AdaCamp Melbourne group photo

AdaCamp: Organizing a productive conference for women in open tech/culture

Valerie Aurora is co-founder of the Ada Initiative, an non-profit to increase the participation and status of women in open technology and culture. In this guest post she is writing as the Executive Director of the Ada Initiative.

About AdaCamp

AdaCamp is an unconference organized by the Ada Initiative that brings together people to come up with ways to encourage, recruit, and retain women in open source software, Wikipedia and related projects, and other areas of open technology and culture like fan/remix culture, open government, and open data. The next AdaCamp is AdaCamp DC, held on July 10 – 11, 2012, in Washington DC, co-located with Wikimania 2012, the international conference for Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects. Applications are still open and we encourage you to apply, as well as invite others and spread the word!

Keeping the conversation productive

The great thing about an unconference like AdaCamp is that the attendees choose the topics of the sessions and participate in the discussion as equals, which usually means that almost everyone is engaged and interested all day long. At the same time, this makes getting the right attendees even more crucial to making an unconference a success.

Some of the problems we’ve observed in the past in open attendance meetings about women in open tech/culture (e.g., a women in open source software Birds of a Feather meeting) include:

  • Lack of basic knowledge of barriers facing women
  • Denial of women’s experiences
  • People who should come incorrectly assume they shouldn’t
  • Playing “devil’s advocate” to the point of blocking discussion
  • Constant derailing of the conversation
  • Individuals unknowingly dominating the conversation
  • Demands that the purpose of the meeting be changed to educating a single person
  • Disagreements fundamental enough to block to discussion
  • Hostile environment that prevents honest discussion

Disagreement and discussion are good – in the right amount and in the right venue. But it would be a waste of everyone’s time and money to hold a conference in which we spend the majority of the time, e.g., debating whether a lack of women really is a problem in open tech/culture. We can’t in conscience ask people to travel thousands of miles, spend hundreds of dollars, and sponsor us if the sessions aren’t productive.

Our current solution: Invitation-only with open applications

A common model for meetings like this is to make it invitation-only but with an open applications process. Everyone can apply to attend and the call for applications is widely distributed, then the program committee reviews the applications and decide which ones meet the published criteria. We used this process for AdaCamp Melbourne and found that it had both pros and cons.

Pros:

  • No one had to be educated on “Feminism 101″ topics
  • Discussion was far more advanced than usual
  • Sessions produced results during the conference
  • Attendees felt energized rather than burned-out
  • Discussion was more open and adventurous
  • Attendees just plain liked it and told us so!

Cons:

  • Rejected applications generate ill-will towards the organizers
  • Some people didn’t apply because they didn’t think they were qualified
  • The reviewers could be biased or wrong
  • Some people were put off by perceived elitism
  • Reviewing applications was time-consuming and stressful

We especially worry about people not applying because they don’t think they are qualified, since women are often socialized to underrate their expertise.

Overall, we are confident that the current open application and invitation process produces a better conference than an open attendance process, but we hope that we can either improve the existing process or find a better process.

Geek Feminism readers: What’s your experience with organizing a productive meeting focusing on advocacy for geek women? Do you have advice for overcoming the faults of the open application/invitation process? Have you tried something else entirely?

9 thoughts on “AdaCamp: Organizing a productive conference for women in open tech/culture

  1. Taryn Fox

    I think my biggest concern is what the conference’s policy towards trans women is. Its about page doesn’t mention us or our issues at all, and we aren’t specifically welcomed anywhere.

    I’ve learned to assume that means we’re not welcomed, and it’s kind of depressing for me to see women’s initiatives I care about and realize they probably don’t see me as part of their constituency or their mission.

    1. Annalee

      Hey Taryn,

      I’m not affilliated with AdaCamp in any way other than as an attender, but for what it’s worth, I hope to see you there. I don’t want to speak for the organizers, and as a cis woman I’m not a good judge of how trans-friendly particular people and spaces are. But my experience with the people behind the Ada Initiative–not just Mary and Valerie, but also the advisors and members of the board that I’ve met–has universally been that they support the rights of trans women and challenge cissexism when they encounter it.

      The “who should apply” page says that the conference is “open to people of all genders,” which obviously doesn’t address trans women directly, but does give the sense that the organizers don’t have regressive views on gender identity.

      I also just want to say that it makes me sad that there’s so much cissexism in pro-woman spaces that you don’t feel welcome unless specifically invited. I wish that kind of ugliness didn’t exist in the world at all, but that you have to put up with it within supposedly-progressive spaces like women’s initiatives is especially gross. I’m really sorry you have to deal with that.

      1. Joseph Reagle

        Annalee’s comment prompts me to correct myself, instead writing “you’ve done this to some extent” I would say “you’ve done this really well” after looking again at the “who should apply page”.

    2. Valerie Aurora

      (Speaking as Ada Initiative executive director)

      The Ada Initiative’s position is that trans women are women:

      Ada Initiative FAQ

      In any case, attendance at AdaCamp DC is open to people of all genders – and we chose the word “all” instead of “both” deliberately. :)

  2. Joseph Reagle

    An interesting reflection that (I think) is fair to the pros and cons of this sort of approach. In my work on openness I note that scholars have identified your pros with the notions of “enclaves” or “subaltern publics”: “Endless argument about whether bias exists, rather than partaking in constructive dialogue on how to counter it, is a reason such spaces are often created.” (p. 84.) However, this open-apply/closed-invite is a hybrid between open and a priori restricted (e.g., what Taryn refers to and the controversy associated with the “womyn born as womyn” policy of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival). This can then lead to concerns of cliques and cabals, as you duly note.

    I think a step to counter this, and you’ve done it to some extent, is to be clear about who you are welcoming applications from. That is: “if you believe the gendergap is a problem and are interested in discussions on how to counter it (including all gender identities) … please send a paragraph on or a link to your interest in this … [and even] note, that we will be giving a priority to female attendance…”

    1. Valerie Aurora

      Regarding cliques, cabals, and a priori restrictions, we were a little dismayed by how many people automatically assumed AdaCamp was for coders only! Our application page is pretty clear about that not being the case, but an understandably large number of people didn’t even get that far. Hopefully as AdaCamp becomes better known we’ll be able to overcome that and other assumptions.

  3. Angela Tosca

    Just looked at the application page and I’m wondering if you can clarify what it means to be involved in open tech/culture. I know what it is, I use open source tools in my daily work coding proprietary software, I’m a feminist who’s psyched about open culture and wants to get more involved, but somehow I don’t think that quite qualifies as substantial participation since I’m not yet contributing to any projects or sharing my work. If I’m wrong, I fit under that category of women you mention above who fear they’re not qualified. If I’m right, how do I get more involved so I can qualify for something like this in the future?

  4. Valerie Aurora

    So I can’t speak for the AdaCamp program committee and guarantee a decision one way or another, but I can say that you should definitely apply and give us a chance to learn more about you.

    I don’t personally have any better advice about how to get more involved in open tech/culture than to keep reading Geek Feminism and The Ada Initiative blogs, which often have announcements about workshops, classes, etc. In particular, my experience is that any of the in-person women-positive workshops for coding or Wikipedia editing are really fun. I now edit Wikipedia regularly as a result of an in-person Women’s History Month edit-a-thon.

    My personal technique for getting more involved in open tech/culture was to get a job that paid me to write open source software. :)

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