“The biggest enemy of hackerspaces”

A friend of mine pointed out this post about the decline of hackerspaces:

The biggest enemy of hackerspaces and techshops is probably girlfriends and wives.

My reaction was: “Wait… what? Did they really just…? Uhhh…”

I hear this sort of thing surprisingly frequently. And yet, even with practice, I find sometimes it’s phrased in such a way that the best I can manage for a second is stunned silence. So here’s a reminder to myself, and to the rest of you: think about how you’d respond to this now, so you’re prepared if it happens again.

Not sure how to start? Here’s a quote from a follow-up post that I quite liked. It gets the point across in the same slightly mean-spirited way:

At the Baltimore Node, we have a family membership because *gasp*
significant others are supportive and like to participate. However,
it turns out that people do not want to participate in organizations
filled with social dysfunctional jerks and find themselves outgrowing
such organizations over time as more important things are competing
for their time.

And I turn to our commenters for more suggestions: How would you have replied? How have you replied when similar situations came up? Points also go out to those willing to try their hands at another explanation for those who inevitably will still be mystified as to why this is offensive.

Note: Comments with variants upon, “But it’s true!” will be summarily deleted. I am well aware that some people are terrible at sharing their significant others’ time, and many people have shifting priorities when coupled up; it does not logically follow that all girlfriends and wives are somehow evil. You should be ashamed of yourself for thinking with such logical fallacies!

PS – Wondering how to make family fit into your geekdom? You should check out Mary’s post just before this one about mothering and geeking.

19 thoughts on ““The biggest enemy of hackerspaces”

  1. Meg

    I’ve gone with, “but I don’t have a girlfriend or wife and I quit!” before, but mostly that’s a snide response to the assumption of hacker as heterosexual male. The idea that (hetero male) geek’s are then controlled by their wives/girlfriends (allowed) to go out is also pretty disparaging, misogynistic and depressing, but I don’t have a clever quip for that one.

    I used to reply with snide comments about the commenter’s inability to successfully maintain a heterosexual relationship, but then I realized that I didn’t actually mean to imply that maintaining a heterosexual relationship was a measure of the value of a man.

    Nowadays, I think I’d reply that as long as there exists an antagonistic relationship between hacking and the rest of life, there will be times when the rest of life wins. The real danger to such spaces is making them so exclusive that no one belongs anymore.

    I think Young People These Days grew up with internet access, geek culture as mainstream, gaming as a popular activity and access to a broad range of nerdy activities. The focus for many is different than the generation that came before. Anecdotally, I know the younger male nerds I know are more likely to have girlfriends during college and wives by their mid-twenties than the nerds I knew who were in that place 20 years ago (frequently their girlfriends and wives are also into at least some geeky culture, mind you, which also means these men are less likely to assume that nerds are straight males because if they do their girlfriends and wives politely remind them.) If spaces appeal to straight, single men, that might be part of why they aren’t appealing for the next generation either.

    The interesting question to me is, what kind of hackerspace would be supportive of family life? Could you do a parent-and-me programming day? I know I attended conferences and meetings with my father when he was responsible for childcare. Are people moving out to the suburbs? Perhaps less central locations would work for meetups. Or if people only have time once a month, find a way to work around that. It isn’t going to be a permanent way of life for most people, and if that’s the only participating considered “valid” there will always be a limited pool of participants to draw from.

    1. Terri

      The interesting question to me is, what kind of hackerspace would be supportive of family life?

      Really, this should be the interesting question for *everyone* as this may be the sort of question that makes hackerspaces continue to be viable as people’s priorities shift.

      (And if anyone would like to write a guest post on the subject, let us know!)

      1. yatima

        Yeah, I think this is the key question too. My husband’s involved in Noisebridge and I’d love to go along too, but it would have to fit in my nanoseconds of free time, between taiji and writing at a cafe with my friends.

        So, you know, good coffee would help, and good lighting and a quiet place to write. Classes I can do with my 7yo – soldering electronics would be great. A math circle for elementary kids.

        1. Matthew Forr


          I think you bring up a point that touches on the larger question a hand. Which is, how do we as people find to make the most of our hackerspace/whatever else in life?

          I think you could really say: ‘The biggest enemy of xxxx is probably insertBigTimeInvestmentHere.’

          I’m still have a bunch of projects hanging on the shelf at the Node, I can only hope that I can get in there soon to finish them.

