The best part of GHC (is not what I expected)

What was my favourite part about the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing event? I’d be interested in what other people would reply to this, and if my answer would be similar to theirs. What it seems like we (/Google in my case) paid for is to hear from dozens of talented, successful, inspirational women; to hear of successful programs in supporting, engaging, and promoting women in STEM; to develop skills such as publishing papers and leading teams. It’s almost as if there in the fine print is ‘you will have tea breaks with cool people’.. and not even in the fine print is ‘you will have an opportunity to meet with kick-ass school girls’. Indeed, just the day before the conference was to start, I came across an out-dated post on the linkedin group mentioning the final call for local volunteers for the GenConnext mentoring program. I contacted them anyway.

And so, as you might be beginning to expect, my favourite moment at GHC2013 wasn’t when I heard from Sheryl Sandberg, or when Google told me I was a good fit for their [x] division. It was when I had chats with high school students. Well, maybe more precisely it was when they came up to me at the end to say goodbye, when they could have easily just left. To make that effort, they either had parents who were particularly pushy about etiquette, or maybe I had made some sort of impact and we had become friends-ish. I wasn’t officially assigned to them or anything – in fact I had two groups of girls that I had met at different meal times. I just ate with them and whatever: learned about their interests, told them my story, and I highlighted how my story is replicable to any field, and shouldn’t be taken on purely face value. I’m not wishing for anyone to become an electrical engineer, unless that is what they want. I just hope that they can recognise that a degree/career is merely a tool for implementing change, and a mechanical engineering degree is as good as a computer science degree is as good as a nursing degree in order to do that.

Anyway, it turns out this isn’t any news to some of them. “My school had an inventors fair when I was in year 4 and since then I’ve known I wanted to be an engineer,” said Elle, grade 12. Well, that’s certainly different to my story, isn’t it..! Probably one of the greatest things I heard that day (and at Grace Hopper, that’s tough!). So, these girls were doing some pretty kick-ass things. They’re in different teams of the Lego League, they’re developing technology-based tools for their siblings with autism, too (and extending it to other children!). We really had great conversations, I think. And maybe that’s the key thing, they were conversations. It wasn’t a talk – they weren’t one of 50 it was directed at. It was lunch, and we were five, and we were joking around, and it was totally ideal, in my mind. They didn’t raise their hands, they didn’t even really “ask questions” they just participated in a dialogue about what I’m doing, what they’re doing, like friends, like normal people having a conversation..

And so now I wonder, how can the typical classroom careers talk be turned into something else. How can it be turned into a lunchtime chat session? Would that ever even be legal..? Could an opt-in lunchtime in-school group-based mentoring program ever work???

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