Taking their seat at the table

Jordan Ford
October 19, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — “Women are the future of technology, and I do not need to change myself to fit into the tech industry.”

That was Kathyleen O’Leary’s main takeaway after spending three days at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. O’Leary was one of 12 Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology students who attended the conference in Houston from Sept. 26-28.

Students were supported with travel funds from the College of IST, the University Park Allocation Committee, and corporate sponsors including PwC, KPMG, EY, and Textron to attend the conference.

The conference — the world’s largest gathering of women technologists — brought together more than 20,000 attendees for a series of keynote talks, presentations, workshops and networking sessions. Like O’Leary, the IST students left inspired and with the confirmation that they belong in the tech field — and anywhere else their careers may take them.

“The conference gave me more confidence in myself and what I am studying.”

— Isabella Webster, Penn State IST junior in security and risk analysis and economics

“The conference gave me more confidence in myself and what I am studying,” said Isabella Webster, a junior majoring in security and risk analysis and economics. “I am more confident talking about what I have accomplished and don't feel as though I am bragging simply by talking about what I've done. I know I have earned the positions that I am in.”

Before the event, the IST students met weekly to refine their resumes, identify companies they wanted to connect with, and practice their 30-second pitches that would help them stand out from the crowd. Overcoming imposter syndrome — where someone doubts their own accomplishments and value — and feeling like they belong were regular talking points as the students prepared for the conference.

That preparation paid off as the students had plenty of opportunities to sell themselves, both in formal networking sessions and career fairs and in coincidental interactions.

“The trip brought me out of my comfort zone, socially and intellectually,” said Vivian Shao, a sophomore majoring in data sciences. “It was great to be able to connect with so many other girls from Penn State with similar interests. I also met so many successful women through the conference from across the world, whether it be on the shuttle bus to the convention center, waiting in line for a session, or even doing homework in the hotel lobby.”

Those connections allowed the IST students to learn from other women who’ve already had success in the field, and turn them into professional opportunities. In fact, six of the students returned to campus with an internship or full-time job offer, with several others preparing for upcoming interviews.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic and Statistics Administration’s Women in STEM 2017 Update, women make up 47 percent of the U.S. workforce but hold only 24 percent of the nation’s STEM jobs.

Rita Griffith, the assistant director of student professional development in IST’s Office of Career Solutions and Corporate Engagement, who coordinates the annual trip, said the Grace Hopper Celebration serves as a reminder that even though women have been traditionally outnumbered in the technology industry, their knowledge is no less valuable and their accomplishments are no less worthy of celebration than anyone else’s.

“You are here for a reason,” said Griffith at one of the group’s preparatory meetings. “Don’t minimize yourself physically, mentally or emotionally. Speak up and make sure you’re taking your seat at the table!”

That sentiment was echoed throughout the conference, including in the remarks from keynote speaker Jessica O. Matthews, founder and CEO of Uncharted Power, an energy and data technology company that develops infrastructure solutions for communities, facilities, and Internet of Things.

GHC 2- MacDowell and Matthews

Bailey MacDowell (left), a junior majoring in security and risk analysis, with Jessica O. Matthews, keynote speaker at the 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. "She was filled with hope and encouragement, and we were all inspired by her energy, innovation and optimism," MacDowell said of Matthews. 

IMAGE: Bailey MacDowell

“Many of the keynote speakers emphasized to never wait for someone to give you an opportunity. You should always open the door for yourself,” said Maria George, a junior majoring in information sciences and technology and security and risk analysis. “Ms. Matthews stated that ‘Being underestimated is the best thing that ever happened to me,’ and it made me realize that being underestimated is something that women in tech should take advantage of.”

Bailey MacDowell, a junior majoring in security and risk analysis, agreed with the importance of Matthews’ message.

“She led with the words ‘How did I get here?’ This question came across as a sincere expression of her progression from student to business leader,” said MacDowell. “I had the chance to speak one-on-one with her later that afternoon, and we discussed the multitude of possibilities within the field. She was filled with hope and encouragement, and we were all inspired by her energy, innovation and optimism.”

No matter which breakout sessions they attended or who they spoke to, the students have since returned to campus with feelings of imposter syndrome in their rearview mirrors.

“It was refreshing and empowering to feel that I belonged among this group of powerful and hardworking women,” said MacDowell. “As members of a community that rarely has the chance to unite, individuals truly embraced each other. The community felt welcoming and energized, ready to take on whatever challenges came next.”

"Being in the auditorium during the keynote speech and turning around to see the entire place filled with women from around the world was such a surreal experience for me,” Shao concluded. “It made me even prouder to be a woman in technology.”

Last Updated October 25, 2018