From celebrating women in computing to changing the system

You’re in a roomful of computer scientists. Most of them are women. All of them are there to promote women in computing.

What do you talk about?

What don’t you talk about?

What are you accomplishing?

What aren’t you accomplishing?

These are the questions I’ve been asking about the recent Ohio Celebration of Women in Computing (OCWiC). In the words of the call for participation, “OCWiC is an opportunity for young women to explore careers in IT, to network with other young women and to meet possible mentors. OCWiC hopes to encourage women to complete their studies in computing by exploring careers and meeting women leaders from business, industry and academia.” OCWiC was sort of a miniature Grace Hopper Celebration.

I attended this year’s OCWiC, and I’d been to events like it before. I’d even organized some (smaller) “women in computing” events myself. But recently I’ve been wondering: Are these events improving the status of women in computing? Or are they just teaching women to live with the system that makes it harder for women than for men to be in computing?

What was talked about at OCWiC

At OCWiC we spent most of our time networking (with food!) and listening to research presentations. Here’s a breakdown of the schedule. During sessions where the conference was split into multiple rooms, I divided the time by the number of rooms.

Sometimes the discussion turned to people’s experiences with the system that makes it harder for some people (e.g. women) than others (e.g. men) to be in computing. Here are some of the things I heard (paraphrased):

  • “It’s hard being the only woman.”
  • “I didn’t realize what issues were just about me and what was about being the only woman.”
  • “My family didn’t want me to go to grad school. In the African-American community, it was considered too expensive.”
  • “I didn’t know that in computer science they pay you to go to grad school. Nobody told me.”
  • “When I was younger, I had the chance to go to grad school, but not the money. Now I’m back in school and I have kids, and it’s very hard.”
  • “I’m sorry I keep falling asleep. You’re a very interesting speaker. It’s just that I fall asleep every time I sit down for a few minutes because I’m so exhausted from working and taking care of my kids.”
  • “I love what I’m doing. Work-life balance is overrated.”
  • “I scaled back to a less demanding job while my kids were young.”
  • “My daughter is twelve and she logs the mail and pays the bills.”
  • “My kids know that they’re not allowed to spring things on me at the last minute. And they have to remind me. I reserve the right to forget.”
  • “You have to train your kids — and your man — to take care of themselves.”
  • “I’d be more productive if my company offered affordable childcare.”
  • “I cook with one hand and in the other hand I hold a textbook.”
  • “Cooking and cleaning are not worth your time. (Unless you enjoy cooking.) Hire someone else to do it.”
  • “I’ve learned to have a more masculine communication style and be more assertive.”
  • “Geek culture has the ideal that it’s supposed to be fair and inclusive, but it’s not.”
  • “People don’t expect teachers to have a certain personality. But they expect programmers to.”
  • “I fit in well as an extroverted woman because my skills are complementary to what most of the guys in my classes have, and they like having me on their team.”
  • “My first name is […]. When you hear that name, you know I’m African-American. I don’t get hired unless I go by my initials on my resume.”
  • “As an older student, I dress down and wear hoodies to fit in.”
  • “I’m a full-time student and a part-time line cook. I hate those kids whose parents pay for college.”
  • “I struggled with anxiety. Finally I went out and got a job at a help desk, which was the scariest job for me because it involved talking to people. I faced my fear and got over it.”
  • “I work twice as hard as the guys because I want to be respected.”
  • “I’m constantly trying to prove myself.”
  • “One of my biggest challenges has been impostor syndrome.”
  • “When I start to doubt myself, I go look up my grades. My school’s grade system shows your grade and the grade distribution. I see that I’m doing really well compared to everyone else.”
  • “I felt proud when I got a better grade on the assignment than any of the guys.”
  • “A guy came up to me and asked my grade on the test. Half the class had failed and I had gotten a 75. He laughed at me and said he got a 95. I said, ‘Go f– yourself,’ and walked away.”
  • “If I leave my office door open, people walk in assuming I’m the secretary.”
  • “I won a scholarship that was just for women. I had to wonder: if it were open to men, would I still have gotten it?”
  • “If you’re an able-bodied web developer, it’s easy to say that accessibility isn’t that important.”
  • “Companies with diversity quotas won’t hire you if you’re not in one of the categories you’re looking for.”
  • “Some companies just won’t hire someone here on a visa. It’s their policy.”
  • “At my school, there’s a computer lab that’s been taken over by brogrammers. The first time I walked in the door, they all turned around and looked at me like, ‘What are you doing here?’”
  • “When I told [an influential man in computer science] about a problem with some brogrammers making sexist jokes, he said those guys should be free to be who they are without worrying about offending people.”
  • “I’ve never had a negative experience being a woman in computing.”
  • “When I first started working 30 years ago, I used to get patted on the butt. There’s no longer any discrimination. It’s illegal.”
  • “When a company is interviewing you for a job, you also have to interview them to find out if you’ll fit in.”
  • “I hire people who are like me and who I think would be fun to work with. I won’t hire a woman who’s mousy.”
  • From a man: “I’m here because I heard about all the stuff that women have to put up with, and I want to help.”

