By Sarah Scully
Facebook bigwig Sheryl Sandberg implored the thousands gathered Thursday in Houston to “stay in tech,” bemoaning the fact that more women don’t pursue technology careers and offering guidance to help women vault into leadership roles.
Her final message for the crowd of 12,000, mostly women, at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference this week at the George R. Brown Convention Center downtown: “Stay in for the women who follow you. Stay in for my 8-year-old daughter.”
Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and author of “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” talked about practicing confidence and assertiveness.
“Confidence and leadership, these are muscles. You learn to do it,” she said, encouraging “small acts of assertiveness.”
The attendees, who came to conference from across the globe, were there to hire, network, find jobs and promote women in fields where their numbers come up the shortest. Computer scientists Anita Borg and Telle Whitney founded the conference in 1994 in the name of Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, a renowned computer scientist who worked on an early computer prototype during World War II among other contributions at a time when women in the field were scarce.
The conference moves each year, but this year organizers chose Houston for its central location and accommodations for 12,000.
Discussion sessions during the three-day conference ranged from technical skills and problem solving, to helping women present themselves more confidently and a guide to surviving maternity leave.
Mayor Annise Parker attended the conference’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) lunch on Thursday.
Outside of The Confidence Conundrum session on Thursday, women lined up down the hallway hoping to get into the full room.
Panelists and the audience discussed being called aggressive at work and balancing their natural tendencies with the assertiveness and language required in a male-dominated workplace.
“Our society has a lot of messages for women from when we’re very young to put our hands down and be quiet,” Sandberg said later. We have to stop calling little girls bossy, she said.
“We don’t call little boys bossy because we expect them to lead.”
The Anita Borg Institute, which hosts the conference, reported that in technical fields the number of women drops by half from entry-level to the executive level. In 2011, women made up 26 percent of the science, technology, engineering and math workforce. Several women in discussion sessions mentioned being the only woman on a team at work. But the number of people at the conference doubled from last year’s event in Phoenix.
In the Houston area, there were about 46,000 women in computer, engineering and science jobs, versus 160,000 men, according to 2014 census data.
Maria Briceno, a senior at the University of Houston, said the school is slowly gaining more women in its undergraduate program. Just a few years ago most undergraduate graduating classes had no female computer science majors, she said. Now most of her classes have three or four women.
In workshops during the conference she found herself offering her input more and encouraged to do so.
“I think this conference really pushes you to speak out and be more confident,” she said.
Companies from Facebook and Google to Macy’s, Wal-Mart and Bank of America were on hand Thursday recruiting women for jobs in technology. Now most companies need employees with skills in coding and technology, not just ones that label themselves as tech companies.
“Every company that was once a retailer or finance company is now a technology company,” said Rachelli Materum, director of talent acquisition for Macy’s.
Last year, the company hired 15 people from the conference. Materum said it’s important for Macy’s to recruit here because they’re up against technology giants and people with skills like coding don’t always look to other places for those jobs.
At Macys.com, based in San Francisco, 26 percent of the engineers are women, she said. For Macy’s it’s particularly important to have a female perspective, she said.
“Our core customer is a woman, so to have a woman’s perspective reflected in developing (the website and apps), it’s really important,” Materum said.
Calle Carter, a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College, was interviewing for several internships at the conference.
“We’re exposed to a lot more opportunities for computer science than we would at school,” she said.
Avni Baveja was hired at technology company Cisco after attending the 2008 conference. This week she was back at the much larger event with about 300 female coworkers. She said having women at the company helps Cisco recruit and retain more talented women.
She also noted that many more men attended this year than in 2008.
“When you talk to the younger women and students, you feel like your being here makes a difference for them,” Baveja said.