This is a guest post by Hannah Little. Hannah is a PhD student in the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Before moving full-time into academia, Hannah spent some time working in the UK in science communication for government initiatives aimed at getting more children interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). She also has an academic interest in online engagement and the causes of gender inequality in STEM subjects. You can follow her on twitter: @hanachronism, or read more about her here.
First thing’s first, I don’t want anyone to think I’m writing this post as an attack. I realise a lot of articles about the topic of feminism are aimed at feminists who are “doing it wrong”, and I know that our effort and time is better spent targeting those not already convinced of our cause. Having said that, I thought the following worth writing as a cautionary tale for those organising events for women in technology, or as a way of instigating discussion of what events should and shouldn’t include.
Those who read this blog are probably already aware of “Geek Girl Dinner” (GGD) events, but for those who aren’t, these are events aimed at women who work in “geeky” professions to meet and socialise over dinner or drinks. They give women in male-dominated fields an outlet for socialising with women in similar fields and situations, without feeling the pressures of a male-dominated environment. To quote the Geek Girl Dinner “about us” section directly:
The Girl Geek Dinners were founded on the 16th August 2005 as a result of one girl geek who got frustrated about being one of the only females attending technical events and being asked to justify why she was there by her male counterparts. She decided that she wanted this to change and to be treated just the same as any other geek out there, gender and age aside. After all to be geeky is to be intelligent, have passion for a subject and to know that subject in depth. It’s not at all about being better than others, or about gender, race, religion or anything else. Those things just detract from the real fun stuff, the technology, the innovation and the spread of new ideas.
Geek Girl Dinners have taken off in a spectacular way, and now have a presence in 53 cities across the world, including the city where I live, Brussels. Geek Girl Dinners in Brussels (BGGD), and across Belgium, are usually fantastic, always free and, of the ones I have attended, have created a really welcoming and inclusive atmosphere. The most recent one however, was an event sponsored by Samsung with a focus on the new Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom. This event, which was first advertised on 11th October here, comes with the title “The Perfect Selfie” and features a hair and beauty session. My original comment in response to this event can be read below:
Am I the only one who finds this massively patronising?
Geek girl dinners are great, they give women in male-dominated fields an outlet for socialising with women in similar fields and situations, without feeling the pressures of a male-dominated environment, at best the constant feeling of having to prove your worth, at worst outright sexism. I love geek girl dinners.
However, inviting women to a female-only event at a tech company where the main focus is on a hair and beauty session and taking “selfies” of oneself is incredibly patronising. It comes with the implicit assumption that the only reason women (and women who work in technology themselves) would be interested in the Galaxy S4 Zoom would be to take photos of ourselves making ducky faces in the mirror.
Not only is this creating citable anecdata that the only way to attract women to be interested in tech is by making it all about hair and makeup, but it also excludes those women (and they do exist) who aren’t interested in having their hair done, they want to check out the tech, and aren’t they the people Geek Girls is trying to reach in the first place? This is just reinforcing archaic ideas of what women/girls want and is not putting us in the best position to be taken seriously in an industry where women are already often ridiculed.
I’m reminded once again of the European Commission’s disastrous “Science, It’s a girl thing” video, which caused the world’s scientific community to give a collective face-palm.
I usually love Geek Girl Dinner events, but I won’t be attending this one.
You can see my concerns directly relate to the kind of problems that Girl Geek Dinners were trying to address in the first place, namely that women in science and tech want to be treated just the same as any other geek, and not in a manner specified by their gender. The thing that all attendees of Geek Girl Dinners have in common specially is their interest in the technology, not their gender.
Since I posted the comment above, the organiser of the event has contacted me both on the original post and privately. It should be noted that the event idea was that of the BGGD organisers and not Samsung. For balance, I publish the organiser’s public response here:
These events are open and free, which means you can choose freely to join one or not. There have been a lot of Brussels Girl Geek Dinners, and there will be much more. Some are female only, others are mixed. Some are girly, others are not.
It’s also open in the sense that the BGGD network itself helps shape the events. So if you can help with e.g. making the upcoming event less patronising, … etc please do so! I don’t think I would have been able to keep these events free and open for over six years without the help and effort of the network itself.
I think where we end up talking past each other here is the place of the socially constructed idea of “girly” in Geek Girl events. Some women enjoy girly things, so is it ok to create an event aimed only at those women? I feel that is excluding exactly the kind of people Geek Girl Dinners was set up for in the first place; those people who want to talk about technology and be treated the same as any other geek regardless of gender. Brussels Geek Girl Dinners even state in their “about” section on their website that “Girl Geek Dinners are events for females who class themselves as girly and geeky”, which I feel directly contradicts the sentiments on the main Geek Girl Dinners page.
I am glad that the organisers show willingness to allow suggestions and collaboration to build events that everyone in the community can enjoy, which brings me on to my next issue. After I posted my first comment, I got a private message from the organiser of BGGD saying that Samsung were wondering if they should go ahead with the event, presumably having noticed its potential to turn into a PR car crash. I obviously didn’t want the outcome of my complaint to be a cancellation of the event, a lot of effort had already gone into its organisation, and these events are important to the women within the GGD communities, and so I suggested that a redesign of the event’s agenda would be a far more productive way for everybody to have the best possible outcome. I looked up the specs on the Galaxy S4 Zoom, and it turns out you can manually override the exposure time on the built in camera, so I suggested to instead do a workshop on light-painting, which the organisers thought was a great idea. I was obviously really happy with this knowing that my ideas had been heard, understood and acted upon.
However, when the final agenda appeared here, light trace photography had indeed been added as an activity, but the hair and beauty session remained. I know this was probably done as a well-meant compromise, but the beauty session’s sustained presence on the agenda has made me feel like my point was still not being heard. Events perpetuating archaic gender-specific ideas of what women want have no place in Girl Geek Dinners. All we want is tech!