The annual Hopperx1 Seattle conference kicked off Friday with a stirring call to boost the number of women working in the tech industry, and the agenda revealed one of the strategies for accomplishing that goal.
“Are you tired of spending too much time debugging?” read the description for one workshop called “Time Travel Through Your Code.” Another session focused on automated methods for identifying the best machine learning pipelines for all kinds of data sets. The title of another class: “Role of Computer Vision in Revolutionizing Computer-Assisted Surgery.”
In other words, you wouldn’t necessarily know that this was a women’s advocacy conference from the focus of the sessions. And that’s precisely the point, said organizers of the conference, which was hosted by AnitaB.org, the group behind the well-known Grace Hopper Celebration.
Of course, it should be obvious enough that women coders share the same technical ambitions and face the same thorny programming challenges as their male counterparts. And yet women are still often overlooked in a tech industry where the most well-known figures are male, women tech leaders said Friday.
“Show me the evidence that indicates testosterone makes one better line of code,” Brenda Darden Wilkerson, AnitaB.org’s president and CEO, told an audience of 1,500 women tech workers during an impassioned morning keynote speech at Amazon’s South Lake Union campus.
Wilkerson pointed out that men outnumber women three to one in the tech industry. She said AnitaB.org aims for women to make up 50 percent of tech workers by 2025.
What’s standing in the way of making that happen? Girls see the male face of the tech business and think they don’t belong there, Wilkerson said. Girls almost surely haven’t heard of Ada Lovelace, who invented the precursor to computer code nearly 100 years before the first digital computer, or Heddy Lamar, the actress who helped discover frequency hopping, which was used as an unjammable torpedo guidance system in World War II and would later point the way to Bluetooth and Wifi.
“You deserve to be in any room. We deserve to be here,” Wilkerson told the audience. “Same pay (as men). Same roles. Same project leadership. Same c-suite titles. Same founder and funding opportunities.”
AnitaB.org takes its name from Anita Borg, a computer scientist who lived for a time in Mukilteo, Wash., during her childhood and, in 1987, co-founded an online chat network, known as Systers, for women working in tech. The Hopperx1 Seattle conference, which continues Saturday, is designed as a smaller, local version of AnitaB.org’s Grace Hopper Celebration, which draws 18,000 attendees.
This is the second time Seattle has hosted a Hopperx1 conference, and tickets for this weekend’s event sold out in four hours, organizers said. Similar conferences are scheduled for later this year in Australia, London and New York. Seattle’s is the largest of all the AnitaB.org events except for the Grace Hopper Celebration.
Throughout Friday, 92 women tech leaders from Microsoft, Pinterest, Amazon and others, shared advice on mentoring, giving and getting feedback, time management, and the benefits of stepping away from an executive role, at least for a time, to work as a frontline team member.
There was also plenty of brainstorming on how to make sure more women from all kinds of backgrounds — “from Ivy Leaguers to boot campers,” as Wilkerson put it — are working in the tech business.
Microsoft data scientist Katrina Browne spoke about ways to ensure machine learning models are fair, accurate and representative of the entire population (which, organizers pointed out, can be a problem when mostly men — or any other narrow slice of society are building the models).
Laura Butler, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of Notes & Tasks, who chatted onstage with Redfin CTO Bridget Frey, said trying to hire team members with all kinds of backgrounds isn’t a lofty idea — it’s capitalism.
“This is just selfish business,” she said. “These are phenomenal hires. Full stop.”