          (Nonwithstanding, OP obvious views his relationship with his SO as being at odds with his hobbies and so maybe he should consider finding a new SO)

  2. jadelennox

    I find this hilarious, because my SO and I were recently talking about how we have built-in pair programming partners for FLOSS projects, and it’s too bad other folks don’t have that. If your family and friend network gives you a built in hackerspace, why go out and look for one?

    The fact is that as people grow up, gain family obligations, and make friends outside of artificial clubs and networks, they will often have less time to participate in those clubs and networks unless they become a very high priority. And as long as the FLOSS community “meritocracy” continues to reward quantity over quality, it will never be able to be a top-priority for people with other claims on their time. But that doesn’t mean hackerspaces aren’t family-friendly. It means that non-family friendly hackerspaces will lose most aging hackers to spaces that ARE family friendly.

  3. Nikolas Coukouma

    My initial reply was:

    My most charitable interpretation is that you mean “things that consume lots of leisure time”, whether that’s World of Warcraft, taking classes, working at a startup, or raising children. A more literal one is that women are trapping men via relationships. I hope you meant the former.

    I feel a bit bad about my heteronormative use of men, even if I think that’s what could have been meant.

    Later in the thread someone basically asked “what’s wrong with this?”

    I believe it was a careless, off-hand sort of remark. Nevertheless, it seemed very negative: women are “the biggest enemy” of hackerspaces and those who marry them “can only come out in public once a month”; no one is portrayed positively there. Following that, he says that geeks are “too old” to participate and that “young kids” are too apathetic to participate. The rest of Ethan’s e-mail didn’t seem positive or humorous, so it was hard to see the paragraph as a joke.

    I really want to have HacDC (and hackerspaces) reach out to people more. Remark’s like Ethan’s, if left without comment, will drive many of them away.

    Someone later noted that this isn’t the first, or worst, case of sexism and at least we’re calling people on it. I don’t think that’s enough. These incidents, combined with my interest in HacDC doing more outreach and being explicitly inclusive, are spurring me to run for Coordinator in Chief (president/CEO type position) in the elections that should be happening soon.

  4. Talia

    Oh, wow, that makes me want to throw things.

    My fellow and I both enjoy building things, so we joined a local hackerspace that was starting up recently. In the ~5 months I spent there before letting my membership lapse (for a bunch of reasons), I heard this sentiment so often, even from other women in the group. In my social circle, sharing geeky hobbies with an SO and managing time when you don’t is de rigeur, so it was weird to have branched out socially and suddenly find myself a freakish curiosity. (While I wasn’t the only woman, or queer, in the space, I think I was the only one whose relationship was visible to the rest.) Figuring out how/if to counter this talk and the thinking that went along with it was something I definitely thought about at the time, in the interests of building community and being inclusive. Mostly I just ended up encouraging people to bring their SOs along, if you’re building that cabinet for them wouldn’t they want to help? And planning more open-invite events, intro-level classes, talks etc. I can only imagine how a well-established group might have more inertia, norms, abrasive individuals with cred/authority, to make it more challenging to de-trench this ‘obvious fact’.

    Interestingly, in my head it’s a counterpoint to the women who comment on feminist blogs about their difficulty talking about feminism with their guy partners. If there’s really no hope of getting two big parts of your life to meet…it sounds rough to me, but I’m not good at compartmentalizing.

  5. Eva

    I’ve been in a relationship with someone (male) who didn’t understand a damn thing about the technical subjects I was working in. It is painful and frustrating, but it didn’t make him some sort of enemy. He still supported me as long as I treated him as an equal and respected the areas of knowledge he had that were superior to mine.

    People love stereotypes, but they also need to quit falling into the winy “no one will every understand me!” mind set. You don’t have to understand someone to love them and get along with them. You do have to treat them well and not neglect them for your other pursuits. You also have to chose your partners to be intellectual equals (even if their intellect turns in a different direction than yours) rather than arm candy.

  6. Matthew Forr

    Couple of things,

    First, it’s a thread about Techshops folding. Just speaking up on behalf of all hackerspaces, there is no decline…

    Second, I had a girlfriend and I could never get her to come hang out at the Baltimore Node. Total shame because it is indeed a great social space so maybe that’s something to look for in a partner.

    Third, I would love to see a post about making hackerspaces family friendly, while I may be single I can imagine the day when I have kids that I bring in with me and we hang out and do projects together. In fact, that already happens at the Node and we’re trying to find ways to facilitate that kind of interaction.

