Jul. 25th, 2012

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I entered university in 1997 and graduated with a degree in computer engineering in 2002. I read "Unlocking the Clubhouse" while in my fourth year of university, as I was burning out, and it was transformative. It renewed my energy and enthusiasm for my degree, helped me understand the forces that were discouraging me, and reminded me why it is important to persist. Since then, I had occasionally read blogs or articles about women in tech, and had personally known a few other women in the field. I knew there were other women out there, and I had personal connections with a small number of them, but I had no sense of being part of a community of women in tech.

While I was establishing my career, I more or less kept quiet on gender issues. I would occasionally talk to sympathetic colleagues, but I was afraid to rock the boat. I didn't want to be labelled a feminist or a troublemaker. And, to be perfectly honest, I do not regret this decision. I think it would have been unwise for me to make myself so vulnerable before I had established myself. It is my fervent hope that those of us who have "made it" (I now have 10 solid years as a software developer) can make it better for those who follow, but I still would not encourage a woman just entering her career to raise a big fuss. Trust your gut, and do only as much as you are comfortable doing.

This started to change, a little, when I was invited to WisCon, the feminist science fiction convention. For the first time since my childhood, I was connecting with a community of feminists. It was amazing. At the time, I don't know that I even considered myself a feminist, but it became clear that in an important sense, I had found my tribe. I realize that I was, most definitely, a feminist. I vowed to return to WisCon every year, if at all possible.

At WisCon 2011, I was at a panel and another woman in the audience asked a question about picking your battles, to what degree and how you should do so. She mentioned that she was in a male-dominated field. Each of the panelists gave a lovely and inspiring answer, all of which boiled down to, “don't pick your battles, stand up for what you believe in!” I reflected on their backgrounds, and realized not one of those women was in a heavily male-dominated field. It's not that their answers were wrong, per se, but they were not relevant. There are far, far too many battles in my daily life for me to take them all on. I am not going to respond to every mildly sexist comment or joke. I am not going to try to educate every coworker. It is simply too much. I would burn out in a matter of months.

After the panel, I went over to talk to the questioner. I was brimming with empathy and ready to discuss all my best strategies for surviving this industry. I had no idea, at the time, that I was speaking to Valerie Aurora, a linux kernel coder (a much higher echelon of geekdom than my own) and an expert on issues of women in tech. We went for lunch, and talked, and when I realized who she was I was subtly mortified that I had thought to help her. She already knew pretty much all I knew, and all I had to offer was my solidarity and support. When I look back on it now, I realize that sometimes, solidarity is the most powerful gift of all: just knowing that you are not alone in what you face, and that what you are doing matters to others.

I stayed in touch with her, and she kept me informed as she started The Ada Initiative. Her support and advice was instrumental in me aiming higher in my career and in my becoming more vocal in the face of sexism. She also connected me with a group of geek feminists I had no idea existed. It has meant so much to me to find a group of people facing the same realities I face. It's possible I would have written my IRC talkbackbot if I had not met her and found this community, but I would never have thought to blog about it. All of the people I reached and the recognition I received are due in no small part to Valerie's inspiration and encouragement.

I saw the tweets about AdaCamp DC 2012, but never thought to apply. I work in closed-source software, and I haven't participated in any open-source projects. I don't think of myself as a woman in “open stuff”. However, she encouraged me to apply, and so I did, and was accepted. I somehow had the dates wrong (I thought it was in the fall) and only realized my mistake a few weeks before the event. I was crushed to realize that I probably would not be able to go on such short notice.

Then, I was offered my dream job, and my current employer generously allowed me to leave well before my two weeks was up, so attending AdaCamp was once again a possibility. I dithered agonizingly, trying to weigh the cost, the time, the fact that I had to move across the continent immediately upon my return, against my overwhelming desire to attend. In the end, I decided to go for it, and I am so glad I did. (Thank you to my hosts, who made my last-minute attendance possible!)

I felt like the first day was a little stilted, and the energy didn't really get going until the second day, but it's hard to say how much of that was my exhaustion from being on a red-eye and going straight to the conference venue. I had to miss a little of the introduction, but I've been to a few unconferences before so I had a good idea what to expect. I suggested three sessions, one on my talkbackbot (in case anyone wanted to learn about it), one about how to deal with the assertion “women just aren't interested” in tech, and one on boundaries.

