Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Why Patty's Glad She Went to GHC

Our Anita Borg Institute e-newsletter has been publishing a series of responses to our call for Why I'm Glad I Went to GHC stories. This thoughtful response from Patty L is a great illustration of how the Grace Hopper Celebration can impact a career — and a life. Here's Patty's story, in its entirety. — bj

Attending GHC in 2006 pulled together all of my passions: a love of technology, a desire to address isolation and plateau challenges at work, and a desire to work on the K-12 pipeline issues for women and minorities. It was marvelous to be in such a large community of intelligent and talented women from all over the world. You could talk about anything – work, home, technical, non-technical, family, pets, hobbies, outreach -- whatever was on your mind or in your heart. The sessions mirrored the conversations – professional development, work/life balance, technology, panels, outstanding keynotes. It was inspiring to attend an awards ceremony that recognized women who have paved the way, despite innumerable roadblocks and hardships.

A “Birds of a Feather” session that was focused on Latinas in Engineering caught my eye. There I found a community of women with whom I could identify and share challenges unique to my culture, ethnicity, and values. The session organizers were Gilda Garreton (Sun Microsystems) Dilma da Silva (IBM TJ Watson Research Center), and Cecilia Aragon (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory). In that session, Latinas in Computing was formed, along with other contributing members Raquel Romano (Google) and Claris Castillo (IBM), and me. Latinas in Computing has since grown to include many more active members, and we have worked on numerous panel and workshop sessions every year at GHC and elsewhere to grow and support the technical Latina community. We host a Latinas in Computing luncheon every year at GHC for anyone who wants to attend. We’ve received invaluable support from the Anita Borg Institute and from other generous corporate sponsors.

Every year I come back from GHC energized, motivated, and focused. The realization of why hit me after my first conference – I remembered an article by Deborah Tannen. She distinguished between male and female conversational rituals – girls tend to learn rituals that focus on rapport, while boys tend to learn rituals that focus on status. At the typically male-dominated technical conferences I had attended in the past, it required thoughtful, concerted effort to interact with male peers (most of whom I’d never met before) -- at every meal, every session, and every breakout I felt like I was always “on”, inadvertently focusing on the status dimension. It was exhausting! I came home drained and deflated. At one conference in particular, I was pregnant with twins and literally stuck out like a sore thumb – which reinforced a deep-seated fear that l didn’t really belong in technology. The key reason I attend year after year is because the GHC community is inviting, intelligent, inclusive, and supportive. Sessions and conversations with other attendees at GHC helped me understand that I could enjoy being a technologist and a woman, a mentor and a protégé, a mother, a syster, a Latina, and a friend – I could just be myself.

Stepping outside my work environment and into the GHC community made me realize that I needed to move on professionally, and gave me the skills and support to make a successful job transition. Starting over was the hardest thing I’ve ever done – leaving the expertise, security, and network I spent almost two decades building. To try something new was incredibly empowering - it won’t be nearly as hard to do the next time. I now have a supportive community to draw from, and I was able to quickly rebuild a new network. I learned a lot about myself in the process, and started my new job with a clean slate and a fresh perspective.

There’s still so much work be done to level the playing field for women and minorities of all ages, we need “all hands on deck” to make inroads over the next decade. At GHC 2007, I was compelled to bring my own middle-school-aged daughter, in an attempt to keep her interest in science and technology alive (OK, I bribed her with a few days at Disney World!). 2009 will mark her third GHC conference. I hope she will look back on these formative years as pivotal in deciding who she wanted to be and what she wanted to accomplish with her life. I want her to have what I lacked through most of my academic education: to find role models she can relate to for inspiration and mentorship, to learn to navigate her own path at her own pace, to learn how to build her own community, and to be fearless to pursue her dreams.

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