Women in computing groups considered harmful?

AKA How I’m choosing my volunteer time more carefully

This was written for my personal blog but I’ve posed some questions specifically for GF readers below

I saw Hilary Mason’s post, "Stop talking, start coding" and realized she had put in 4 words what I’d been debating taking as a personal philosophy.

Theory: The more time we spend on women in computing initiatives, the less time we have to actually get stuff done.

I’ve been turning down a lot of opportunities lately, and most of them have been in relation to women in $foo initiatives. Where $foo can be all manner of male-dominated geekdom. I’ve turned down chances at serving on a board of directors, recruiting, mentoring, speaking, giving campus tours, or running new women in $foo groups.

Why? Because I sat down and looked at my time a few years ago, and decided that I wanted to be the sort of person who gets stuff done, much like Sarah Mei articulates the answer in her post, "Why I don’t work at Google." I like groups of smart people, but smart people like the GNU Mailman team who were working on version 3 held a lot more appeal that the Linuxchix folk who were just talking.

It’d be easy to blame women’s groups as the problem, but then you’d miss the thing that I love most about women’s groups:

The best women’s groups aren’t about separation and segregation: they’re about providing an incubator for people who need a leg up to be part of the wider community.

That pretty much sounds like a recipe for making change and getting stuff done, and means the wider communities I care about are getting more awesome people. I love teaching. It’s such a rewarding part of my job that I never feel that my time in the classroom working with my students is a waste. So why had I begun to feel guilty about my involvement with incubator organizations?

I recently went to a talk by Jane Goodall. She didn’t talk about being a woman at all: she talked about the positive changes she’s seen in the world, and how talking about these positive changes helps to inspire people more than shaking her finger seemed to. She believes this so strongly that she spends 300 days a year travelling and talking. But she says she’s very careful to choose the right initiatives: Sometimes people are so desperate to Do Something that they sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture. This isn’t a problem exclusive to women in computing groups.

So I’m working on a checklist for choosing the right things for me:

  1. Do I want to do this?
  2. Am I the best person for this? (Or can I refer them to someone else?)
  3. Can I do it without negatively impacting my other commitments? (Will it take up too much of my time? Does it happen at a time when I’m busy?)
  4. Am I reasonably sure this will result in getting stuff done, so I’ll be able to look back and be proud of what I accomplished?

I still answer my email and occasionally post a blurb from an organization that doesn’t otherwise know how to reach women. It takes minimal energy to be polite and provide basic help, and I know I appreciate it when people do the same for me.  But the initiatives that get the bulk of my energy are going to be the ones where I feel like I’m really making change.

So, for the readers on Geek Feminism, I have some questions. How many of these initiatives get tossed your way? How do you manage them? (What would be on your checklist?) Do you feel uncomfortable/guilty about turning them down? Do you get pressured after you turn them down? Do you feel that answering such requests is negatively impacting your ability to actually do stuff within your geekdom?

10 thoughts on “Women in computing groups considered harmful?

  1. A.Y. Siu

    I guess one way of looking at it is—it doesn’t make sense to perpetually train for the race if you’re never going to run it. At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to keep running races if you never train for them. Sometimes people do need to commiserate or strategize with others. Other times people need to do stuff. It’s kind of like that Monty Python scene from Life of Brian with the People’s Front of Judea constantly talking about how they’re constantly talking about stuff and never actually doing anything… and then they never actually do anything.

  2. Laura James

    This seems like just a subset of the general problem I experience, where people are keen to see more young people / women / PhDs / whatevers in responsible/committee roles for whatever their organisation type. This might be overtly stated, or not (“we’d love to see someone under 40 on the committee to encourage others” vs “if you took this role, you’d be the first woman in our 100 year history! That would be awesome”). The women in $foo groups are just one of these, and I wouldn’t single them out.

  3. yatima

    I’m going to make a possibly unfair distinction here between doing it for ourselves and DOIN IT 4 TEH MENZ. I’ve felt inspired, galvanized and supported by Geek Feminism, both the blog and the hive vagina. Lots of vague anxiety has crystallized into a clearer picture of the power dynamics at work here, and of my praxis. It’s been a godsend.

    But I acknowledge that lots of you give up a lot of your time to outside organizations, and I share the perception that a lot of those orgs are using you for the street cred. If anything I think your list up there is too generous!

    1. Terri

      I definitely think doing it for others is sometimes a problem. That women in $foo group I declined to run? The conversation was with a guy who was looking for women speakers about $foo and I’d suggested he might try asking a few other places, and he suggested that it’d be awfully convenient if there was just a women in $foo group, and would I like help in setting one up… He meant well, but that was about the least motivating offer I’ve gotten this month.

      Ditto for an offer I avoided last year, which was along the lines of “we’ve had complaints that our frosh week is horridly sexist and sexual. Come run some events to counteract our horrid environment!” Yeah… no thanks.