One final thing I heard: During the academic careers panel, an undergrad student (who was a young East Asian woman) said her professor had asked her to teach his class one day. She said (paraphrased), “I was proud of myself because I did a good job of encouraging the students and helping them learn. But when my professor gave me feedback, he said I needed to be more strict and make the students respect me. What should I do?” The panelists gave a variety of answers, but the last one stuck out in my mind. The panelist (who was an American, white, middle-aged, female, tenured professor) said (paraphrased), “First of all, you’re too attractive. Don’t wear that to teach.” (The student was wearing a slightly frilly teal top and a necklace. The panelist was wearing a conservative purple-gray sweater.) The panelist went on (paraphrased), “As a woman, you have to be on the defensive. You have to be tough with your students or they won’t respect you. Your professor may have come across as rude or even sexist, but believe me, he meant well.”

To sum up — I heard a range of experiences, good and bad. I heard a lot of factors that played into those experiences, and not just gender — parenthood, class, race, age, culture, personality. I heard an impressive array of coping strategies and survival tactics for adapting to the system that makes it harder for some people than others to be in computing.

Coping strategies and survival tactics can be useful. But if that’s all we talk about, then we’re accepting the system. We’re reinforcing the system.

What about changing the system?

What wasn’t talked about at OCWiC

Changing the system is a part of feminism. Feminism is often not a part of “women in computing” events. I don’t just mean people who dislike the word “feminism”. (The only mention of “feminism” I found in the annals of the Grace Hopper Celebration was a panel titled “The ‘F word’: The Uneasy Relationship Between Feminism and Technology”.) I mean the taboo on stating that the system is deeply unfair, and wanting to make it fair.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s a list of things that I heard very little about at OCWiC, and would have liked to hear more:

Career options outside the academic and corporate world. OCWiC heavily emphasized research careers, neglecting the other 99% of the computing industry. It focused on academia and large companies. I guess that’s not surprising given the sponsors (large corporations, colleges/universities, and ACM-W) and the organizers (professors). I was the only speaker from a small company. None of the speakers talked about starting their own business. None of the speakers talked about contributing to open-source software. This relates back to the issue of changing the system, because you can’t change it if you only know a tiny part of it.

Support for people other than college/university students. When I first heard the name “Ohio Celebration of Women in Computing”, I thought the event would have sessions for, well, women in computing — women who may be developers, or sys admins, or tech support, or managers, or hobbyists, or whatever. But no, it was totally focused on students. This also relates back to the issue of changing the system. I don’t just mean the subtle (and I’m sure unintended) message that only certain women in computing are worth celebrating. I mean that, with a mostly new batch of faces at each OCWiC, inexperienced and ready to soak up the same advice as the last batch, there’s little institutional memory and little incentive to change.

