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Breaking the (bro)code

Creating space for women in technology and related fields

The technology industry has a woman problem, but you already knew that. By now – that is, fall of 2013: five years into Sheryl Sandberg’s stint as Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, and just months since Marissa Mayer’s lounge chair photoshoot in Vogue displayed her glamour more than it did her effectiveness on the job – it is no longer news that women are simultaneously underrepresented and tokenized in the technology sector. And this is apparent in most of the sector’s branches, from venture capital-funded start-ups to multinational billion-dollar corporations that swallow each other whole for sport.

The dearth of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields as a whole has garnered some much-needed attention in recent years. But the tech industry is singular in the challenges it presents to women who want to break in. A large part of this is still due to lack of technology education for women. Andrea Wood, a market analyst who has worked with Youth Employment Services (YES) Montreal to investigate gender issues in the tech sector, hasn’t seen much change in gender balance in the 14 years that she’s been involved in the tech world. The reason, she believes, is that “enrollment for women in technology, engineering, and math [postsecondary] programs has been completely flat or declined,” while female enrollment in sciences, particularly biological sciences, has increased.

But even disregarding discrepancies in skillset, the technology culture is one that is particularly difficult to break into for those outside of the club – and women, as we know, definitely are. This is a culture that includes advertising for hackathons with women listed as a “perk” and then calling it a “joke” about the male-dominated tech industry (Sqoot, I’m looking at you), a culture that breeds apps that consist of feeds of men looking at breasts, a culture where sexual assault and harassment are such common complaints in the workplace and at conferences that anti-harassment policies had to be adopted by such heavyweights as the Linux Foundation, the Wikimedia Foundation, and the Python Software Foundation.

The closed culture of the technology sector has direct impacts. Because it is so difficult for women to ‘get in’ to the exclusive club that high-tech has become, many who do effectively clam up for fear of losing their hard-won memberships. This very phenomenon was outlined in Shanley Kane’s recent Medium post, “‘Fuck you, I got mine’: Women in Tech for the Patriarchy.”

And then there are the Sheryl Sandbergs, who can afford to speak up, and do. There has been so much commentary on the Sheryl-Sandberg-Lean-In motivational trope – which encourages women to adapt to the tech industry and devote themselves entirely to obtain success – that nobody really knows how far or which way to lean anymore. Notwithstanding the legitimate criticism of “Lean In” as a movement for privileged women who can afford to spend all day leaning because there are no second jobs to work, or childcare is taken care of, Sandberg’s plan espouses individual internal change as the key to societal and structural change. The onus is on women who want to succeed to make sure that they do. Which provokes concern, if only because it’s unclear how this logical leap will manifest itself in reality.

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The state of gender issues in the technology sector has also given rise to movements that seek to address the paucity of women in the field by hosting workshops, offering education, and promoting mentorship. These are organizations that, in the words of Sandy Sidhu, current Public Relations & Communications Director of Montreal Girl Geeks, “are focused on taking action.” Grassroots organizations like Montreal Girl Geeks, Ladies Learning Code, and their ilk, exist to challenge the old boys’ club by creating a community of their own. Tanya McGinnity founded Montreal Girl Geeks in 2007 as an offshoot of the global Girl Geek Dinners that have been in place since the mid-2000s, “after noticing that there were so few women in attendance [at a Facebook garage event], specifically in the technology/developer room.” The goal, she says, was to create a community for “girl geek and girl geek supporters […] interested in connecting, collaborating, and networking,” a community revolving around the sharing of specializations, passions, and interests.

McGinnity has since left the organization, but Sidhu says that their mandate remains to “inspire the next generation of girl geeks to get involved in tech.” Having worked at high- tech firms prior to becoming involved with Montreal Girl Geeks, Sidhu says that when she found out Montreal Girl Geeks existed, “this would have been amazing to know of when I was in university or the earlier phase of my career when I didn’t have access to other women mentors, or [even] just a community.” She emphasizes the importance of community to both herself, and to the organization. “It’s a great place to learn, exchange, share ideas, and you can never have enough role models in your life.”

In a world where female role models in tech companies are few to begin with, giving exposure to women in technology as a means of creating these role models is just one way in which Montreal Girl Geeks is building a community. “We profiled local Montreal women working in tech to […] spread the message that we are here, there are women who are working in tech, and to get the word out […] that there are women doing big things.”

Sidhu points to the importance of organizations outside the work environment in creating this kind of community. “It’s not always easy to build these [communities] within a company,” she explains, because individuals are not sought out based on common interests, but simply co-occupy the same space. In this way, she sees Montreal Girl Geeks as providing a necessary complement within the technology scene. “We fit in as a piece of the […] larger community.”

