity and inclusion reports show that tech companies struggle to get their technical workforces up to even 30 percent women. The obstacles multiply, and even the youngest attendees seem to know it.

Discouragement is a bear.

So the Grace Hopper conference tries to keep the good vibes flowing.

"We know sisterhood matters in sparking and sustaining girls' interest in computing as they move through the pipeline," said Saujani, a Grace Hopper regular, who appeared on a panel last year with Chelsea Clinton, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook's director of global diversity, Maxine Williams.

A few minutes before IBM CEO Ginni Rometty took the stage for her keynote speech on Wednesday, a college student named Alyssia Jovellanos accepted the Student of Vision ABIE Award from the Anita Borg Institute and talked to a packed arena about how important it is to have role models.

Cisco sponsored a disco. The Microsoft brigade wore blindingly blue T-shirts. Attendees struck up conversations without reservation. A sophomore from the College of William and Mary in Virginia told me she'd made up her mind to get a master's degree -- partly because of the conversations she's had with people here, partly to make up for the fact she'll probably earn less because, you know, she's a woman.

A technical conference

Anita Borg, who passed away in 2003, and Anita Borg Institute CEO Telle Whitney started GHC in 1994, with a whopping 500 attendees.

"There was a lot of teeth gnashing about the lack of women in the sciences," Whitney said of the early days of the conference.

Over time, the conference has sought to balance the more on-the-nose sessions about being a woman in tech with technical sessions.

So Grace Hopper was a place to get advice on how to deal with unconscious biases in the workplace or to attend a session on computer simulations for drug discovery, or data management or cybersecurity.

Last year I wandered into a session on virtual-reality analytics. My liberal arts education and I slunk out after about four PowerPoint slides of algorithms.

But think back to that stat on the percentage of women computer science majors out there. These sessions might be some of the only educational spaces these women will enter where they're not one of only a few women in the room.

The future of women in tech

GHC might be only once a year, but Whitney hopes the effects take hold beyond that.

After all, the conversation around diversity in tech is one about culture change. There's a reason why speakers like Lyndsay Pearson, from video game maker Electronic Arts, preach topics like building inclusion into gaming. The bones of the industry have to be reset.

At Grace Hopper, that reset starts with an expo floor packed with recruiters from companies looking to hire attendees. The booths are bright, the smiles are big, young women in skirts and flats walk around with resumes, trying to imagine themselves working anywhere from Bank of America to Airbnb -- and they have a fair shot at doing so. Even Walmart has a booth.

Saujani is one of many who believes life will be better with the power of tech on women's side.

"The idea that they can use technology to further their interests opens up so many more pathways for keeping girls engaged in the long run," she said.

The conference sends a loud message that there are women in this industry and that they can, despite it all, find success. Sometimes that starts with a conversation at lunch, bonding over a slice of pizza, or by getting to ask a notable figure how she deals with imposter syndrome, the feeling that others will realize you're not good enough to be where you are.

To a large degree, it's also about being able to stand in a room, do a 360-degree turn and see a few thousand other women in tech.