A conference meant to provide a space for women and non-binary technologists was overrun by men — and attendees report standing in hours-long lines to talk to recruiters, being shoved and harassed, and watching men jump over escalators to cut in line ahead of other attendees. Conference organizers also said that some attendees lied about their gender when they registered for the event.
The Grace Hopper Celebration, named for the pioneering computer scientist, was hosted by AnitaB.org in Orlando, Florida last week, and “brings the research and career interests of women in computing to the forefront,” according to the website. The conference welcomes all genders, but organizers encourage men to come as allies to women and non-binary technologists. This year, people who were there reported a massive influx of male attendees at the conference, who seemingly behaved like they were in the Hunger Games for computer scientists.
Avni Barman, the founder and CEO of Generation She, a media company for women in business and tech, told me that this year’s conference was much different than the previous years she’s attended. When she went as a college junior in 2017 and again as a senior in 2018, the gathering was crucial to her career, she said.
“I can't speak about the years in between, but it was definitely a huge jarring difference... I was definitely pretty shocked. When I arrived at the conference, I was pretty confused about what was going on,” Barman said. “I had hundreds of girls come running to me basically in tears.”
Data from the National Science Foundation shows that only 20 percent of computer science undergraduate degrees in the U.S. are given to women, and gender representation at tech conferences skews heavily toward men, who represent the majority of both panels and presenters, and attendees.
This year, Barman attended to host a meetup, not to find a job, but still noticed a significant shift in what attendees were getting out of the conference.
The stories she heard from women reflect those being told by attendees on social media: that men (lanyards at the conference include pronouns, and many reported seeing male-presenting attendees with he/him on their nametags) were lining up to talk to recruiters in droves, cutting in front of women in lines, shoving and pushing, and selling interview slots for thousands of dollars.
On a subreddit for computer science majors, a user called BiggusDickusJB posted photos of what seems like crowds of men at the conference, with the title, “Let’s be honest, we’re all doing CS for immigration sponsorship.”
“Yes, this is real,” someone replied. “They trampled over attendees, shoved their way into the recruiter’s booth to wave their resumes in front of their faces, verbally assaulted attendees, and physically pushed and shoved attendees in line.”
“The guys crashed this year,” another replied. “It defeats the entire purpose of a conference for women in tech. We have one event for women in a male dominated field and they took that from us so.. thanks. Great job guys.”
Organizers for the conference addressed the unfolding situation multiple times throughout the four day event. “Yesterday it became clear that there are a far greater number of cisgender men than we anticipated. Simply put, some of you lied about your gender when you registered,” Cullen White, Chief Impact Officer at AnitaB.org, said in a plenary at the conference. “We need male allies. We need men who want to celebrate women, who want to work with and for women. And so we welcome men in this space, but to learn and support and improve,” he said, adding that men have been taking academic tickets and spots in recruiter lines. “So let me be perfectly clear: Stop. Right now, stop.”
“AnitaB.org has never lost sight of the challenges we face,” Amanda Hill-Attkisson, vice president of programs at AnitaB.org, said on stage during the event. “In fact it is the very reason we exist: gender discrimination, racial discrimination, sexual harassment, discounting, interuption, less pay, you name it, we know it and we fight it. Don’t we?” she said, to applause. “But it’s not supposed to happen here. I deeply apologize to those who did not have the experience they expected. Next year we will be much clearer about expectations and very swift in our enforcement, and I promise you we see you, we hear you, we are taking your input forward. Changes will be made.”
GHC offers a limited supply of tickets, and an even more limited number of discounted tickets for students. Some attendees said that the academic-tier tickets were gone before they could order them. “I know a lot of men who took up so many $649 academic spots due to which a lot of women including me had to pay $1299 to attend this conference,” one attendee wrote on LinkedIn, in the comments of one of AnitaB.org’s posts. “We would really appreciate it if there was some kind of system put in place to restrict men from registering through the academic quota at the very least.”
“Accepting payment of ~$1200 from cis men (perhaps to expedite ticket bookings ?) and then telling them that the opportunities aren’t for you appears hypocritical at its core,” a man commented on AnitaB’s post of White’s comments on Linkedin. “I believe that everyone at the organization believed that it was obvious that the conference for women and non-binary technologists was for women and non-binary technologists,” someone replied. “It is the first thing you see when you Google the conference, so it must be a skill issue.”
“I agree that male allies are important. However, the only place I saw men in the conference was the career fair,” someone replied on another LinkedIn post from AnitaB.org addressing the situation. “If you are a man and are coming to a celebration for women please be a part of their celebration. I attended 5 sessions yesterday and did not see a single man in the session.”
Another attendee commented that they had an unpleasant experience at the conference and felt “extremely unsafe” due to men’s behavior. “There were incidents of men pushing against security trying to enter the venue forcefully, men shoving my friend and me in an attempt to cut in line, and men jumping over escalators to rush to the front when the doors to the expo hall opened,” they wrote.
“There were just a lot of men in the comments on anonymous profiles being like, ‘Well Don't hate the player, hate the game,’” Barman said. “Basically proving that they are men, they're not actually non-binary, and that they very much came [to the conference] in an aggressive nature to take space.”
Barman told me that she believes that GHC is a “phenomenal” organization and event, and she’s helped sponsor attendees because she believes in it. More women and non-binary early career technologists couldn’t experience the conference in that way, and many more couldn’t attend at all, because the tickets sold out so quickly or were out of financial reach.
The organizers have been vocal online about their intention to not let a repeat of this year happen at next years’ celebration. Bo Young Lee, AnitaB.org Advisory President, said in a recorded video message that what happened at the conference this year made her angry and sad.
“In the past it has always felt safe and loving and embracing. And this year I must admit I didn’t feel this way,” she said. “And I know that many of you feel this way. Many of you are feeling unsafe physically and psychologically, and you’re feeling unheard. I want you to know that we’re taking this so personally and I’m taking it personally.”
“You can't actually celebrate women without men being part of that conversation,” Barman said. “We can’t actually improve the problem without men showing up as allies. If they're part of the problem, they need part of the conversation.”