2023 convention filled with people

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‘They muscled in and gloated’: Aggressive, desperate men accused of overrunning tech conference for women and nonbinary people

 

Leqi Zhong

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Agnes Lu was furious on her first day at the Grace Hopper Celebration. Men cut in line in front of she and her friends and they kept getting bumped into by swaggering men.

“They muscled in and gloated that they arrived late but still seized the place, saying it’s unnecessary to come in so early,” Lu, a Northeastern University graduate student majoring in computer science, told the Daily Dot. “We were so surprised to see this many men at an event for women and nonbinary groups, we stared at them, and they whispered to stay down and pretended they weren’t being noticed.”

Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) is the world’s largest gathering of women and nonbinary tech professionals. Its goal is to improve inclusivity and equity in the tech industry. This year the event has been mired in controversy over complaints that cisgender men overran the conference. Some men have argued that the event unfairly discriminated against them by gender.

GHC featured a series of speeches, panels, networking opportunities, as well as a career fair, where attendees could schedule one-on-one meetings with recruiters, submit resumes, secure interviews and even internships and job offers. More than 170 corporations, including major tech firms such as Amazon, Google, and Apple, along with dozens of nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies, participated in the career fair, according to the GHC 2023 website.

The event, which was held in Orlando, Florida, was packed with people who paid between $700 and $1,300 to attend. According to the venue’s website, there were nearly 26,000 registered attendees.

Viral videos showed a steady stream of people in line; job seekers reportedly began lining up at 5am local time although the entrance didn’t open until 9am. Social media posts claim that within five minutes of the event’s start, they received notice that all the interview spots were full for some giant tech companies.

Female and nonbinary participants complained to AnitaB.org, which organizes GHC. Posts on LinkedIn and other platforms say that men crashed the conference, shoved their way to the front of lines, were unwilling to be women’s allies, and even harassed women by taking pictures of their lower bodies.

“This was the worst it has ever been,” MaryAnne Egan, a professor of computer science at Siena College who has been urging her female students to attend GHC since 2007, told the Daily Dot. “I don’t know if I’m going to bring them [next year] because it wasn’t worth it.”

Crowded, anxious and frustrated

“I started hearing questions and comments about students getting pushed around, my blood was boiling, especially because I had to beg the money from the school and alums because the academic registration ran out within minutes and I had to pay full price,” Egan said.

Siena College is a small liberal arts college that usually graduates 30-40 students per year, only a few of whom are female. Egan said the most students she’s ever taken to GHC was nine, in 2013. That year she recalled only seeing two male attendees at GHC. Their gender made them so conspicuous, she said, that attendees gave them nicknames.

This year, Egan brought three students, hoping they would meet other women in tech, learn about the latest technology, and “ask questions and not feel stupid like most of them feel in the classroom,” she said.

But the experience was horrible, said Egan. Rather than getting the one-on-one time she’d envisioned, after standing in line for hours, recruiters simply asked job seekers to scan QR codes to submit applications.

“That’s all! Women would think, okay, that’s all they want,” Egan continued. “But then if you watched the men, they weren’t taking that as an answer, they would stand there and just keep hounding these recruiters, asking questions, and it was just really frustrating that these guys were muscling in and taking the recruiters’ time.”

In Body Image
MaryAnne Egan

Val Jara, a Tiktok creator who plans to become a software engineer when she graduates in the spring, told the Daily Dot that she attended GHC to shoot videos and network. It was not quite what she expected.

“The first morning was exciting and it started to fill up a lot, and then more and more, and suddenly the levels of crowds that I think could have come very close to a stampede level, so I started getting quite scared,” said Jara.

“While I noticed all of that going on, I saw a very large amount of guys, and their badges have he/him pronouns so I was very certain that they were not part of the target demographic for this conference.”

Jara said she attended a lot of panel discussions and networking events and found the experience valuable. Both Jara and Egan said they did not see men join sessions, demonstrate willingness to interact with others, or learn from women and nonbinary people.

“They are just there to take, not having a true exchange, it was just a career expo,” said Jara. She said the men seemed desperate. She eventually stepped away from the career fair because it was causing her a lot of anxiety.

“Whenever there were recruiters in the hallway, there were a lot of people surrounding that single recruiter and not even saying hi, just throwing their resumes, like they were mailboxes,” Jara recalled.

Egan said none of her students were offered one-on-one meetings with recruiters. Only one student was granted an interview, which was with the Navy’s nuclear division. Egan explained that government jobs are not as popular as tech company jobs because public sector salaries are significantly lower than what you can make in the private sector.

