Are all-female spaces needed in tech?
This conversation was sparked by the FastCompany article: Why Silicon Valley Needs the Coder Grrrls of Double Union, The Feminist Hacker Space.
What do we think of this approach to women in tech? Pam Moran, Superintendent Albemarle County Public Schools
I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to addressing the lack of women in tech, but I definitely find the Double Union hacker space appealing. Now that I’ve been reaching out to local women in tech and we’ve had a couple of meetups, there is definitely something refreshing and uplifting about having this time and space together. Besides the networking opportunities of the monthly meetups, many women have shared about the frustration of being the only woman on a team or in a room and they seem to be seeking a sense of belonging. The next priority for this group of women is learning more and so we’re also looking at setting up workshop opportunities. While I don’t see Cville having a feminist maker space, I think we will be seeing more female-focused tech events and workshops.
I know there are also some women in Cville who don’t think this female-focus is needed - that it feels like we are seeking special attention. There are male allies who want to help address the lack of diversity in tech, but don’t know where to start. I have been discouraged to be in conversation with several men who say that the gender gap in tech issue has become so toxic, especially online, that they don’t even want to weigh in. I think all this highlights the cultural and entrenched roots of this problem.
Finally, I am myself one of the statistics - “56% of technical women leave at the mid-level point, more than double the quit rate for men”. I was on the fast track at IBM, primed for middle-management and beyond and I left. I thought I was paving the way for more women after me to be treated as equals, but instead I found I was just playing by the rules of corporate America and they no longer seemed adequate for my life. So some of my hopes are with women behind grassroots organizations like Double Union to create new ways for us to work and relate and make meaningful change in the world. - Kim Wilkens, Tech-Girls founder
I definitely agree that we need to concentrate on changing the system - and not on changing women. Kim, I also agree that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’. And I believe, we have to have men actively involved - it won’t work if it’s ‘us’ and ‘them’. Now, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have spaces that are exclusively designed to support women. I don’t think there’s a contradiction there. This is about changing a complex system which is no trivial challenge. - Mary Loftus, IT head (Stiefel/GSK)
I’m with Kim - I think this is a piece of the puzzle and an important space for those that may feel uncomfortable in other spaces. There is so much energy and buzz when we all get together (as evidenced in a Ruby Girls event Catherine and I attended here in Galway a few weeks ago) that gendered spaces should be a part of the landscape. (Just as there are Men’s Sheds?) - Leigh Graves Wolf, PhD, Assistant Professor and Program Co-Director MAET Michigan State University
Thank you for this, Leigh and Kim. It’s good to explore these hard questions. I agree with you both - yes to feminist spaces, yes to mens’ sheds, yes to CoderDojoGirls, yes to girls doing everything they have a mind to do. Yes, to creating places and networks where girls and women feel safe and accepted enough to figure out exactly who they are. Yes, to spaces where girls and women feel honoured and accepted for whoever turns out to be.
The problem I still have going round in my head is that the ‘establishment’ tends to see these initiatives as a zero-sum game: you gain, we lose. Like you describe, Kim, men don’t want to engage because they see feminism as anti-men… toxic. They feel threatened. So, how do we get over that?
And maybe the answer lies in the clip Catherine posted of Mary Robinson at the weekend - in the space between us. Ubuntu. ‘I am because you are’. Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine - ‘It is within each others shadow that we flourish.’ We make each other. I watched this tonight and took away much inspiration and maybe even some misneach (courage). Kim, I very much identify with your story and how our work has to line up with the rest of us. I’m still looking for that alignment and I hope maybe helping others look for it too - but it’s not an easy challenge in any of our worlds. - Mary Loftus, IT head (Stiefel/GSK)
I am reminded that different generations of women have different contexts for what it means to be female in the work world, home and community. It shouldn’t be an us against them paradigm but many women even young ones can find themselves closed out of the lodge, not realizing it’s happened until time has passed. How do we carve out spaces for women to feel safe In their work to grow and learn? And yet not dichotomize males and females. - Pam Moran, Superintendent Albemarle County Public Schools
Kim, many thanks for starting this conversation — and Pam, Leigh and Mary, for your thoughts. The need for women-only or women-centred tech spaces is such a conundrum. I have embraced such initiatives and spaces, but would not have done so when I was a new, young engineer. This has emerged in research too — young women in STEM (e.g. undergrads, new grads) may find themselves fighting for acceptance in a challenging field. Many don’t see and can’t name the forces acting against them and would resist being “called out” as women, as separate, as other, when they are working so hard to fit in and to succeed in their chosen field. Of course, “separate” is often “unequal” too, so many women resist the women-only or girls-only focus because of this — just think of all the PINK! initiatives of recent years. So the wish for some women to avoid the women-only label is understandable. Last night I RT’d an interesting NYT article which also describes this well: Some Universities Crack Code in Drawing Women to Computer Science.
However, for those women who have reached that point, women-only spaces can be life-saving (as we have discovered!). And for those of us who work with girls — in schools, in Coder Dojo, etc. — I’ve seen feminist women, and men, do beautiful work in encouraging girls and giving them space to speak and to create, when those girls might otherwise have hung back. So I see that a feminist standpoint, and women-only spaces, can make a difference — even for the girls and women who are not in those spaces themselves, and hopefully for the STEM field overall.
Changing culture is tough business. I look for inspiration and example to other movements for social justice — the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the gay rights movement. In all of these cases, it was a rich and varied mix of initiatives, campaigns (and certainly personalities!) which contributed to changing culture. I think that we can co-exist and support one another, as you point out beautifully, Pam — women-only spaces for women who wish to avail of them, women working in mainstream STEM who don’t want those initiatives, men who see the issues and act in support of women — and more than that, change the future together. - Catherine Cronin, IT lecturer & academic coordinator at NUI Galway
What do you think? Are female-only spaces needed in tech?