Reflecting on Grace Hopper 2014: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Earlier this October, I had the wonderful opportunity be one of the eight thousand women attending the Grace Hopper Conference and Celebration of Women in Computing. I came back home to a lot of questions about some of the press coverage of what happened there. So, here is my take on the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good. I always come back from Grace Hopper feeling inspired and energized. Four reasons for it this time… (1) I’m getting to have more opportunities to give back and share advice instead of just asking for it. After a long conversation, an undergraduate woman told me “I’m seriously thinking about grad school now and you’re about 90% of the reason.” Wow! (2) Through the CRA-W, I got to give a talk about “How to Get Your Dream Job” with Jaeyeon Jung. It was probably the largest and definitely the most enthusiastic audience I’ve ever had! (3) It was so inspirational to attend talks by women like Shafi Goldwasser and Megan Smith and Maria Klawe! It’s hard not to go fangirl over this! (4) Last but not least, the dancing. The dancing at Grace Hopper is always amazing! It is totally an experience that every woman in computing should have!

Dancing at GHC is always amazing!

Dancing at GHC is always amazing!

The Bad. Certainly, this year’s Grace Hopper came with quite a bit of controversy: a male allies panel went awry; Microsoft’s CEO said that women shouldn’t ask for raises. And yet, even these issues give me hope for the future. First, yes, the male allies panel had problems: the format shut down discussion (e.g., no Q&A) and the panelists made some very naive statements (see: “how to be a bad ally“). However, many overlook that these men took the feedback to heart and organized an ad-hoc panel the following day where women spoke while the men listened. Second, yes, Nadella did not handle the question about raises well on stage. But, he was there, he apologized right afterwards, and he launched a campaign to address the issues involved. I really believe that the net effect from both of these “bads” is positive. It both draws attention to issues of women in the workplace and makes me optimistic about male allies’ abilities to learn from their own mistakes and make positive changes.

The Ugly. However, one topic that was not well addressed at this year’s conference was the ugliness surrounding GamerGate. It was mostly discussed in the hallways over coffee rather than in any sort of formal way. We need to address this head on. We need to stand with Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu and any other women who face threats and harassment online. I am committing to doing what I can to bring a panel on GamerGate (hopefully with all of these women above) to Grace Hopper next year. Honestly, I have no idea what I am doing on the logistics side (I’ll basically be cold emailing them) [Update: all three women have tentatively agreed]. Also, I am a bit scared to become a target, but if these women can live it, I can brave the small risk. This panel needs to happen. If you have any advice, let me know.

Review of the 3rd Annual New York Maker Faire


Play with giant tinker toys,
Try your hand at looming your own clothes,
Robots that don’t have to stay dry,
Robots that can learn to fly,
Robots that are made from trash,
Bicycles with wings that flash.

This weekend, I went to the World Maker Faire in Queens and I wanted to share some of the great things that I saw there. I’m not going to be able to talk about everything, but I wanted to cover two major trends that I saw that encompass several projects.

One trend that I think is interesting is the focus on making your own toys. With awesome tools like laser cutters, 3D printers, robotics toolkist, or even just scissors and tape, it is becoming more and more possible to make amazing toys without a manufacturer in the loop. Before Lego, the world was your construction toy. I think we can get back there soon, as things like laser cutters become more affordable. Online communities like letsmakerobots and aeroquad and real-life communities like hackert0wn are going to help this happen. While you wait for the hardware to get to your house, try this out — make you own marble maze roller coaster with nothing but a printer, scissors, and tape!

Biomodd uses the excess heat created by a computer to heat a small vegetable greenhouse.

The second trend that I thought was fascinating was the focus on connecting with the natural world. I often think of computing as an indoor activity that is clean and inorganic, but a number of inventors and artists at this event considered places where nature and technology intersect. As just a few examples, a project from T4D Lab uses low-cost sensors to help a grower understand and improve the production of food. Guerrilla Gardening is more a movement and community than a technology, but is a great example of leveraging technology to connect people who care about nature. But my favorite was probably Biomodd — a project focused on highlighting a symbiotic relationships between plants and computers. Cool stuff!

On a final note, his event exemplified my favorite thing about the Maker culture. It brought together artists, crafts-people, scientists, and engineers. In the process of breaking through disciplinary boundaries, it also broke through the boundaries and stereotypes of gender. It was great to see both girls and boys try their hand at making robots and weaving using a loom. I’ll definitely be coming back next year!

P.S. If I talked about your work here and you don’t think that it’s linked or discussed properly, let me know so that we can work together to make it right.

Can’t Have It Both Ways

Dating websites are a fascinating example of technology mediating an intimate area of our lives. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2010 20% of all heterosexual couples and 60% of all same-sex couples met online. In this blog, I’ve done a review of a number of major dating sites and I’d like to point out a common “oversight” which may serve as an example of how values get encoded in technology. Namely, it is very difficult to be bisexual on a dating site.

Only one of these popular dating websites acknowledges bisexuality.

A bisexual woman (for example) might be interested in one of the following combinations of gender (the binary representation of gender is also a design decision, but I won’t discuss that in this post) and orientation: a lesbian woman, a straight man, a bisexual woman, or a bisexual man. However, Match.com, eHarmony, Chemistry.com, Plenty of Fish, and Lavalife all share one common characteristic — one can only “seek” one gender at a time! In other words, as a bisexual woman, you have to choose to either look for lesbian/bi women or for straight/bi men, excluding half of the relevant combinations.  There is a website targeted explicitly to bisexual people, called bicupid.com, but this site only allows you to search for other bisexual individuals (again, excluding half of the relevant combinations). I would also like to point out that even just the front page of bicupid.com perpetuates a number of stereotypes of bisexual people, particularly that they are not interested in having a serious relationship with one person.

This website only allows searching for other bisexual partners and seems to perpetuate some popular myths about bisexuality.

The only popular dating website that acknowledges bisexuality is okcupid.com, which lets you specify that the seeker is “bisexual.” This may not be surprising, since okcupid has always been fairly progressive thinking and interested in ideas of orientation, gender, etc. However, selecting “I am bisexual” also highlights the option “I do not want to be seen by straight people.” This option is presumably there to prevent accidentally coming out to anybody who is not queer, but may not be relevant to bisexuals, who may in fact be considering straight partners. From personal experience, it might be more relevant to also provide an option “I do not want to be seen by people who are currently in a couple.” But, I don’t really want to get too far into implications for design here…

Why is this actually important? It’s not really about finding a date. Websites that exclude same-sex couples have gotten negative press, but as far as I know, nobody has raised a cry about the lack of support for bisexuality. This is an example of something called “bisexual erasure,” which is “the tendency to ignore, remove, falsify, or reexplain evidence of bisexuality in history, academia, news media and other primary sources.” This is just another way of marginalizing people and is one that is practiced by both the heterosexual and the LGBT community. Now, it is explicitly encoded in the design of the vast majority of popular dating websites, and that’s not cool.