What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

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My name is Kit and I’m a 5th year PhD student at the Computing Science department of the UofA. 2013 was my first year at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing and my supervisor, Mike Bowling, was so awesome to fund my trip.

My impressions of GHC 2013 can’t be summed up in a coherent little paragraph but I’ll try my best to sew up my thoughts into this one question that was posed by Sheryl Sandberg at the keynote conversation between her, Maria Klawe, and Telle Whitney (jump to minute 00:38:00):

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” allows one to question past and present motivations in the safe space of one’s imagination and it can be applied to both big life-altering decisions and small of-the-minute decisions:

I would push through the work to graduate.
I would write more.
I would ask the department to send students and faculty to Grace Hopper every year.
I would do the last move on the climbing route I never seem to finish.
I would put on an electronics+art exhibition.

I imagined starting a business one day.

The last idea had never even occurred to me until that moment. I had always assumed I’d go find a big established company and interview for a job after graduation. And I still might, but at least now I’ve opened up another option to consider.

At the same keynote conversation, Sandberg used an analogy of a marathon to describe the messages that men and women receive while pursuing their careers (jump to minute 01:00:30).

Think about a career as a marathon. You know, men and women get to the starting line equally fit and trained and ready to start the run….The gun goes off. People start running. What voices do the men hear? You know they are running along. You’ve got this! Keep Going! Great start! What are the women hearing from day one? Are you sure it makes sense to start a race you may not finish? Do you want to go into a field where everyone is a man? Is this for you? Don’t you want kids one day?

Then she asked:

How many men who are here, who are in the workforce, have been asked, “Should you be working?” Go ahead raise your hand.

Nobody. And yet so many women have been asked some form of the question, “Should you be working?”

It’s wearying to think about those slights – the time when someone said “Most women aren’t like Sheryl. She’s really competent. Most women can’t do what she does” (jump to minute 00:53:00). But I could feel how the additive effect of those slights made me feel embarrassed, less of an “expert”, less likely to ask people for advice or for help, and less likely to help and engage others. Probably one of the most powerful things at Grace Hopper is seeing a room full of female computing science students and faculty all together. To me, it felt as though we had collectively decided to drop the armor we forgot we were wearing.

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