When 28 University of Vermont students traveled to Houston, Texas, for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing— the world’s largest gathering of women technologists—they found job and internship opportunities, made new connections with their classmates, and had the opportunity to meet inspiring female leaders in the field. They also heard a call to action, a fitting tribute to the event’s namesake, Admiral Grace Hopper, a pioneering computer scientist from the World War II era.

Said one student of the October event: “I feel like one of the most important things I took away from this conference was learning that I have the power to do more. Seeing all of these accomplished women in tech made me realize I can dream bigger than I thought I could.”

As chair of UVM’s Department of Computer Science, this is music to Professor Maggie Eppstein’s ears. Data from the National Center for Women in Technology point to a trend we aim to reverse: In 1985, 37 percent of undergraduate computer science degree recipients were women. In 2012, that number was 18 percent. Fortunately there is plenty of demand if we can generate additional graduates. By 2022, there will be roughly 1.2 million computing-related jobs available in the United States, and universities currently are graduating about 39 percent of the professionals needed to fill them.

This field provides a great opportunity for women to get well-paying and rewarding careers. Both the field and the economy could benefit from higher participation of women. “More diverse teams have been shown to be more creative and productive,” says Eppstein. “And we need software developers who are as diverse as the software users are, in order to have designs that better meet the needs of these users.”

Attending the Grace Hopper celebration helps students better understand these opportunities, says Eppstein, and they come away with renewed confidence and purpose in the face of what may sometimes seem like a barrage of news reports about a technology work culture that is not welcoming to women and minorities.
“I hear many students talk about how empowering it was, and it reaffirms their commitment to the field,” she says. “It makes them feel like they’re not alone.” Students also make connections with potential employers; the event features a career fair with more than 200 booths representing major companies like Google, Apple, and IBM, as well as smaller start-ups. Eppstein said most UVM students had at least one interview, and one student had ten interviews during the event. Several walked away with offers for jobs or internships. This year, the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences was a sponsor for the conference, allowing access to the resume database and a booth to recruit women for graduate programs and faculty positions in computer science and complex systems.

For the past two years, students have attended the event free of charge thanks to BRAID funding from Facebook, Google, Intel and Microsoft. BRAID, which stands for Building Recruiting and Inclusion for Diversity, is administered by the Anita Borg Institute (which runs the Grace Hopper Conference), and was the brain child of Dr. Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College. UVM’s computer science department is one of only 15 BRAID-supported programs nationwide.