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.
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.
- 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!
- 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?