The Girl Geeks website doesn’t make prominent use of the word ‘feminism,’ but it’d be hard to deny that their actions are feminist in nature. Beyond the clearly gendered term in the organization’s name, there is also the fact that most events, while not exclusive, are largely promoted to women. This semi-exclusivity, according to Sidhu, is justified by the overwhelming male dominance of the technology sector in general. “There are a lot of events that women don’t go to. We’re not being super exclusive, like ‘no men allowed,’ but it’s kind of tongue in cheek – like if you want to come, tell a bunch of your girl friends to come too.” This kind of approach also extends to speakers who are invited to lead events: “I don’t think […] since I’ve been part of [Montreal Girl Geeks] that we’ve had a male speaker,” reflects Sidhu. “We know there’s a lot of events where they already do speak, and we’re trying to foster that support for women.”

The turnout at these events, Sidhu says, reflects a variety of backgrounds, occupations, and demographics. “Not everybody who comes is working in the IT or the high-tech industry right now, but they’re curious, or they want to find out more about how to apply that particular topic to their business.”

“In terms of background and ethnicity, it’s as diverse as Montreal is,” Sidhu continued. This is dramatically different from the technology sector’s employee demographics. Wood’s research had revealed an underrepresentation of racial minorities in the tech sector, and furthermore, an overrepresentation of non-Quebecers in Quebec’s industry. “Over half of the tech sector employees in Quebec are not from Quebec,” she told me, hinting at the politics of language that could lie beneath this statistic. Tech – at its basis an English-driven field – is perhaps already more accessible to anglophones; Sidhu admitted that this is a problem the Montreal Girls Geek team is attempting to address. “We’ve talked about it […] it just hasn’t really happened yet.” The reason is that Girl Geeks is run by volunteers, and time is tight. Wood agrees that general busy-ness and financial priorities are what’s holding up the sector as a whole from working toward more inclusion. “Start-ups are just thinking about keeping their balance sheet in the black.”

Perhaps this is why Wood predicts that the gender balance of the industry will take somewhere in the range of 20 to 30 years to change. In the years since she founded Montreal Girl Geeks, McGinnity says, “I think that progress has been made over time but women are still being harassed, fighting the same battles of sexism and engaging in the same debates that I’ve seen since starting the group.” She points to the ‘fake girl geek’ argument – which, as outlined in a New Statesman article published this August, states that women feign interest in tech, science fiction, and other similar male-dominated ‘geek’ spheres to attract men and jump on the ‘geek chic’ bandwagon – as proof of how women’s interests in the tech sphere are still challenged.

But like Sidhu, McGinnity believes the answer to this lies in the power of community organization, seeing it as the key to giving women “a seat at the table.”

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Technology is not the only sector in which women are marginalized as a group. The artistic and creative sectors have been male-dominated since long before David Gilmour started even thinking about the seriousness of men. With the increasing technologization of communication, work environments, and our daily lives, it is no surprise that the artistic world and the technological world are starting to intersect. Ximena Holuigue, Programming Coordinator at Studio XX, a bilingual feminist artist-run centre that seeks to support “women at the forefront of contemporary technological landscapes,” explained that there are two ways in which technology is increasingly incorporated into art: firstly, by influencing the content of the artistic message, and secondly, on the level of dissemination – through personal websites, social media, and engaging multimedia presentations.

Rosa Mei, current Artist in Residence at Studio XX, includes technology in both of these facets of her current media art project. “One thing I wanted to do with this project is to demonstrate how far technology has come. […] My goal is actually to show how cheap can you go. You can actually buy all this stuff that you need to build a fully functional green screen studio from Dollarama and Canadian Tire. […] There are two components; that’s sort of the technological background, and then I’m going to be playing all the characters of 2,000 years of women warriors. So I have a background in martial arts […] so I’m going to use that with a lot of sword fighting and popping, which is a style of funk dance that uses a lot of micromovement and animation. So there’s a combination of the animation we have from technology combined with real life animation.” Mei views technology as a necessary next step for the creation of art, as a means of creation and dissemination, especially within an arts landscape that faces significant funding cuts from the government.

With media art projects like Mei’s made possible by increasingly technological power, and with technology integrated into the production process of art, Studio XX is highly necessary, for both the workshops and resources it offers, and because it is uniquely placed to deal with the issues facing women in both the art and technology sectors. Founded in 1996, the organization operates to give women artists both a physical and virtual space for exchange and discussion within the media art landscape. When it was created, Holuigue says, “It was an era when it was the beginning of internet and it was still very very basic in terms of technology access at that time for everyone – not just for women.” Even then, though, “there was already […] a need to have specifically a space for women […].” Highlighting the necessity of such a space, she notes that there are “still media arts festivals where the programming is mostly men.”

Operating several projects, including an online publication, .dpi, artist in residency programs, and maintaining a computer lab area open to all members, Studio XX seems to be fulfilling its goal of acting as a resource centre and space for women artists. However, Holuigue sees their role shifting as technology itself – the very thing Studio XX seeks to make accessible – develops and changes the landscape. “Since the beginning of Studio XX – and that’s the interesting thing – [technology] has evolved so fast and so drastically […]. People have access to it so easily today. […] We used to have all of these books on software and tools […] We were doing a team cleanup yesterday and […] then we realized that not that many people will need them because all of it is actually just accessible online today.”

