The Hottest Ticket in Tech for Companies Struggling With the Gender Gap

Source: Anita Borg Institute

The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, at the career fair in 2013. Close

The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, at the career fair in 2013.

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Source: Anita Borg Institute

The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, at the career fair in 2013.

There's a new must-attend tech event that you likely haven't heard of: The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

With all the attention placed on tech's huge diversity disparity, companies are falling over themselves to send female employees or students to the three-day conference. So far, around 8,000 people are expected to attend the sold-out event at the Phoenix Convention Center in early October. That would be up from 4,700 last year and almost quadruple the number in 2010.

There's no easy fix for the industry's gender gap, since there aren't enough women going into technology fields to reach parity with men. As such, one way to declare to the world that your company isn't comprised of a bunch of Neanderthals is to brag about your attendance at Hopper, which is put on by the Anita Borg Institute. This year, 70 percent of attendees will be first-timers.

The show is named for a famed post-World War II computer scientist and former Navy rear admiral. It's an event where women, students and diversity advocates can congregate to brainstorm about how to further their cause. And it's an occasion for them to be in the majority. Women will make up 98 percent of the attendees this year, the thirteenth time the event has been held since 1994. Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, is a sponsor of the conference.

Thousands of women have found the show to be an inspiration -- proof that they could follow their passion for technology and succeed in an industry long considered to be "for boys," said Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, 35 miles east of Los Angeles.

"You walk into this conference with thousands of women, and there might be 75 men," she said. "There are women of all different ages and styles. If you're really girly, there will be women like that. If you're nerdy, there will be women like that. It's just incredibly welcoming and collaborative and friendly."

And it's a place where companies can recruit female employees.

The subject of women in tech has never drawn as much attention as it has this year. For the past few months, leading tech companies have finally released data showing how far they have to go on the diversity front -- especially for tech-related jobs such as software engineer and computer scientist. Only 17 percent of Google's technologists are women. At Facebook it's 15 percent, and at Twitter it's 10 percent.

Software maker VMWare has never sent anyone to the conference, but plans to send more than 75 employees this year, said Betsy Sutter, the company’s senior vice president of people. Box will send 24 representatives, 13 of whom will be speakers, said Evan Wittenberg, senior vice president of people. Large companies such as Apple, Google and Microsoft send hundreds of people, according to Elizabeth Ames, senior vice president at the Anita Borg Institute.

Other companies are covering the costs to send female computer science students. Web-hosting company GoDaddy, which is based near Phoenix in Scottsdale, will pick up the tab for 70 students from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and 40 more from Harvey Mudd. Each student costs roughly $1,000 to send, said Cal Poly computer science department chair Ignatios Vakalis.

GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving made the commitment earlier this year, during a meeting of Cal Poly's President's Cabinet. When Vakalis mentioned that Apple had sent 35 students to the conference last year, Irving stood up and pledged to double it, said Vakalis.

Irving has two reasons to take a lead role in promoting women in technology. First, he's been trying to undo GoDaddy's reputation for misogyny, earned through years of ads featuring scantily clad women in sports cars.

“To attract technical women from Silicon Valley or Cambridge or San Francisco, we need a different approach," he said. "The founder of the company appreciated diversity internally, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the ads.”

The other reason is personal. His sister Lori, a psychology professor who'd specialized in the effects of body image on women, passed away in 2001.

“My pledge to her before she died was to do everything I could to push forward the role of women in my own field," Irving said. "In our industry, it has absolutely nothing to do with body image. It's about what you can get done."

For the first time, the conference will have a man give a keynote -- Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. But if previous events are any indication, the most memorable part of the gathering will be the dance party held on the last night, according to Ames, of the Anita Borg Institute.

"If you've never danced with thousands of women altogether, it's an experience," she said.

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