Thousands of women and nonbinary individuals are requesting refunds following an expensive tech conference overrun by cisgender men who allegedly engaged in “sexual harassment, physical altercations and inappropriate behavior,” according to an online petition.
This year’s Grace Hopper Celebration, described as the largest gathering of women and nonbinary technologists in the world, took place in late September in Orlando, Florida. The event is intended for those who have been traditionally underserved in the tech community, offering a career expo and opportunities to meet one-on-one with companies and employers.
The event was quickly met with a backlash, however, after numerous attendees brought to light their indignation about the number of men who attended and seemingly used the conference not to boost minorities in the field but to propel their careers. That included skipping various sessions dedicated to female empowerment, for example, and instead handing out résumés.
Agnes Lu, a member of the tech industry who is working on her second master’s degree at Northeastern University in Boston, paid the student fee of $649 to attend the conference for the first time.
She told Newsweek she was among the first of the attendees to publicly chastise event organizer AnitaB.org, writing in a LinkedIn post that she was “deeply disappointed” by the experience. The post was “liked” hundreds of times and shared by dozens.
“I had been eagerly anticipating this event ever since I transitioned into computer science, viewing it as a valuable opportunity to connect with fellow female engineers and offer support within the male-dominated tech industry,” Lu wrote. “However, since my flight to Orlando yesterday, I’ve noticed a significant number of male participants at the event.
She went on: “GHC (2023), named after [a] pioneering female programmer [Grace Hopper], promotes itself as an event for women and nonbinary individuals in the technology field. Despite this, there is a noticeable presence of men at the event. It is disheartening that women continue to invest a considerable amount of money to attend an event that seems to fall short of its commitment to providing opportunities for women.”
The post drew the attention of AnitaB, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting women and nonbinary workers in technology. It responded with an apology and a “public call for cis men to stop taking advantage of the opportunities” meant for women and nonbinary individuals.
AnitaB officials also addressed attendees multiple times at the conference, saying it was aware of the complaints and the large number of male attendees, compared with past years.
But the apologies fell flat for many.
“I had to unwillingly pay $1,299 to register for this event because so many men took away the limited $649 academic spots,” wrote Varsha Ravi Varma, a database coordinator at Indiana University, on Lu’s LinkedIn post.
“How is it fair that this is a conference focusing on women and non-binary in tech and yet there are no known limitations for other genders. I pay $1,299 to just compete with men who paid half of that although it isn’t even meant for them. It makes no sense.”
Newsweek has reached out for comment to AnitaB multiple times via email but has not heard back.
Lu told Newsweek that the event seemed extremely “disorganized” and that multiple-time attendees told her it felt different from past years.
“People told me that there were much more men at the conference than in past years…that this year had been much crazier than before,” she said.
In light of the complaints, she started a Change.org petition that had been signed by over 1,200 people as of Friday afternoon. Part of the petition’s request is for ticket refunds.
Lu and others also want a broader explanation for why the event took place the way that it did. That includes transparency in advertising, since women and nonbinary attendees bought tickets with the expectation that they would be in a particular environment predominantly composed of such underrepresented groups.
While the general presence of men was not frowned upon, the petition states that the “overwhelming presence compromises the intended atmosphere.”
Lu said the event could have been more pragmatic if the men in attendance who primarily focused on job searching had instead “engaged meaningfully with the community.” Otherwise, she said, “it dilutes both its significance and effectiveness.”
Tanya Goette, associate dean of the College of Business and Technology at Georgia College & State University, has attended the event every year since 2016. This year, she was one of four faculty members who accompanied 25 students.
Goette told Newsweek that there were noticeably more men than usual in the career expo area and that they appeared to be mostly international students. The name tags she saw had universities rather than companies on them.
While she did not see men committing any kind of harassment or engaging in rude behavior, she said her booth was far from the event’s epicenter and she is aware of complaints made by other attendees.
“I sincerely believe that AnitaB/GHC knows there was an issue,” Goette said. “As this had never occurred in the past, I am sure it was surprising to them too. I do not know what they will do to fix it.”
She added: “In the past, the atmosphere of the conference was very uplifting and inclusive. This year the atmosphere did not have that same feeling.”
However, Goette is not seeking her $649 back because she feels the organizer was not responsible for the problems. Instead, she thinks chaos ensued because of those who attended strictly for job opportunities.
“Based on potential discrimination issues, I am glad it is them [AnitaB] and not me who needs to figure out a fix,” she said. “I believe AnitaB/GHC needs to be transparent with what they decide to do next year so people know before purchasing a registration what type of event and career expo to expect.”
Lu said she has not heard anything from AnitaB regarding her petition and refund requests.
She said she probably will not attend next year’s event in Philadelphia, not only because of the way the event was run this year but because it didn’t help her job search. She said the number of attendees, compounded with unhelpful recruiters, does not justify the cost.
“The reason for the petition and spreading it…is to have more people know that it wasn’t as good as they advertised it,” Lu said. “My true intention is just to let people know” how the event unfolded.