How to organise an ACM-Women Europe Celebration in 10 Steps

This month we caught up with Laura Castro from the Spanish celebrations to share their insights and lessons learnt. Laura Castro is a professor at the University of A Coruña, where she has been teaching since 2005 on Software Architecture and Software Validation. Her research focuses on software testing (automated, model and property-based testing), applied to software in general, and distributed, concurrent, functional systems in particular (mainly working with Erlang/OTP and Elixir).

She shared with us top lessons-learnt for creating a new celebration.

1- A few friends that want to make a difference can come together and create a celebration!

Cigdem: Hello, Laura. Thank you for talking to us today. Let us start with how you got involved in ACM and ACM women; what led you to organise a Spanish celebration?

Laura: So, well, first of all, I have got involved with ACM, thanks to Virginia (Grande). But it was through a third person, Clara Benac-Earle, a fellow researcher at the UPM, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. She and Virginia had, I think, spent some time at Uppsala, University of Uppsala, together, and that’s how they knew each other. Clara and I had worked together on a couple of European projects because we share similar research interests. So I think it was Virginia who proposed “What about organising a Spanish celebration?” because they had just attended a European celebration there, and Clara immediately thought of me to help: “I know just the perfect person. She always says yes to this kind of thing“. 😊 I had heard of the celebrations primarily online and via social media. Still, I never had the chance to attend one. So when they asked me if I wanted to work on our own celebration, of course, I said yes.

Cigdem: What is the driving force behind your interest?

Laura: In recent years, I’ve become really sensitive to the problems we have in tech and how some of those problems stem from people not having the voice they should have. Of course, we do not have enough women and people representing diversity in the whole spectrum of the word.

2-There is never a right time to do something; the right time is now.

Cigdem: When you think back to those years when you first started, at what career stage were you, and how it changed now?

Laura: That indeed has changed a lot. When we said yes to the idea of having a Spanish celebration, it was shortly after the big economic crisis (2012). So the situation at the university, particularly in Spain, was really tough. There were lots of non-permanent positions coming to an end that year with no clear future prospects. And mine was one of them. I could say I had one foot in the university and one foot out. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. But it was still things like the celebrations that kept me going. Because those are the things that I thought I couldn’t do if I just said goodbye to the university and went to industry. That was my idea, at least at that moment. I had finished my PhD a few years earlier, I was on a supposedly secure tenure track… but suddenly there were no certainties anymore. Lots of plans weren’t falling into place at that moment. It wasn’t really an optimistic time from a professional point of view. But having the opportunity to help people, having a positive community, and networking in that way with that you can relate to… That meant something. 

And now the situation has changed completely. Thankfully, things have improved a lot; I am currently a tenured professor. I’m happy that I got the strength to remain at the university and pursue what I really wanted.

3-Keep it simple, and give your attendees incentives for participating. Your event doesn’t need to be women-only.

Cigdem: How did you go about planning for the celebration?

Laura: Virginia is a really sensible person. She cleverly presented the possibility of having this Spanish celebration in a very, very approachable way: in a way that we could see it happening. In terms of event size, something between 50 and 100 attendees was perfect for a team of our size. So it was not very, very ambitious from the beginning. It was just a one-day thing where we could bring people together that were starting to wonder what research was about after finishing their studies, maybe thinking about doing a PhD, and perhaps finding themselves alone in labs full of men.

To create incentives, we also had a lottery in the last year of celebrations. We handed over tickets to womENcourage to attendees. 

Finally, I think we have to break a little bit the myth that the celebration is only for women attendees. We always had women speakers, even though we look for any kind of speaker. Of course, you have to speak about women’s roles, women’s achievements, and their problems or interests. But you could be a man talking about that –although we haven’t had one yet. Still, the fact that you have a list of speaker names, primarily women, gives men students the wrong impression. Of course, celebrations are open to men!

4-Tap into your own resources and strengths. 

Cigdem: What resources did you have from ACM? In general, what did you find most useful?

Laura: Well, I think we followed a combination of two strategies that stemmed from our own experience.  Virginia, Clara and I, were academics. So, we knew that certain things would be easier if we stayed close to the university, like not paying for a venue or having cafeterias at affordable prices. So, we were really clear from the beginning that we wanted to stay on the campus, even though we wanted to reach out and not only advertise to our own students. 

Cigdem: Did you have to go through your university administration to get official support? How easy was that, and do you have any tips for getting internal support from the universities?

Laura: Well, at least from my experience in particular, when we had the celebration at my own city (A Coruña), and I think it was the same for the rest, universities are really likely willing to collaborate with this sort of thing; it’s good publicity for them in the end. And most of them, at least at this moment – maybe not so much a few years back – are really aware of the problem of not having enough women in STEM. So, this sort of initiative is always very well-received. And actually, the university doesn’t really have to do much. The venue is there, and if you find a suitable date, it is likely sitting there unused. If you go a little bit further, many universities will also be happy to provide merchandise. Sometimes, you may have support from audio and video teams. They also may be able to help you record your event or improve the sound of a given venue.

5-ACM supports celebrations, but it helps to plan conservatively.

Cigdem: Did you get any support from ACM?

Laura: Staying local wouldn’t have been enough (in terms of funding) if it weren’t for ACM funding, which I think was 2000-3000 Euros. In our third year, Microsoft also matched that amount, and so we had 6000. That was amazing, and that year, we did lots of stuff. But we always wanted to be sure that even though we didn’t have that much support, we could still run the event. All the extra funding, we always used for travel and accommodation grants, and that sort of stuff. So, it helped spread out and enable people from different parts of Spain to attend, which was great.