Protection from discrimination. OCWiC had no anti-discrimination or anti-harassment policy (even though I was assured a few months ago that they would edit: after rereading those emails, I realize that I was told it was being considered, but not assured it would happen). Instead, there was this short and perplexing statement during opening announcements (paraphrased): “Please be respectful of everyone here. If someone says something you disagree with, walk away.” I’m still trying to find out the whole story. But I’m bewildered how it can be controversial for a “women in computing” event to follow the example set by of over 100 conferences that have anti-harassment policies and guarantee some basic rights for its attendees.

The gender binary. The call for participation said, “Attendees will be women majoring in computing fields from universities and colleges all over Ohio as well as women teaching and working in computing careers.” I had to ask to find out if genderqueer people were welcome (or allowed). I do know that at least one speaker was genderqueer — me. But I don’t know if anyone realized it, because (like many places) OCWiC wasn’t a place where I felt (or had any reason to feel) comfortable talking about it. The experience of being genderqueer at a conference designed for cis women was, in some ways, like being female at an event designed for men — hearing speakers address the audience in gendered terms that don’t include you; getting swag that’s fashioned for a gender other than yours (like a “Geek Girl” water bottle from Microsoft Research, which is problematic in its own way, and a ladies’ sweatshirt); constantly interacting with people who don’t share your understanding of gender issues. Where do genderqueer people fit into “women in computing” events?

Men as allies. I also had to ask to find out if men were welcome. They were, and three men attended. Nobody talked about enlisting the support of more men. Nobody talked about forming alliances between “women in computing” groups and other organizations for marginalized people in computing (which include men), such as NOGLSTP or the National Society of Black Engineers. Out of all the coping strategies and survival tactics that were suggested, none involved any collaboration with the men in computing.

The digital divide. We didn’t talk about the women who weren’t there — the ones who lack the money that is a prerequisite for a career in computing. (Well, I guess one speaker did when she suggested hiring someone to do your cooking and cleaning.) We didn’t talk about the class divide of the women who were there — at one end of the spectrum, the ones who’ve been given an elite, research-focused education (and whom OCWiC was designed for); at the other end, the ones who are working to pay their own way, a few courses at a time, through a career-focused education.

Activism. We talked a lot about coping with the system, adapting to the system. We didn’t talk about fixing it. We didn’t talk about the many, many groups who are taking steps to fix it — groups like Geek Feminism, Empowermentors Collective, and the Backup Ribbon Project.

One element of activism that was notably absent was the idea of collective action.

… My ‘dream’ action for the women’s liberation movement: a smile boycott, at which declaration all women would instantly abandon their ‘pleasing’ smiles, henceforth smiling only when something pleased them.

Shulamith Firestone

So that “my dream action for the women’s movement is a smile boycott” quote by Shulamith Firestone is doing the rounds… I wanted to comment on a particular response I’m seeing repeatedly.

The comments include:
- “I still haven’t mastered this”
- “I’m going to do this”
- “I really need to work on this”
- “I am actively working on this”
- “I need to work on this”

And I really wonder what’s going on here, in that these responses seem kinda unrelated to the quote. It can be very powerful to find one’s scope of individual action on this kind of thing. But that’s not what the quote is about.

Firestone is suggesting an action for the women’s movement. She’s suggesting a smile strike. That is, an organised, concerted effort, taken by a great number of women acting in solidarity with each other.

But it seems like the only way many people are able to hear quotes like that is, “this is something more individual women should do”.

Lisa (A Radical Transfeminist)

“This is something more individual women should do.” Now that sounds familiar. A woman asks how to cope with working in a male-dominated field. The answer: some variation on “be assertive” or “achieve work-life balance” or “build your network” or “overcome impostor syndrome”. These are things more individual women should do.

Is this making it any easier for women to be in computing?

Or, twenty or thirty years from now, will women still have to go to OCWiC to learn how to cope? Will the attendees be asking the same old questions, and will the speakers be giving the same old answers?

How can break out of the loop? How can we change the system? How can we collaborate to accomplish more than each of us could accomplish alone?

