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Thousands of amazing engineers and 5 key takeaways from the world’s largest gathering of women technologists

You may have recently heard about the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, an exciting annual event that earlier this month convened more than 8,000 enthusiastic attendees. For better or worse, there’s a good chance you heard about the conference through headlines lamenting the poorly articulated career advice of a keynote speaker, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

But if you can look beyond that noise (and we hope you can!), the conference was actually full of amazing highlights -- which 14 female Opower engineers had the privilege of experiencing firsthand, thanks to the support of our company in encouraging us to attend.

This year, the Grace Hopper Celebration saw a record number of attendees -- even more than other major technology summits like Google I/O and WWDC. Interest in the conference  has grown steadily since the inaugural event in 1994, held in Washington DC with only 500 attendees. The 2014 gathering in Phoenix was a three day extravaganza, with big name speakers like Nadella, Turing Award winner Shafi Goldwasser, and a slew of other influential panelists and presenters. Looking back on the conference, there were a few important takeaways that stood out to us:

 

1. Role models are everywhere

The Anita Borg Institute, which runs the Grace Hopper Celebration, does a fantastic job in honoring and bringing together impactful and inspiring women technologists from across the globe. One example was a keynote speaker named Bonnie Ross -- the studio head of 343 Industries, known best for the popular video game “Halo.” In a historically male-dominated industry, Ross has led her company to continued success with their landmark product. Equally inspiring were all the fellow attendees that we met. On the plane to Phoenix, I sat next to a young women who had moved to the US from Saudi Arabia a couple years ago not knowing one word of English. Now, she is completely fluent and finishing up her degree in Computer Science. Female technologist role models are also emerging in the utility sector -- one in which, as this blog has often pointed out, data analytics and software are intersecting in new and innovative ways. Among women leading the charge in the electric industry is the CEO of Duke Energy, Lynn Good, who studied computer science in college and now runs one of America’s largest utility companies.

 

2. Interest in data science keeps growing

In line with a flurry of exciting academic and industry developments in the computing field, this year’s conference featured a series of presentations and tech talks on data science, spanning across two days. This included presentations on big data analytics from Box, and scalable data systems featuring panelists from AirBnb and Amazon. Rayid Ghani, a researcher at the University of Chicago, spoke about using data science for good, a topic that is close to our hearts as Opower employees who are drawn to a double bottom line mission.

This year's Grace Hopper conference drew a record-breaking 8,000 attendees.

3. Across the technology industry, women (and men) are reaching out to help close the gender gap

The Grace Hopper Celebration hosts a huge number of students, many of whom had all expenses paid by corporate scholarships from companies that have prioritized promoting women in technology. Studies show that gender bias begins at a young age, and the importance of encouraging younger girls in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) cannot be ignored. The Anita Borg Institute is a trailblazer for initiatives in this area, and in addition to running Grace Hopper, the organization supports grants for female STEM students and maintains a robust network of female professionals. As employees at a growing tech company, we’re similarly passionate and proud about giving back to the community and raising female interest in STEM education through programs like CodeEd, an organization that gets middle school girls excited about computer science. Joanna Kochaniak, an engineer on Opower’s software team, helped pilot the CodeEd program in Virginia. Since then, Oployees from both our Virginia and San Francisco office have volunteered as CodeEd teachers.

4. Change must come from all directions

The lack of diversity in STEM programs is unlikely to be solved by an easy one-size-fits-all solution. There were an impressive number of career panels at the conference, touching on everything from how to build professional self-confidence to developing a stronger network. A recurring message was that it’s essential for professional resources like this to exist and for female professionals to have access to them. Diversity initiatives and awareness are also imperative. Many major companies are already taking steps in the right direction. Just last year, Google, Facebook and Apple, among others, released employee gender statistics. These figures have sparked important discussions across Silicon Valley and it’s clear that these companies, by being transparent and candid about diversity issues, are holding themselves more accountable than in the past. Google also recently implemented unconscious bias training for its employees -- another important step towards greater awareness of existing gender biases.

5. We're not there yet

Women make up only 13% of today’s engineering workforce in the US. What’s perhaps even more concerning is that the number of female engineers has declined since the 1990’s and the growth of STEM employment among young women today is stagnant. And those tech firms that released their employee gender data? Females make up only 20% of Apple’s tech employees, which is sadly enough to make the company a top performer in this category. We’re not, however, hanging our heads about the statistics in our fifth takeaway. We left the Grace Hopper Celebration inspired. Inspired by the accomplishments of our female colleagues, and also inspired to change. My hope is that those of us who attended the conference will help advance Opower’s current gender-focused initiatives, including encouraging training and hiring for employee diversity, and will continue to give back to the broader technology community through female-focused STEM programs like CodeEd.

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