The Grace Hopper Conference goes virtual this year

Thursday, Oct 29, 2020
by Tom Garlinghouse

“Together we build,” was the motto of this year’s virtual Grace Hopper Celebration, the world’s largest gathering of women in technology. Among the women gathering for the online event September 29 to October 3 were nine Princeton undergraduates whose participation was funded by the electrical engineering department.

“It’s a conference that is designed to empower and connect women in STEM,” said Cindy Li, one of the attendees and a junior in electrical engineering. “It was a nice way for me to connect with women who understand the industry, seek advice about navigating the workforce, how to be successful, and what to do if you have questions about your career—things like that.”

Cindy Li

Because of Covid-19 restrictions, this year’s conference was conducted by online video conference. But the aim of the conference, as in previous years, was the same. It was designed to build connections through networking, expose attendees to career opportunities, and host a range of workshops and lectures, including a keynote address by U.S. tennis champion Serena Williams. Other notable speakers included Ellen Pao, former Reddit CEO, and Megan Rapinoe, the co-captain of the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team.

Talks and workshops included numerous academic subjects, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), computer hardware and architecture and even neuroscience. But topics ranged over non-technical subjects as well, such as strategies in career planning, the gender pay gap, and the many challenges women in STEM face.

The virtual character of the conference, however, meant some changes in conference format.

Saisha Agrawal, a senior in electrical engineering, who attended the event last year, indicated that this year’s conference felt somewhat isolating. “I didn’t meet anyone in this conference besides the people I knew who were attending it,” she said. “The conference didn’t have any community aspect this year.”

Saisha Agrawal

Despite this, Agrawal was glad she attended, even if her attendance was virtual.

She noted that, for her, the main takeaway was exposure to new and different ideas. “As a student, because you’re so busy with classwork, you don’t often think about all the different things going on in computer science and all the different aspects of technology that are happening. The Grace Hopper Conference is a really good chance to survey all the really interesting things that are happening in technology.”

“It’s also really nice to know that there is a community,” she added, “that there are a lot of women working in this field. It was a cool opportunity.”

Jovana Kondic, a senior majoring in electrical engineering, was equally grateful the conference was held despite this year’s many challenges. “I’m really thankful that the conference was held and that the department supported us because we were still able to get a lot out of the workshops, which were interactive.”

Jovana Kondic

Kondic noted that one advantage of this year’s virtual structure was that everything could be accessed by the simple click of a button. “You could see at any point where different things were going on,” she said, “and you could navigate your way very easily.”  

An additional advantage, she noted, was that, unlike previous years, there was no cut-off on how many people could attend a workshop. “This year, because it was virtual, everything was open to everyone. All of us really appreciated that.”

The conference has a broad range of academic, nonprofit and corporate sponsors including Apple, Google, Dropbox, Snapchat and Microsoft. It was organized by the Anita Borg Institute (AnitaB.org), which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the careers of women in technology.

The conference is named in honor of Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, a pioneer in computing and one of the first women to receive a doctorate in mathematics. She was a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II and worked on the Mark I computer – an early electromechanical computer used during the waning years of the war. Hopper was also the first female recipient of the National Medal of Technology and posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.