CSU students join thousands for celebration of women in computing

Grace Hopper conference attendees

Computer science undergraduates who attended the Grace Hopper Celebration had the opportunity to speak with female leaders in the industry, including CSU alumna Bonnie Ross ’89 (center).

This past fall, 10 undergraduate computer science students from Colorado State University had the opportunity to rub elbows with some of the biggest names in computing – all of whom were women.

The occasion was the Anita Borg Institute’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, an annual conference that draws more than 15,000 attendees, held this year in Houston, Texas. The CSU students in attendance all received special scholarships to attend the meeting, where they were able to meet women at all stages of their careers – and hear from high-level speakers, including Ginni Rometty, the current president and CEO of IBM, Latanya Sweeney, the founder and director of Harvard’s Data Privacy Lab, and Megan Smith, the United States Chief Technology Officer.

The conference provides an important touchpoint for women in a field that is still staggeringly lacking in diversity. Nationally, fewer than one in five bachelor’s in computer science goes to a woman. But that’s a trend that the College of Natural Sciences and its computer science department have been working to address. Rallying support to send a group of female computer science students to this meeting for the first time is one of the ways the department is helping to bolster and encourage this growth.

Seeing a path

Among the students who attended the conference was Laura South, a computer science major, who is also the chair of the Association of Computing Machinery – Women (ACM-W) chapter on campus. She found the whole environment of the conference transformative. “The biggest take-away for me was just the experience of being surrounded by accomplished, brilliant women in my chosen field of study,” she said. After attending sessions led by young female entrepreneurs, for example, she said, “they were all incredibly inspirational because I could see my own goals reflected in their path.”

While there, the students were also able to attend the career fair, which offered relevant jobs and internships with companies from across the globe. “The conference exposed me to the variety of career paths that are available to someone with a computer science background,” said Audrey Newlon, a computer science major and lead for public relations for CSU’s ACM-W group. She said just catching the bus to the conference one morning, she sat next to a manager at the open-source software company Red Hat and was able to discuss career insights with her. “It was such a simple way to connect with a successful woman in the field,” she said. “It’s rare to make those connections on a morning commute, but at Grace Hopper it’s very common.”

At the conference, the students also met up with CSU alumna Bonnie Ross, now a vice president at Microsoft, where she runs 343 Industries, which creates the Halo game series for Xbox. One of the students who relished meeting Ross was Alison Finnman, a computer science undergraduate. “I walked into the room not knowing anything about gaming except that it was a predominantly male-dominated industry,” she said. “I was so inspired by [Ross’s] knowledge and influence in the industry that I immediately wanted to be a part of it.”

CSU was also represented at the conference by Annie Ross (‘14), now a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington, who earned second place in the conference’s graduate student research competition.

Inspiring diversity

After studying in a male-dominated field, South said that arriving at the conference, she was taken aback: “It was strange, at first, to see other women talking about all the cool research and career opportunities that are available to me. But once I got over my initial surprise, it reignited my passion for celebrating and supporting the women in CSU’s computer science department through ACM-W.”

And that is important, said Assistant Professor Laura Moreno. “Diversity and inclusion matter, and they matter a lot,” she said. “There is still a big gap to fill, but ventures like the Grace Hopper Celebration, where you can get together with thousands of women and minorities working in tech, show that we are going in the right direction.”

The conference is named in honor of Grace Hopper, a pioneer in the field of computing and programming who is credited with laying the foundations for much of the technology we take for granted today. This year celebrates the 110th anniversary of her birth, and earlier this year, President Obama posthumously awarded her a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The conference’s organizing group, the Anita Borg Institute, aims to help women technologists thrive and make significant contributions to the field. As part of that mission, it also provides prestigious scholarships for women studying computer science, some of which were awarded to CSU’s computer science students.

“The Grace Hopper Celebration is an amazing experience for the students,” Moreno said. “And I hope we can take many more CSU students in the future.”