However, the fact that information is more accessible online does not mean that Studio XX has no more work to do; on the contrary, Holuigue believes it is important to create a space to “allow artists to be physically present where there can be an exchange, discussion, acting and reacting between one another that you’re not necessarily able to do when you’re by yourself.”

Accessibility is an important issue for Studio XX, which strives to be accessible to both the francophone and anglophone populations. “We’ve opened up that discourse of giving [access] to all genders and we are bilingual as well. It’s really important for us to […] make sure we reach out [to] those two communities.”

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Both Studio XX and Montreal Girl Geeks are focused on creating community for women in these male-dominated tech-related fields, but how does this impact the culture within those industries?

Wood pointed to a video Etsy published earlier this year describing how they increased the number of women on their team, so as to demonstrate how increased numbers can undercut the “brogrammer” culture in the tech sphere. “If it’s one woman, it’s like ‘oh, she’s a girl.’ When there’s three, there’s four, there’s five, [it’s] ‘oh she’s just my colleague,’ there’s no problem,” said Wood, adding that the inclusion of new people also stimulated innovation.

McGinnity echoed Wood’s sentiment, saying, “By being present – being seen and participating – I believe that inclusiveness will emerge.”

If true, this is a strong justification for the creation of communities of women who are increasingly educated about technology and who can support each other through their presence in the tech sphere. However, as Wood points out, the existence of qualified women does not mean that they are always hired and allowed to be present in the tech industry. Promoting awareness, according to Wood, is the first step, but in particular, promoting awareness to employers. “It requires employers’ awareness to do outreach. People can apply all they want, but the employer needs to realize there’s an imbalance. Imbalance can actually cause negative consequences in the workplace, but if you try to rectify that balance, it actually creates innovation in the group.”

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When asked about the possible exclusivity of branding spaces, organizations, and communities as belonging to women, Wood replied, “It definitely will not alienate other people.” Instead, she worries that the community will become insular. That insularity, potentially leading to lack of outreach, can make this community unable to produce increased employment rates for its members. “The problem with the geek girls and the all-girl hackathons is you’re creating a community but they don’t open doors to help you make the jump to financial realities. There’s no alienation. Instead there is a sense of community that needs to be bridged into the community at large […].”

And yet, even without the potential for active alienation, a lack of awareness or focus on including marginal groups within society can allow that marginalization to carry into organizations whose goals revolve around inclusivity. Ignoring marginalization can breed exclusivity. This allows microaggressions to carry over from a society from which many of the tech world’s problems stem.

About a month ago, I went to one of these  events, a talk given by a woman passionate about her work and the power of a public well-versed in the possibilities of technology. During the question and answer session following her presentation, I watched her struggle to answer a question posed in accented and slightly uncertain English. And then, a follow-up question or two later, I watched the speaker cut off the questioner – no “Talk to me after,” just a flat “Other questions?” To be sure, it’s a microaggression, maybe even nano, but it was substantial enough to make me question who is encouraged, and who is encouraged just slightly less.

I mean to diminish neither the value of these events nor these organizations by pointing out the microaggressions committed on their premises. After all, microaggressions are entrenched within our society, and as instances of our society, we can all be guilty at times. But the idea that marginalized peoples will enter and feel comfortable within these communities is as false as the idea that more women educated in coding will lead to improved hiring practices. Wood asserts that community is valuable, but not enough, and that employers must become aware and diligent in working for inclusivity in order for the tech scene – and culture – to change. In that vein, the organizations that seek to create a community should become aware and diligent in reaching out to marginalized groups, including, but not limited to, racialized communities and low-income women.

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Even within these organizations, there is ambivalence about how community should be formed, and whether providing women-oriented spaces and opportunities is the way to tackle the problem. While Mei is thankful for the space and technical support Studio XX offers for the development of her project, she notes that “this is the first project I’ve ever done with a women’s centre.”

“I’m really used to testosterone-fuelled environments,” she says, “Really it’s the only thing that I’ve experienced my whole life is being the only woman involved in a project, and so it’s really great to be in an environment where it’s supported by women.”

On the other hand, she expressed concern about the use of gender to offer special opportunities, due to possible further marginalization. “It’s been a theme throughout my life that I don’t like this sort of gender-specific – where you have to offer special opportunities for women because it’s a field not dominated by women.” Though Mei ponders her possible hypocrisy, there is a crucial difference between wanting to be “good for a girl popper” versus a regular popper (funk dancer), and needing a community of support.

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The fundamental point made by each of the women I spoke to was the necessity of education, from a young age, to break the stereotypes that both prevent women from entering the tech field and keep the “brogrammer” culture alive. While most advocated changing the educational system to make technology more accessible to young girls, Mei had a different suggestion. “It’s a level of confidence,” she said, noting that “there’s this whole underground movement that’s happening now,” in both the technology and artistic fields. However, these underground movements are dominated by men, in part because where young men are taught to play with combative and aggressive toys, young women are given the role of nurturer. Perhaps, in the end, involvement and leadership in technology is not just a matter of where you lean or which community you find, but also a matter of empowering women from the most fundamental – and seemingly unrelated – of levels.