Celebrating Women in Computing in Your Region

If you are interested in gender equality in computing, you may have heard of the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC). This event is held yearly in the US, gathering women – and some men – not only from all over the US but also from many other countries. The original first edition, in 1994, had 500 attendees; the 2016 edition: 15000. It is not surprising, then, that there is significant research studying the impact of this conference.

Gloria Townsend, professor of Computer Science at DePauw University, saw the powerful impact that this celebration was having on women in computing. So she decided to contribute in her area. I would need another blog post just to begin to explain Gloria’s contributions to the initiatives of ACM-W, the Council on Women of the Association for Computing Machinery. In here, I’ll be focusing on her ideation and subsequent study of celebrations of women in computing targeted at different regions. In other words, what we today call the ACM Celebrations of Women in Computing.

These events are often referred to as regionals, as they are celebrations of Women in Computing (WiC) held in one particular area. It is common that one university – or, to be more precise, one school of a computing-related field – hosts the event, and invitations are open to students in that geographical area, regardless of their affiliation. The number of attendees ranges from 50 to 300. Nowadays, we count with celebrations where professionals and students mingle and present their work, sometimes using languages other than English. This is particularly attractive in Europe, where events in Greek, Spanish, and Azerbaijani (to name a few) celebrate not only the work of women in different European countries but also the richness of the variety of cultures in the continent.

The ACM Celebration in Spain, “Informatics For All”, was held in Spanish

But language is not the only advantage of a regional celebration. Gloria Townsend presented a paper at IEEE Frontiers in Education 2016 where she explained the importance of WiC celebrations, and this included a reflection on traveling. Back in 2004 when Gloria was ideating CICWIC (Central Indiana Celebration of Women in Computing, now the Indiana Celebration of Women in Computing or InWIC), she quickly realized that not all women can afford to go to a different state (let alone a different country) to attend this kind of event. Think not only of the costs of the trip but on other less obvious aspects, such as missing class. With celebrations having such a positive impact, it seemed indeed like a shame not to have them more accessible to as many people as possible! So CICWIC was organized for a weekend, with students starting to head towards the venue once their Friday classes were over. ACM Celebrations are now held around the world following a similar model.

Regional celebrations provide plenty of opportunities to network, something that the attendees constantly express is the one of the best things about these events. They can also be stepping stones, giving women a platform to showcase their work and adapt it to bigger events by using the feedback received. One clear example of this is the Azerbaijani case. Their celebration with the theme of Ada Lovelace’s bicentenary included support for the students to work on a poster. With the feedback provided, they could resubmit this work to womENcourage, the European wide ACM Celebration of WiC, thus improving their chances of being accepted. Many celebrations offer scholarships or some sort of funding support for students to be able to attend the event.

Scholarship recipients at womENcourage 2014

Gloria Townsend presented 4 promising practices to broad participation in computing: intentional role modeling, mentoring, building community (the networking mentioned above), and providing accurate career information. The paper goes on to describing the impact of the ACM Celebrations of Women in Computing on the attendees, comparing them to the numbers that can be found about GHC. It is the first paper where comparisons of pre- and post- conference surveys are shown, and scores are similar or higher than the ones for GHC.

Gloria Townsend presenting at Frontiers in Education 2016

Given the body of research showing the positive effects of attending GHC, this paper shows that ACM Celebrations are equally or more beneficial for the students. Besides women increasing their intentions to find mentors (or having found them already at the celebration), there was a large difference in the feelings of isolation (from 74% to 56% of the women reported this feeling). See the reference below to access the paper and read more results and conclusions. In this last section of the paper the authors give recommendations that are interesting for both faculty and students!

Nowadays many institutions around the globe are desperately looking for strategies to broaden participation in computing and improve retention. Gloria Townsend and Kay Sloan’s paper gives them proof of one strategy that leads to improvement in this area: encouraging and supporting students to attend regional celebrations of WiC.

If you are interested in organizing an ACM celebration of WiC in your area, you can find more information here. These events are supported by ACM-W and Microsoft Research with up to 6000 USD. Part of my volunteering for the organization is chairing the ACM-W Europe working group on regional celebrations in the continent, so feel very free to contact me about your idea!

The paper mentioned in this post is:

Gloria Townsend, Kay Sloan (2016). Pre- to Post-Conference Differences: Celebrations of Women in Computing. IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference 2016, Pennsylvania, USA.

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