One thing I talked about in the history of Geek Feminism that I presented at Open Source Bridge the other week was that, as far as I know, GF was the first group in the tech side of geekdom (tech industry, free and open source software, etc) to use the word “feminist”. In SFF fandom, this had been going on for years, for instance with the explicitly feminist SF con WisCon, but in the tech world we mostly had groups for women which did not use the F word in their names or in any visible materials explaining what they did.
I’ve found myself having a lot of conversations lately about feminist identification in these fields. They usually go like this:
A friend or acquaintance: You should meet Q. She’s organising this great group for women in tech!
Me: Oh cool. Is she feminist?
AFAQ: What do you mean? Of course she is! I just told you she does work with women in tech.
I sometimes question myself on this, wondering whether I’m splitting hairs, but in fact this is based on several experiences I’ve had where “women in tech” groups have been anti-feminist.
Here’s an example, from the early days of GF.
I had started the wiki in 2008, and in 2009 I was very interested in some nascent women-led open source projects, which led me to keynote O’Reilly’s Open Source Convention that year. Around this time, I used to hang around in the IRC channel associated with the women’s group for a certain open source project. I used that open source software, followed the project’s progress, had made friends with other women in the community at open source conferences, and considered myself a member of their community, so it seemed pretty natural for me to hang with their women’s group on IRC.
It felt good, at first, to be in a group of tech women who had similar experiences to me. Yet, when I started to talk about feminist issues — mentioning sexism in the wider open source or tech community, for instance — I was shut down. I was essentially asked to leave the channel and go somewhere else if I wanted to talk about that stuff. Better yet, it was the project’s male community manager — men were allowed in this channel — who took it upon himself to push me out of that space, and who still continues to this day to shut down feminist discussion in communities that he leads.
Around the same time, another women in tech group — still operating, but they have taken down the post, so I won’t link them — posted the following on their public blog:
When people hear about [our women in tech group], it usually invokes images of oppressed Femi-Nazis that can’t cut it and need to grow a pair, but to them I say, “really?”
Not long before, the same group had posted an article distancing themselves from women who they deemed to be ugly nerds. They talked at length about how great it was to be a woman in the tech field — they weren’t like those women in tech, no, they were attractive and flirty and fun, and they didn’t spend all day buried in code, they did sexy things like design and marketing. I’m probably mis-paraphrasing because, again, they’ve taken down the posts in question, but the general gist was that this “women in tech” group was not for women like me — feminist, technical, and probably not pretty enough by their standards.
Women in tech groups are not necessarily feminist. Some actively work against feminist ideals.
Apart from those blatant examples of anti-feminist women’s groups, there are others that choose to be “apolitical”, effectively supporting the status quo. There are many examples of women in tech events and groups that unquestioningly support oppression along many axes. I’ve seen women’s events sponsored by organisations that are known for their anti-women policies. I’ve attended high profile women in tech events which habitually privilege male speakers as keynoters and on panels, rather than finding equally qualified women. I’ve attended women’s events that made gender-essentialist assumptions about my sexuality, gender expression, skills and interests that have made me very uncomfortable. And I’ve seen more cases than I can count of women’s organisations which focus on the good things — encouragement! empowerment! celebration! — while papering over the very real problems that exist in the tech field.
These groups generally don’t use the word “feminist” anywhere in their name or in their publicity materials, and for good reason: they don’t want to get into politics, because to do so would be to have to examine their own privilege and understand their own problems. And then, they’d have a lot more trouble finding sponsors — most of whom are large corporations with an investment in the status quo. That’s hard. I get it. And often they do some good work despite this, so I don’t want to be totally down on them. But I would also rather spend my attention and time with groups that do choose to struggle with the tough stuff.
What about the organisations which are feminist, but don’t say so? Maybe there are a bunch of women’s groups and events out there that have a good solid understanding of feminist principles, act on them to the best of their abilities, and are open to discussion and improvement where possible. The problem is, I have no way of knowing which they are. That’s why I have to ask, “are they feminist?”
Apart from that, all I can do is look at the group’s actions, and try to glean what I can from them. Do their public communications show a wide range of women involved — by age, ethnicity, ability, appearance, etc? Do their events support people from a range of backgrounds? Do they use the word “girls” or other infantilising or sexualising words for women, without any apparent sense of irony? How much prominence does their organisation give to men? Do they accept sponsorship from companies with anti-women policies or behaviours? Do they have a code of conduct for their events, showing that they recognise the existence of harassment and other such problems?
This is a lot of work. Usually too much for me to bother with. And so, in shorthand, I ask: “are they feminist?” If a person or organisation identifies themselves as feminist, then at least we can start out with some degree of shared understanding — or at least I hope we can (there are enough variations in feminism that that’s not always true, but at least it gives an opening for comparing stances, and an increased likelihood that we’ll share some language for discussing them.)
If not, then my experience has shown that, at best, we’ll have a mismatch of ideals and may not get along all that well. Or perhaps I’ll be called names and told to take my ideals elsewhere. Or worse. There’s no way to tell.
Identifying as feminist isn’t like waving a magic wand, meaning you’ll never do anything sexist or oppressive, but it’s a start, an expression of intent. I wish more women’s groups would do it.