She was also frustrated that her students missed out on networking opportunities after hours because the event ran out of academic registrations, which cost $700, and they had to pay the full price of $1,300. The extra cost meant that they couldn’t afford hotels and ended up staying with relatives.

Egan was also surprised by the conduct of at least one male attendee.

“I was having breakfast with a recruiter and one of these guys came up and said ‘Oh I’m sorry to bother you, when did you say I’m going to find out about an interview? Should I stop by again?’ he just kept going for five minutes, and she was trying to be as polite as she could, he was like this close to her,” said Egan over a Zoom interview, using her hands to mark how close he was to the recruiter.

“I have never seen any student do that to a recruiter while they were trying to eat their lunch or breakfast.”

Paying $1,300 to get a job

People who attended GHC this year acknowledged that the scarcity of tech jobs may have caused at least some of the men to attend a conference that’s intended for women and nonbinary people.

“We have a tough job market right now, and people are flooded to places where opportunities exist. I know that Carnegie Mellon University’s career fair was also wild with huge lines,” said Anqi Lin, a computer science master’s student at Northeastern University. Lin worked as a product manager for three years at NetEase before coming to the U.S. for graduate studies.

“The chaos is the reflection of the market,” Lin added.

Attendees say the cutthroat competition began from the moment attendees bought tickets and uploaded their resumes. Lin said the darkest time for her was two to three weeks before the event when she saw recruiters contacting her peers to set up interviews. She didn’t get any calls and came to expect little from GHC. Lin said she does empathize with men who were also desperate to get hired, because it is difficult for everyone to find jobs, including them.

Nonetheless, she was shocked by the crowds at the job fair and was angry to see male attendees complaining online after they took advantage of a conference that is intended to benefit women and nonbinary people.

“I don’t think men should be entirely banned from the event, but I do think there should be more efforts to have them learn from women and not have them just be there to go to the career fair,” said Jara. “Like to gain something from it and share something back, but I guess those people did not understand what the conference was about.”

In Body Image
MaryAnne Egan

Attendees told the Daily Dot that starting on the third day of the event, they saw more security and even sheriff’s deputies on site. They said that the conference went more smoothly than it had the first two days.

Some men who attended simply saw GHC as an opportunity.

Nikunj Malpani is a recent graduate of Indiana University Bloomington’s data science program. He works as a biostatistician at a nonprofit hospital that doesn’t provide visa sponsorships to foreigners like himself. Malpani puts some of the blame on GHC itself.

“As a person, you think about yourself first, like whether you have a job or not, so I think the way that GHC marketing itself [as a career fair] is wrong,” said Malpani. “They were selling tickets for $1,300, frankly, what are people expecting putting on the dollars? They are going for a purpose.”

Malpani said he started looking for a full-time job last August after a job offer was withdrawn. He applied for more than 2,500 jobs and got seven or eight interviews. Malpani told the Daily Dot that he nevertheless feels lucky; many of his friends are still unemployed or have had to take unpaid jobs or help professors in order to maintain their visa status.

“If you talk to any international students about how many jobs have you applied for, everyone would say 3,000, or even 6,000,” said Malpani.

Malpani said he believes that his resume is decent, as he worked as a business analyst in India for a year and had an internship with Amazon last year. Even with this much experience, he’s struggled to find the type of job he’s looking for. He said he attended GHC for the networking opportunities and didn’t expect to get hired.

“I faced discrimination from three or four different companies, they said they were not interested in talking to men,” said Malpani. He was particularly saddened to be turned away because he has been targeting these specific companies for years and didn’t attend with the expectation of getting hired.

“I told them upfront that I’m not here for the job, I recently joined a company and I’m very happy working there, but I’m just here to make future connections.”

Malpani said his goal was to establish contacts with 16 to 20 recruiters from major companies such as Tesla, Google, and Apple, and that he hoped the market would be warmer in a year or two. He ended up talking to roughly 10 companies.

“I don’t even call those successful connections. They would say, ‘We are doing this for everyone, you can apply with this QR code and we’ll contact you’, that’s it,” said Malpani. “But yeah, I understand that the conference is mostly for women so I didn’t take it to heart.”

Malpani said he had no intention of stealing opportunities from women and nonbinary people at GHC. Before coming to the U.S., Malpani spent several months working for a non-governmental organization in India that promotes girls’ education where he volunteered to teach math and English.

“I was intimidated by a few of the recruiters. It’s okay, I understand that, but again, for compliance policy, you can’t do that, it puts your company at risk. If I were someone who wanted to fight with you or fight with your organization, I would file a lawsuit, right?” Malpani said.