Also, there’s the intangible part [of the support], which was that ACM always sent someone. We always had an “official face”, someone coming from abroad to our Spanish celebration. And, you know, that may sound a little bit silly, but still, it gives your event a feeling like “you matter”: somebody “from the top” took the time to come here and say “this matters”. And I think that doesn’t have a price tag. It was important from the beginning, at least for me.

6-Pick your venue wisely:  Show that you care and enable everybody to connect. Breaks are as important as the event program.

Cigdem: What were your top considerations when selecting your venue? 

Laura: Well, it may be particular to Spain, but the different regions of Spain are not so well connected. So if you’re close to Madrid, of course, you have everything. Same for Barcelona. But especially in the north, some parts of the west… It’s really tricky to get to those places. And, of course, it’s really tricky to get out of them. So you end up going to the same well-connected places or having people from the same well-connected places. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t fall in that category of an event always held in Madrid, for people who could easily get to Madrid, so to speak. We wanted to show people we care about where they are from, and we want everyone also to get to know those different places. As the first location, we chose Valencia because it is well connected to Madrid and Barcelona, but there were also several flights and trains from other regions.

Thanks to that, we’re now starting to have people who have attended the event and are living in, say, Zaragoza, or Salamanca, asking: “Hey, I participated in the celebration, and I know the celebration is moving around. So when are you coming to our town? I will be willing to help“. So we already have two or three places literally waiting, which is absolutely awesome.

It pays to think out-of-the-box for the venue. In the beginning, we stuck with large, auditorium-like venues. But that doesn’t really help in the networking; break-time also matters. After the second and third year, one of the things that we learned is that we prefer one large classroom.  A place where we can just move the tables around and put the chairs in positions that we can take advantage of. You just have to be careful when you ask for a venue, asking also whether you can rearrange furniture (and of course leave it in place afterwards!).

7-Have a core team, but reach out to locals for organising the event and connect with the local ACM chapter.  

Cigdem: How does your teamwork with local people when organising the event?

Laura: The three of us formed the core organising team. We’ve been there from the beginning. But it’s not just only the three of us who stay from one edition to the next. We now have an extended core of, I would say, five to eight people that have been part of the organization at some point and still want to be involved. Some of them drop out, maybe for one year, maybe then come back. This gives us some rotation and helps us make sure people who remain are not overloaded.

To go to more remote places, of course, what we have done in every edition is to make sure that we have local people in the team. For example, we would reach out to colleagues who are at the location. And now it’s easier because we have a trajectory, and people know us. But we were fortunate from the beginning: maybe it was the way we presented the event. Something doable and approachable. We were lucky to find people who were enthusiastic about the idea when we told them about it.

It also helped in Valencia, the first celebration, that they had an ACM student chapter. That was key because there are many small things, especially during the event, for which you will need person power. So having a few students that are involved in this sort of associations, it’s definitely a plus.

8-Do not forget that your organisation is volunteer-led and give each other room to breathe.

Cigdem: Do you have any rules or principles that you go by when working with your team?

Laura: A person should not remain in the organising team because they are needed. Because there’s no one else that can do their job. I think that rule allows people to feel free to be involved because when you’re giving your free time, in a sense, there should be no obligation. If it becomes an obligation, then people are not as happy as they could be.

Cigdem: I think that’s an excellent way to make sure that a sustainable community is in place.

Laura:  One small anecdote that I think reflects this is that we have had an unusual number of babies born from women in the organisation. I mean, remember that Spain is a very low birth rate country! And when you have a baby, needless to say, there are suddenly lots of things that call for your attention, so you usually need to “cut down” some other things. I think that speaks to how well this works: having people be there if they want, to the extent that they want/can, and not having to explain if they have to drop off for a while, and then just come back when they are ready. 

9- For invited talks, make sure you agree on the core principles. 

Cigdem: When you were running the events, did you have anything unexpected? How did you deal with the issue?

Laura: One year, we decided to involve companies. We gave them the stage, they had five minutes to talk about their company. As they wanted to be involved in an event like ours, we didn’t filter the talks. We trusted the people who would come and give a five-minute speech to our audience to have some sensitivity to the issues we’re dealing with. But that was not the case. We had several men who just talked about their company’s success and how much money they were making; company culture consisting of having beers every Friday. There were so many wrong stereotypes. As the organising team, we felt it was our failure.

We still want to build the right link with companies. In another edition, we had companies run a workshop but focusing on something to do with the mission of the celebration: and they shared experiences on raising awareness about work-life balance.

10- You can be sure you are making a difference. Every little step counts.

Cigdem: Are there any stories from students participating in the event? What inspired them?

Laura: In the edition that we had funding thanks to ACM and Microsoft, we decided to buy one book – “Technically Wrong”, by Sara Wachter-Boettcher. It’s a very well written short book that speaks about the problems that technology creates. We purchased several dozens of copies, and we handed out one to each attendee. We thought the book could help break the harmful “neutral technology” stereotype and raise awareness about all the purposedly wrong things that surround technology. This is important because most of our audience is future technology creators. The following academic term, I got one student in my office saying: “Hey, a colleague of mine loaned me this book that you gave away at some event. It was so interesting; I now want to do my degree project with you“. That spread of information, that spread of awareness, that’s what we are after. And it was brilliant. And it came back to me in the form of a student who actually wanted to explore how technology gets things wrong, and in doing so, discriminates people. He actually did a brilliant degree project that got the highest mark, and congratulations from all the panellists. So it was brilliant work. It was fantastic for me. How things move and how they come back to you, and the consequences you can never anticipate.

Cigdem: Thank you, Laura!

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