      But while there’s a risk of doing too much for others and not being selfish enough, I think you really have to balance it or you risk tending towards isolationism. Doing the frosh week thing wasn’t the right choice for me, but without enough people willing to step outside their comfort zone to make a visible difference, the university had to resort to seizing control of frosh week from the students in order to deal with the problems they’d perceived in the event. This has resulted in protests and complaints from students, and if those same students had been willing to step up and solve the problem before it got to this point, they could have made a huge difference in the outcome.

      Many of the facils and student union folk are women: if running frosh week was that important to them, they should have been stepping up to make sure it was fun for everyone sooner. So even though they’d have been working to the benefit of another organization, and would in some ways have been used by the university to cover up something that could generate bad press for the university… their isolationism is probably going to cost them something that matters to them.

      It’s a hard choice, and I don’t think unilaterally refusing to do stuff for outside organizations is necessarily the answer. Because sometimes if no one steps up, everyone loses. I don’t think it’s fair to imply that people who choose to use their time in these ways are necessarily being used: they’re just making differences in different spheres.

      You’ll note that my top three volunteer jobs are here writing for GF, mentoring students for Systers, and being a developer for Mailman. Those are all “us” organizations for me, not “them.”

      So if you were trying to put this on a checklist, what would you suggest? Maybe…

      5. Will this opportunity benefit me? (or is this mostly for the benefit of others?)

      That sort of captures the idea that being a keynote speaker, while may benefit the conference a lot, also provides a nice bullet point for your resume, and if building up your speaking cred is important, it might outweigh the fact that the conference has a lousy rep and you know you’re being brought in so they can say they’re improving.

      1. Terri

        OMG. Sorry, that’s really a tl;dr. Short version:

        I agree that some jobs are totally for the benefit of others, and worth avoiding as a result. I dodge those all the time, personally. But I worry that refusing to do anything for the benefit of others and using that as a rule of thumb can result in isolationism, which hurts us all. I don’t feel comfortable implying that people who choose to help other organizations are unilaterally being used, since I feel that a few people willing to do that stuff can make an important impact. (Even though I tend to avoid being one of them myself, since most of those opportunities don’t pass the “do I want to do it?” test.)

        In an attempt to capture some balance in check list form, would this help?

        5. Will this opportunity benefit me? (or is this mostly for the benefit of others?)

        1. yatima

          Not tl;dr at all, and you’re quite right that I was massively oversimplifying for effect. I’m not advocating for no volunteer work at all and I don’t push isolationism, just picking our battles. I apologize for implying that everyone working for outside organizations is being used! I just don’t want women to be used any more than we already have been.

          I’d rephrase 5 as Will this opportunity benefit me, other women and girls or people of colour? It’s working for the kyriarchy for nothing that I think we should try to avoid.

  4. Kimberly Blessing

    I think it depends on what you’re doing for the women in computing initiative. I’ve consulted and done pro bono work for various women in tech/computing groups (set up web sites, mostly) and did so *because* I was able to code and do the stuff I generally wanted to do.

    Of course, this balances nicely since my day job is managerial and not code-focused, so it’s easy for me to make the volunteer/side work a priority. I suppose that I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like I’ve done enough for the women in tech groups and I don’t feel bad saying no when I can’t. But I don’t like to say no, since it’s some of the only coding practice I get!

  5. Liz Henry

    Wow thanks for a really great post Terri! I get a fair amount of these requests — and quite a lot more of them since I’ve been visible as a disabled person in the last 3 years or so. I think that’s what pushed me into some level of burn out. I do feel bad about not being able to help, represent, and also feel some pressure to do more to prove “we” can do things, if you know what I mean.

    I admire how you seem really clear about setting limits but still doing positive stuff.

    A thought — I bet Jane Goodall gets paid for her time and talks! And that’s something going on my checklist, a lot of times.

    It seems hard to measure whether our efforts have been effective and useful. I can see results on a personal level but as for measuring systemic change or whether in general “things are better” — I’m never sure. In particular I wrestle with the idea that I am often working towards just extending privilege to a few more people rather than helping larger efforts towards social justice.

    What you say about women’s groups being an incubator strikes me as pretty cool. There is no such thing as “safe space” really but we can instantiate it as best we can whenever we need it.

  6. Angelica

    This doesn’t directly answer your questions, Terri, except for giving you a reason not to feel guilty for turning them down.

    Assumption: To increase the number of women in computing, we need more awesome women computer scientists to become universally well-known. (ie. Ada Lovelace, Marissa Mayer… the list could go on.)

    To this end, my general goal is to a) become awesome and b) become universally well-known.

    For a), I have to be wary about becoming a Jack of all Trades and Master of None. I read somewhere that to master anything (a language, a musical instrument, coding…) you need to spend 10,000 hours doing it. So that’s my priority.

    For b), I say yes to any request that says, “Can we interview you for an article on x?”

    Outside of those two things, I’m TRYING VERY HARD to stop saying yes. I need my 10,000 hours! And when I start feeling selfish about it, I remind myself that becoming a famous computer scientist will have a wide-spread impact, and will contribute just as much (if not more) to the Cause.

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