Students attend female computing conference

by Mika Jehoon Lee | 1/11/18 2:10am

Last October, 31 female Dartmouth students traveled to Orlando, Florida to attend the 2017 Grace Hopper Celebration, the largest gathering of female technologists in the world. Around 18,000 women participated in this year’s conference, which featured career workshops, panel discussions and keynote presentations.

The annual conference has highlighted the impact of women on computer science since its inception in 1994. This year’s conference, which ran from Oct. 4 to Oct. 6, was presented by nonprofit organization, which supports women in technical fields, in partnership with the Association for Computing Machinery, the world’s largest computing society.

Computer science professor Thomas Cormen, who led this year’s cohort of Dartmouth participants, said the College has participated in GHC since 2012. Last year, 16 students attended, about half the size of this year’s group.

“In 2012, I was the department chair, so I controlled the department budget,” Cormen said. “I saw the announcement of the Grace Hopper Celebration looking for academic sponsors, and I realized we had an opportunity there.”

This year, the College was a platinum sponsor of the conference, Cormen said, along with schools such as Carnegie Mellon University, Cornell University and Washington University in St. Louis. This represents the highest level of academic sponsorship for the program. When the College began attending the event, it was a gold sponsor, the second-highest level. Platinum, gold and silver academic sponsors at GHC are given different branding benefits and assigned different booth locations.

Jane Lee ’19, who attended the conference for the first time this year, said the most memorable event was the keynote presentation by Fei-Fei Li, a computer science professor at Stanford University. Lee said Li’s discussion of the potentially negative consequences of artificial intelligence challenged her assumption that artificial intelligence would improve people’s quality of life in the future. Overall, Lee said the conference educated her in detail about topics in computing and technology that she had only vaguely understood in the past.

However, Lee added that the conference could have hosted more programs relevant to celebrating women in computer science. Since career workshops and other events took place at the same time, Lee was unable to attend as many panel discussions and presentations as she had wanted to.

“If you were going to go to [2017 GHC] for the purpose of finding a job, you would never get the chance to hear from the speakers,” Lee said. “My purpose was both — learn about how women are empowering themselves in technology and at the same time meet different companies.”

Shirley Zhang ’19, who attended the conference in 2016 and 2017, said she especially enjoyed listening to different women who have made strides in the computer science field, as well as to her peers.

“Meeting people my age that are also trying to find what they like resonated with me, because we were in a similar position,” Zhang said.

Cormen said that encouraging women in computer science has always been a priority of the College’s computer science department. Accordingly, his goal in attending the conference each year is not only to support the faculty participants but also to recruit female graduate students and faculty.

“[Gender inequality in computer science] at Dartmouth is not as bad as it is in other places, but I would love to see computer science at Dartmouth look like Dartmouth [as a whole] — that would mean half of our majors would be women and students of color would be better represented,” Cormen said. “We are better than we were, but we are not there.”

Cormen also highlighted how the GHC’s technical and career-oriented talks can provide students with a deeper insight into the computer science field.

“I think it’s really inspirational for students to see what the career opportunities are,” he said. “Also, some of the talks are about not only about opportunities but also overcoming obstacles.”

Lee also echoed the importance of achieving gender equality in the computer science field.

“If there are just males working on technology, we are never going to produce technology that will cater to the world, which is the ultimate goal of computer science.” Lee said.