Petitions and fights

Some men have taken their grievance a step further. They’ve written letters to the organizer, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and even the White House to complain that GHC discriminates against cisgender men.

An anonymous post circulating on 1point3acres.com, a popular Chinese online forum to discuss tech jobs and coding tests and thus dominated by male Chinese tech workers overseas, claimed that the job posting and GHC’s promotional materials “suggest a preference for female applicants.” Thus, they claim, “certain interview questions and interactions may have been biased against heterosexual males, implying that their gender identity is a disadvantage.”

“As a straight man, I oppose taking gender into consideration in hiring. I was discriminated against because of my gender, so I drafted this email and hope more can join us to petition to the EEOC,” reads another comment.

Both posts had over 12,000 views and over a hundred comments. Some commenters criticized diversity hiring, arguing that it lowers standards and could hurt the industry as a whole.

“All I ask for is fair play, the same interview questions, and coding tests for everyone regardless of gender, color, nationality, sex orientation, etc. With the fixed and even decreasing headcounts, the hiring on GHC is at the expense of taking away spots in other categories. It’s obviously biased saying ‘men going to GHC are taking jobs from women,’” one person said.

In Body Image
MaryAnne Egan

They did not respond to a request for comment from the Daily Dot.

The night GHC concluded, Agnes Lu, the student who said she experienced confrontations with men at GHC, launched a Change.org petition asking the organizers to strictly prohibit men from participating in future events and demanding full refunds. The petition claims that the event failed to fulfill its purpose to provide opportunities for women and nonbinary people.

“GHC (2023) is named after our pioneering female programmers, who have paved the way for gender equality within the tech industry. This event was established with the intention of empowering women by creating a safe space where they can connect, learn, and thrive. However, by allowing men to participate, GHC fails to uphold its own mission,” the petition said. A cached version shows that more than 2,500 people signed it before it was taken down by Change.org.

“I was told it involved ‘hate speech,’” Lu said. “I had a second think and realized maybe I shouldn’t make it as extreme as to ‘prohibit all men.’” She redrafted the petition to soften the language. The new version has 1,200 signatures as of this writing.

Lu said she was called out on 1point3acres.com and some men hounded her on LinkedIn, mocking her for not having solid tech skills and experience to secure a tech job in a “fair competition.” Lu has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in philosophy and anthropology. She said her studies have imparted logical thinking and research skills and that she doesn’t find computer science intimidating.

AnitaB.org didn’t respond to the petition or a comment request from the Daily Dot.

On the second day of the event, AnitaB.org released a statement addressing the complaints about men hijacking GHC.

“We are committed to providing a celebratory space for women and non-binary technologists and we hear your concerns around male participation,” AnitaB.org wrote on LinkedIn. “In regard to calls for AnitaB.org to ban males from attending GHC, federal non-discrimination requirements prohibit any U.S.-based organization from discriminating based on gender. Not only must we comply with federal law, we also believe in the power of providing an inclusive space.”

More than 100 comments, mostly from women and their allies, expressed disappointment that the organization wasn’t doing enough to ensure that women and nonbinary people had a safe space to share, learn, and develop professionally.

A video circulating online shows Cullen White, the chief impact officer of AnitaB.org, addressing the crowd at GHC to ask the men present to stop their inappropriate behavior and give space and opportunities to women and nonbinary people. The crowd reacted by erupting into applause and cheers.

Nandita Gupta, accessibility product manager at Microsoft, has attended GHC since 2015, but wasn’t able to attend this year due to a scheduling conflict.

“When I close my eyes, I can go back with my cohort of GHC scholars sitting at the front rows listening to Sheryl Sandberg talk about feminists and sisters. I feel so validated and I am strong with my other women behind me who all feel the same way,” said Gupta. That energy kept her coming back year after year.

After learning about female and non-binary attendees’ concerns about assault, insecurity, and safe space violations, she offered one-on-one meetings for students who didn’t have a full experience at the event.

Like many, Gupta highlighted that GHC exists because of the scarcity of women and nonbinary people in tech. She said that the industry needs male allies who are willing to work for and with women, and make sure their voices are elevated. Gupta recalled being one of only four women among hundreds of men at an international industry conference in 2018.

“I had this one guy who was so persistent, kept asking me out for coffee though I repeatedly said no, and followed me around to every session I went to. I remember running from my hotel room to the elevator and making sure that I was not being followed,” said Gupta.

“Oh my god, GHC, you wouldn’t become like this, I hope not.”

Correction Oct. 6, 2023: This post originally misspelled Agnes Lu’s name.

 
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