Trying to break out of the loop

People are already collaborating and changing the system — a whole movement of people — the loosely connected networks of people who are advocating for diversity, equality, and inclusivity in computing via blogs and social media. They back each other up when sexism, racism, and all those other “-isms” happen. They share solutions they tried that worked. They blow off a lot of steam, but not unproductively — they’ve amassed a public record to disprove anyone who says that discrimination no longer exists. For example, after painstakingly documenting incidents of harassment at tech conferences, they successfully agitated for anti-harassment policies. They’re creating tangible change.

I wanted to bring some of that collaboration and change to OCWiC.

Here’s where the story gets awkward. It’s easy for me to point fingers at (I guess?) everyone else at OCWiC and say, “You didn’t talk about this and this and this.” But now it’s time to own what I myself did and didn’t contribute.

The first I heard about OCWiC 2013 was when one of my former co-workers invited me to speak on the industry careers panel. I had been to the Grace Hopper Celebration and similar events before, so I knew vaguely what was and wasn’t going to be talked about. I thought maybe I could give OCWiC a little push from what I feared it would be — teaching marginalized individuals that they have to blend in, they have to work harder — toward what I dreamed it could be — collaborating to change the system.

So I volunteered to lead a “birds of a feather” session called Power to the Marginalized People. This was the description:

Have you ever felt excluded from the dominant culture of computing? Are you concerned about how the lack of diversity will affect the future of computing? This BOF will be a guided discussion about making computing more diverse and inclusive. Gender, race, ethnicity, class, age, religion, sexual orientation, physical ability, mental health, and parenthood are all on topic. You’re welcome to stay for the whole session or just drop in for a while.

Thirty people (out of OCWiC’s 170 attendees) came to Power to the Marginalized People. In the hour and a quarter they were allotted, they shared a continuous stream of stories and insights — and many of them stayed late, because there was even more they wanted and needed to talk about. Remember that list of things I heard about the system? About half of them came from this session.

Half is huge. In that respect, the session accomplished a lot. The people who participated accomplished a lot. (Thanks, people!)

Was it enough? The night after the session, I laid awake for hours, reflecting on Power to the Marginalized People and empowering marginalized people. I compared my outline for the session to what we actually discussed. I thought about what I, and we, could have done better to create a safe space for everyone in the discussion, to hear the voices of the people who didn’t (feel safe to?) speak. I regretted that, although we’d talked a lot about being marginalized ourselves, we’d talked very little about the flip side: the ways that we (those of us who are white, or straight, or wealthy, or whatever) marginalize others — and how to be good allies. I regretted that, although we’d talked about (yet more) coping strategies and survival tactics, we hadn’t imagined a future where coping isn’t necessary.

What I learned from this session, I’ll be applying to the next event I’m leading — the Diversity in Open Source workshop at Ohio LinuxFest in September. It’s a half-day guided discussion for people who want to change the system that makes it harder for some people than others to use or contribute to open source. Want to come?

Have you ever led a discussion on diversity, equality, and inclusivity? What did you learn?

Are you planning to lead such an event? Feel free to plug your event in the comments.

What OCWiC accomplished

As someone who used to fit right into the target audience of OCWiC (student, researcher, female), and who has benefited from events similar to OCWiC, I think OCWiC was helpful to many. The students had a chance to meet students and faculty from other schools. They got practice listening to and giving research presentations. They saw proof that women can succeed in computing.

And those coping strategies and survival tactics? Many women do find them helpful. Many women today would not be able to succeed in their careers without them.

What OCWiC didn’t accomplish

As someone who didn’t quite belong at OCWiC (software developer, genderqueer, third-wave feminist), I can say that — as an event aimed at people who don’t quite belong in computing — OCWiC fell short in many ways. It focused on an extremely limited sector of “women in computing”. It failed to provide an anti-discrimination policy. It slated more time for a dance party than for discussion about diversity and inclusivity.

Most of all, OCWiC didn’t try to change the system that makes it harder for women than men to be in computing. It didn’t act to create a future where OCWiC isn’t needed anymore.

What now?

What do you think OCWiC, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, and other “women in computing” events accomplish or don’t accomplish?

What events are changing the system? What events are un-marginalizing marginalized people in computing?