As often happens, the sessions were excellent but I think my favourite part was the random conversations. There was an in-depth lunch conversation about being a good student and how differently that affects your status depending on what country you grow up in. There was a long conversation about ways in which women don't support other women, and why that might be.

An absolute highlight was the session in which we constructed a timeline of the significant positive and negative experiences we had had in relation to technology, organized by age of occurrence and tagged with year. It was fascinating to see the cluster of experiences in the late teens and early 20s, and also to note the big gap in negative childhood experiences. I wondered if perhaps women who had significant negative experiences in the 5-15 range simply didn't make it into tech at all, regardless of whatever interest or aptitude they may have had.

We had a productive session on hiring. From the perspective of employers: how to make job posts that will encourage diverse applicants, where to make posts so that women and minorities will see them, what aspects of benefits and culture to develop and emphasize. From the perspective of applicants: how to find good companies, how to network, and most of all, how not to sell yourself short. We also briefly discussed some of the worst of recent job posts, e.g. “bro down and crush some code”, “PHP stud wanted”, and all the calls for ninjas and rock stars. We started joking about opposite and equally ridiculous job posts, e.g. “PHPrincess needed”, “Coding queens wanted”. We lamented that “maven” has been taken by a specific technology, as it would be a great word to use in a general sense to imply subtly female competence. We were laughing so hard at the job posting ideas someone from a neighboring session had to ask us to be a little quieter so they could hear each other.

Another interesting session was about technical and non-technical women supporting each other. To have a group of women with different interests and aptitudes talking about how we can all make the world better for each other was incredibly moving for me. As one women so aptly summed it up, it was great to have a positive female experience. To realize how we can help and support each other, whether that takes the form of the techies teaching the less technical, or whether it involves us taking on the technical tasks so that the less technical can focus on contributing their strengths in writing, curating, etc.

The sessions on burnout and boundaries were very powerful. I was reminded of the times I have been responsible for a range of managerial tasks (simply because I'm responsible) without the recognition or pay those duties would normally entail. I knew intellectually that women commonly end up in these situations, but hearing woman after woman talk about experiences so like mine definitely took that knowing to a new level. It's not right or fair to take advantage of people in this way, and we need to start drawing our lines in the sand. It is understandable that a business will try to get as much as it can while paying as little as possible, but that doesn't mean we have to agree to it. We explored our own complicity in these situations. We looked at the fears that drive us to be always reliable, always responsible, never letting anyone down. We discussed how our fear of saying no allows others to take advantage of us. Some of us, who have done more experimentation with setting boundaries, were (I hope) able to inspire those in painful situations to start sticking up for themselves. One particularly inspiring story was a woman who has decided to limit herself to 40 hours a week, and she has found that not only does she still have her job, but she is achieving all her work goals. It is true that setting boundaries will result in a certain degree of backlash, particularly at first, but most people will accept it. For those who don't, we brainstormed strategies like talking to them directly, talking to a manager about the issue, and providing data on the relationship between productivity and time worked.

One of the more profound comments I heard was that nobody else is ever going to tell you that you've worked enough; it's up to you to decide to go home. That is not 100% true (I have had a manager who was excellent on that front) but it is broadly true. Others will more or less take as much advantage of you as you allow.

One idea that kept coming up in session after session was how much women sell themselves short. We have to be so competent before we consider ourselves technical. We might use a technology for years and still not think to put it on our resume. We are too self-deprecating to imagine that people whose work interests us would want to talk to us about what they are doing.

One regret is that I did not make it to any of the sessions on LGBT issues. I will have to content myself with notes and blog posts, at least until the next AdaCamp!

The conference was very well organized. One thing I particularly liked were the 4 role cards for those acting as facilitator, gatekeeper, time-keeper, and note-taker in each session. The 15-minute gap between sessions was brilliant: it gave one a chance to finish conversations, find a new session, and change rooms without feeling rushed. The food was amazing, absolutely the best conference food I've ever had. There were plenty of options for vegetarians, and it was delicious. It was a nice idea to have small group dinners at restaurants off-site, as it allowed people to get to know each other better.

In short, AdaCamp was fantastic and I am so glad I made it. Major kudos to The Ada Initiative for putting it on, and thank you to everyone who volunteered so the rest of us could enjoy the conference. I <3 you all!


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Jessamyn Smith

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