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Carleton University Ph.D. candidate Natalia Villanueva-Rosales

Carleton University Ph.D. candidate Natalia Villanueva-Rosales

Credit: Gail Carmichael /

Over the past 15 years, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing has become one of the industry's premier forums for women in computer science. Cofounded in 1994 by Anita Borg and Telle Whitney and inspired by the legacy of Grace Murray Hopper, the conference balances a broad range of technical talks with professional and personal programs. Once a modest gathering of several hundred women, it has since grown into a large, four-day affair—held this past October in Tucson, AZ—with a tightly packed schedule and more than 1,600 attendees from 23 countries.

Yet the experience remains both powerful and intimate. "There's always a lot of excitement," says Valerie Barr, chair of the computer science department at Union College. "There's an air of joy and celebration." Barr has attended all but one of the previous nine conferences. Like many attendees, Barr cites the friends she has made as one of the primary reasons she comes back year after year. These friendships are actively encouraged by the conference leadership, who challenged women to introduce themselves to five new people each day and harnessed social media like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs to spread the message. Last year's innovative CONNECT program, which enables attendees to use special scannable bar codes to automatically exchange contact information with people, was back again to facilitate further networking.

This year's theme was "Creating Technology for Social Good," and panels, papers, and speeches showcased diverse examples of collaboration and accomplishment. Keynote speakers Megan Smith, vice president of new business development at, and Francine Berman, vice president for research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, spoke about increasing Internet availability in developing countries and harnessing data to further projects in science and engineering. Other technical topics included human-centered design, communications security and policy, and wireless ad hoc networks. "Grace Hopper demonstrates that you can approach computer science in a way that's relevant to people—that addresses hunger, poverty, environmental issues, and so on," explains Barr. Because of the breadth of its scope, Barr says, the conference is also a great opportunity to learn about breaking research that's outside her specialty.

One of the year's best-received new features was a technical track that was devoted to robotics. "It spanned four sessions on a single day and seemed to work quite well," says conference chair Heidi Kvinge, an Intel software engineering manager.

Students comprise nearly half of the attendees, and much of the non-technical program revolves around professional development. "We always focus on the pipeline," says Kvinge. "We want to build the next generation of leaders." There were résumé clinics, leadership workshops, and panels on issues women face in industry and academia. The Computer Research Association's Committee on the Status of Women sponsored three career-building sessions for undergraduates, grad students, and early-career researchers.

Industry representatives were also invited to set up booths in an exhibition hall to showcase their companies and answer questions. "Grace Hopper is a great place to recruit people," says Tessa Lau, a researcher at the IBM Almaden Research Center. The women at Grace Hopper, says Lau, are motivated, smart, and enthusiastic about the field. The conference, meanwhile, gives them a unique opportunity to talk to corporate researchers rather than professional recruiters.

"I always come back energized and full of ideas," says Kvinge. "It broadens my vision."

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Leah Hoffmann is a Brooklyn-based technology writer.

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UF1Figure. From left, clockwise, Carleton University Ph.D. candidate Natalia Villanueva-Rosales, ACM President Dame Wendy Hall, and Vice President Megan Smith.

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©2009 ACM  0001-0782/09/1200  $10.00

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