Grace Murray Hopper

SEATTLE (WOMENSENEWS)–Inside the kingdom of high tech is a little-known but highly influential organization dedicated to protecting, retaining and advancing women throughout the realm.

Hoppers, named after Grace Murray Hopper, the mathematical wizard who invented a key component of computers, has grown from a small band of techies e-mailing each other in 1990 within the Microsoft Corporation to a full-fledged Diversity Advisory Council within the gigantic software firm with $24 billion in sales and 40,000 employees. (See biography of Hopper below.)

Gretchen Olsen-Jacobsen, the spokesperson for Hoppers and manager for the Sales, Learning and Readiness Division, has been with Microsoft since the year after the birth of Hoppers. Hoppers is now an integral part of the company, providing everything from education to high-profile social events to outside consulting. Olsen-Jacobsen is proud of the way the group has expanded its outreach over the years.

"Now management comes to us as a resource," Olsen-Jacobsen said in an interview. "We’ve got their ear and that’s a very satisfying accomplishment."

That is now. Back in the 1980s, Microsoft was still very much a man’s world. No plush offices, no formal dress code, just acres of cubicles where American corporate culture was rapidly being redefined. This was the turf of the newly evolved computer "geeks," mostly male, who, with their grungy jeans, T-shirts and renegade hair, sat for hours on end writing the next generation of software code.

Priding themselves on being the true masters of their domains in a territory where women had yet to become major players, many of these engineers were skeptical, if not downright dismissive, of their female cohorts’ abilities.

For the handful of women employed in technical positions at the time, the experience was akin to landing on Mars.

Pre-Hoppers Women Faced Blatant Disregard for Their Opinions

In the pre-Hoppers years, many women had plenty to complain about: advances by male colleagues; blatant disregard for their opinions and their proposed solutions to technical problems; exposure to situations that could be construed by many as biased, degrading or inappropriate.

Not surprisingly, this created conflicts. With newly minted degrees and a flaming desire to see their ideas incorporated in the new frontier of technology, women at Microsoft found themselves still getting burned by the old rules that permeated a male-dominated workplace.

Acting out of a sense for survival as well as a nurturing impulse, a software engineer by the name of Therese Stowell decided it was time for a change. In 1990, Stowell and fellow engineer Teri Schiele gathered women programmers together to form a group that would give Microsoft women a forum to discuss some of the challenges they confronted in the workplace.

Hoppers began as an e-mail community to initiate dialogues, organized by specific interest categories. It was phenomenally popular, and by 1991, management formally recognized Hoppers as a diversity group, or in Microsoft terminology, a Diversity Advisory Council. This was a milestone for these women, helping them to gain a more equal footing with their male counterparts and the respect they deserved.

Today, Hoppers has more than 1,600 members across every Microsoft office in the United States and overseas. Any woman who works at the company and supports the Hoppers charter can be a member, regardless of job title or employment status–permanent, contractor, vendor, intern or part-time.

Microsoft Gives Hoppers a Budget, Contributes to Its Scholarship Fund

Microsoft now gives the group a modest but viable annual budget, provides computer hardware and company server space and contributes money to its scholarship fund for promising young women in computer science.

Hoppers helps its members advance by holding discussion and study groups on a broad range of technical subjects, identifying emerging Microsoft technologies and counseling women on workplace issues. Hoppers permanent committees include scholarships, WorkSmart workshops, corporate networking and marketing. Others are created as the need arises.

As one of the first organizations of its kind within the technology industry, Hoppers members are consulting with similar startups within other industry giants, such as Real Networks and CorningWare, an area of activity they hope to expand.

Hoppers has established the Hoppers Scholarship for a woman student pursuing a technical degree. Candidates must have a grade point average of 3.0 or above, be accepted or enrolled in a college or university in Washington state and be an undergraduate with a declared major of either computer science or a related computer-intensive discipline.

Another key committee, Take Our Daughters to Work Day, this year on April 26 will offer "vignette interviews" in which girls can ask women professionals about their jobs. Girls also will be able to sign up for brief elective classes discussing the latest technologies, or take tours with the company’s art curator.

Jacqui Kramer, a recent Hoppers recruit, is co-chair of Take Our Daughters to Work Day.

"We have members who feel passionately about reaching out to people to create a sense of community," Kramer said. "For myself, I am trying to build a better process for Take Our Daughters to Work Day for this and future years. I find it’s a very personal thing."

Ranae Buscher is a free-lance writer based in Seattle, Wash., where she operates her own consulting business, Scarlet Plume Writing/Design. She writes for both the print media and online publications.

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WEnews Brief

Brief Biography of Grace Murray Hopper

The late Grace Murray Hopper believed there was a solution to every problem–and probably several–if you worked hard enough. During her extraordinary career as both a mathematician and a naval officer, Hopper made some spectacular scientific achievements that have left an indelible mark on the world of computing. Her work ultimately earned her the distinction, "Mother of the Computer."

Hopper was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vassar College who went on to receive a master’s and a doctorate from Yale University. After college, she returned to Vassar as an assistant mathematics professor.

After serving as an associate professor at New York University, she entered the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1943, commissioned as a lieutenant. While on active duty with the Naval Data Automation Command, she traveled worldwide, speaking to thousands about the future of computers.

Later, as a senior mathematician with Sperry Rand, Hopper worked on the first commercial computer. At that time, programmers had to write lengthy instructions in binary code (computer language) for every new piece of software. Because binary code consists solely of zeros and ones, programmers faced tremendous challenges completing time-consuming tasks without substantial errors.

Hopper knew there had to be a solution to the problem and set out to find it. In 1952, she pioneered the first computer "compiler," called the A-O compiler. This revolutionary software enabled computer language to be programmed automatically for the first time.

During her distinguished career, she published over 50 papers on software and on programming languages. By the time she retired in 1986, Rear Adm. Grace Hopper had become a legend in the computer industry. In her naval office, she hung a clock that ran counterclockwise as a reminder of the key principle to her success: Most problems have more than one solution.

Grace Hopper died in her sleep on Jan. 1, 1992, at 85. She was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Even after her death, she received many honors, most notably her induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994. The Navy named a guided missile destroyer the USS Hopper.