A colorful host of pink shirts, white balloons, and blue-clad Google recruiters greeted students as they entered Maxwell Dworkin Saturday morning to register for “WECode,” a conference launched this year by Harvard’s Women in Computer Science.
Saturday’s activities, which included speeches and workshops on coding, took place in rooms in the Science Center, Maxwell Dworkin, and the Northwest Science Building. Women from 40 colleges and universities were in attendance, according to WECode’s chief organizer JN Fang ’16.
Fang said that she initially thought of organizing a coding conference for women after reading “Lean In,” a book by Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl K. Sandberg ’91 that encourages women to pursue their ambitions, in spite of the challenges facing them.
“It was not so much the material or the statistics of the book that surprised me,” Fang said. “It frustrated me that there had to be a book…there had to be this prominent COO to speak in order for this to be a public issue that people would talk about.”
Fang, who had already been involved with Women in Computer Science, proposed the idea to her colleagues.
“We had only about four or five months to prepare, so we were in a rush to begin with,” she said.
Although representatives from several private-sector companies were in attendance, Fang said that recruitment was not the primary purpose of the conference.
“This was created for one purpose, and that is to create community,” Fang said. “It is for that reason that we don’t have a job fair here.”
Rebecca Parsons, chief technology officer at the software development company ThoughtWorks, gave an inaugural keynote address Saturday morning. Parsons spoke of her experience in industry and of the hurdles that women still face in engineering fields.
Mohana P. Ramachandran, a graduate student in software engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology, attended the conference and said she found Parsons' speech "so inspiring." Ramachandran, who is originally from the Tamil Nadu state in India, also said she empathizes with many of Parsons’ feelings.
“In India, women in engineering are extremely underrepresented…. It is much harder for women to achieve roles of responsibility,” Ramachandran said. “We have to push ourselves, keep going forward.”
Kimberly Lockhart of cloud storage company Box and Goldman Sachs partner Marie L. Kirk gave two additional keynote speeches Saturday afternoon.
Fang, who worked at a company producing medical technologies in India last summer, also said that her experience with gender disparities abroad shaped her vision for the conference.
“Being in India specifically exposed me to a lot of the issues that women were facing there,” Fang said.
The conference continued through Sunday, when a hackathon took place at Harvard’s iLab in Allston.
Marcella Hastings, an undergraduate student in computer science at Tufts University, said that she appreciated her experience at the conference.
“[The organizers] did a great job, and I’m happy to be a part of it,” Hastings said.
—Staff writer Antonio Coppola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AntonioCoppolaC.