AdaCamp: spending time with women in open source and technology

13 October 2014

I’ve just spent the weekend at AdaCamp, a two day event aimed at increasing women’s participation in open technology and culture. It was great, and gave me lots to think about, some of which I’ve tried to outline here.

The weekend started with a pretty hefty ‘housekeeping’ session, ie. things to do, and things to avoid, during the camp. This section was more comprehensive than other events I’d been to, and this was, in essence, because inclusivity was a founding cornerstone of the event. I really appreciated and admired, for example, the organisers of the event not just saying the usual - “if you have any problems come to us” - but further than that, giving us an email address that would bypass them and go straight to their bosses, in case participants were having any problems with the organisers themselves, or felt uncomfortable discussing things with them. I couldn’t help but imagine how many awful situations at conferences would have been made much easier if people had had that option: if it’s the organiser of the event being abusive or creepy, it’s very hard to know where to go for help, without a provision such as the one provided here.

There were suggested things we could write on our name badges- for example, your preferred gender pronouns, and this made me realise how welcome provisions like that must be for the trans- community. Similarly, the clear labelling of a gender neutral bathroom facility. There was a designated ‘quiet area’, and there was a clear and well-publicised (in print, sent via email, and presented at the introduction session) code of conduct.

Even so, though, I noticed throughout the weekend how hard it is to precisely abide by certain aspects of the Code of Conduct - specifically, in terms of the language that we use. I also noticed (not for the first time) how incredibly important the words we use are to how we make others feel, and how we display and share our values. I’m totally guilty of not always being mindful of this myself, but I’m trying to get better at it. Whether it’s describing something as “girly”, or hyperbolically saying that something “made me want to jump off a bridge”, it’s effectively doing the exact opposite of what we were there for - being inclusive, promoting a fair and equal society, and most of all, getting rid of patriarchal values.

It was fascinating to be able to meet so many women from so many different areas of ‘open’; despite our many differences, it was reassuring to know that we all shared some key feminist values. I’ll admit though that I was expecting there to be a more geographically diverse set of participants - the very, very large majority came from Europe, quite a few from the US, and very few from Latin America, Africa and Asia - but of course, travel is expensive, and unfortunately visas are hard.

There were some sessions that really opened my eyes to another area of this ‘open’ bubble- for example, talking about women in open source. Most of the women there were coders, who had contributed to open source code projects; and despite my having read accounts of abuse and harassment within the open source community fairly regularly before, the severity of the situations they face, really hit home for me during this session. It’s so, so different being able to see and hear those women talk in person about their experiences; it’s even sadder that these experiences were by no means rare, and the stories were full of vicious, petty, actions and people. I can’t quite get my head round the fact as I’ve understood it: that the choice for a woman who wants to contribute to an open source code project is, effectively, ‘contribute and likely face harassment’, or ‘don’t contribute and stay quiet’. It’s a terrible understatement, but that is not a humane choice to be faced with.

I feel like lots of the sessions acted as a necessary, and much-needed space for women to tell their stories, to vent, and most of all, to get angry. So often, the things we see and face happen in situations where it’s hard to show your emotions outwardly (because you’ll be told to ‘calm down’, or that it’s “not that big a deal”, or that “he didn’t mean it”, or where colleagues or those around you will judge you for being “overly emotional”, or “unprofessional”… etc etc) - so we bottle them up, and only share them when put in a space that is explicitly marked as safe to do so. Doing so isn’t healthy, and, I’d suggest, it’s also not that helpful for those around you.

There were some recurring themes throughout the camp too: that we are worried about our online, and offline, privacy and security. That the way that our professional lives are structured doesn’t leave us with much reassurance: for example, the fact that changing the technology used within an organisation often needs to come from a high level position - so suggestions from lower down the ranks are rarely taken on board, even when they bring advantages like more secure privacy, or cheaper, open source systems. That, all too often, deciding to work in an organisation or or for a cause that we believe in means that we have to compromise on some really basic things, like workers rights and steady employment rights. That men need to stand up and stop ignoring abuse and harassment that they see, in order for there to be a real change of culture. That we need to respect that there are different understandings of ‘feminism’ and hugely different experiences within that.

There were some unanswered questions that came up multiple times, too: how to call out abuse, without getting burned yourself? It should by no means by the responsibility of the victim to do so, but is there a way of structuring it in a way that means that the perpetrator can’t then turn it on its head to cry ‘defamation’, or use it against you? Does the fact that we use technology make us stronger, or weaker? And in offline situations, how do we identify fellow feminists, or allies? (My half-serious suggestion of walking around conferences waving a flag that says “I think women are people too” was met only with laughter…)

In many of the cases above, there was one really key strategy that kept coming to my mind: the value of mentorship. It was through a friend and mentor that I even heard about the existence of ‘imposter syndrome’, and I felt so much better about it when she told me that she (yes, she, experienced, intelligent, wonderful woman!) suffered from it too. Offering your time to others - not even necessarily explicitly as “mentorship time”, but simply making yourself available if anyone needs it - is, for me, one of the most valuable things we can all offer (and I’ve resolved to do it more explicitly, and more often, myself).

There were very few set sessions before the camp started itself, because it was structured as an ‘unconference’, but one of these was on Imposter Syndrome; a topic that I think affects us all, in some way. I was expecting something a little different from this session - rather than talking through feelings and behaviour related to imposter syndrome, I would have found some concrete strategies and suggestions to cope with it, particularly useful.

I was also very conscious, during that specific session, of the cultural differences in the room; I’m British, and, going by the stereotypes, we basically always say everything is fine. Especially around strangers. I was in a group with German women, who (again, I’m stereotyping) would very rarely express deep and intimate feelings with complete strangers. However, throughout the group exercise, I could hear groups of primarily North American women carrying out the exercises without any hesitation - this made me wonder about the value of adjusting exercises to fit the cultural boundaries of the participants a little more. (AdaCamp originated in the United States, which, I would suggest, is something is fairly clear from the structure and content of the event.) - that said, I realise that this is incredibly difficult.

All in all, as you might be able to tell, from the long blog post - I learned a lot. I met a lot of really, really cool women. I came across some great resources, and ideas I hadn’t thought of before, and it gave me a lot to think about.

Thanks, AdaCamp!

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