  7. Ben Stanfield

    Just a note that you can also find the discussion on the HacDC forums, which mirror the Blabber mailing list, and are a little easier to navigate: http://hacdc.org/forum/mailing-lists/blabber/techshops-folding

    Also worth noting is that while HacDC membership is — unfortunately — still mostly male, our board of directors has always included female members, and almost all members strive to make the physical hacker space inviting, safe, and fairly inoffensive to anyone and everyone who stops by, male or female, young or old, l33t or n00b.

  8. Azz

    So the worldview there is that “competitor” is “enemy”, huh?

    I wouldn’t argue that the biggest immediate competitor for time would likely be a significant other, or that a new SO would be a huge time commitment and that person’s less-important priorities would be falling away.

    My aunt’s been attempting to bring me into the world of dog training, and the trainer jargon for behavior like that is “resource-guarding”.

    The properly-socialized response to competition is to either become competitive (in this case most likely incredibly awesome, so other less-important hobbies fall by the wayside, and not this one; it’s probably not a good idea to become directly competitive with a SO) or cooperative (awesome enough to get the SO into the hacker world).

  9. Deb

    Yesterday, I was thinking about all those old TV shows where it is assumed that wives lie to their husbands about how they spend their time and vice versa, think: I Love Lucy, Flintstones, Bewitched, etc. Sadly, I think the idea that men and women “naturally” want to spend their time differently and that lying — either outright or by omission — is the way to make sure you get to spend your time in a way that reflects your values, is still pervasive.

    Hopefully, many couples have sorted this out and their hackerspace buddies insist on seeing their actions through an outdated lens because the alternative implies that something about the hackerspace could be improved.

    1. Mackenzie

      Ugh, yeah, I’ve been wondering lately how those “1950s ideal” marriages could have worked at all, when the couples were constantly lying to each other. Lucy would buy dresses and leave them unworn in the closet for 3 months so she could honestly say to Ricky, when he saw her wear it for the first time, “what, this old thing? It’s been hanging in the closet for months!” Which then leaves me wondering where she got the money and how he didn’t notice it missing and things since she was a housewife and only had a paying job in a few episodes (when Ricky and Fred tried to be househusbands because they had a bet with Lucy and Ethel). If they couldn’t talk openly about finances…!

      Which reminds me…Fred and Ricky referred to Lucy and Ethel as “the girls” quite a lot for women in their 30s.

      1. Mary

        To get a bit OT, well, presumably the show was exaggerating how much money she was able to spend without him knowing, but in a ‘traditional’ (mid-20C) gender role marriage the woman would need quite a lot of access to the family finances, to purchase food, household goods, everything the children needed, quite likely clothes for both adults and such. Unless he was doing a lot of micro-managing, she could buy things for herself without ‘permission’ (ugh).

        In the closest example I personally know of to that model, the woman was in fact a trained bookkeeper and as farmers and small business owners, the house ran on a perfect double-entry ledger. She could have hidden a lot of things (not being a sitcom character, I don’t think she did). The man outlived the woman and had to be taught by his sons how to pay bills and read his bank statements.

        1. Mackenzie

          I guess if she shaved a bit each week til she had enough for a new dress… But if suddenly the week’s groceries cost $150 more than usual, that’d be noticeable.

        2. Mary

          Well, not if they’re up by that much most weeks: it’s probably easier to do it all the time, in fact. In the family model we’re talking about, the breadwinner doesn’t have the faintest idea what the bread costs.

  10. Steve Clement

    “The biggest enemy of hackerspaces and techshops is probably girlfriends and wives.”

    – Probably? Interesting empirical study based on probabilities and wild guesses.

    – Only because YOU are not able to attract more significant others doesn’t mean they are in the way of others.

    – If you still haven’t figured out that girlfriends and wives are de-facto the driving factor in this community do some research.

    Well out of those few responses I must admit most of them are rather aggressive. This is probably due to the fact that I get annoyed daily by people either bashing women or in some other way making fun of them just because they think they can.

    Obviously most people haven’t really thought this through and more importantly tried to get partners involved in HackerSpaces.

    Integrating family and your close relationships into Hackerspaces is fun. And the easiest to do that is in Demoing your project once it is completed and asking those attending how you could further either improve it or even mod it (depending on the Project of course)

    And diversity does play a huge role as well. I guess it is obvious if you restrict your self to one highly-technical domain, those involved will be mostly men.

    And that by far is not because women would not be capable but simply because for centuries we have been taught that Technical “stuff” is for boys and the fancy shiny stuff for girls.

    Seems pretty clear that we need to further change in that area by providing counter measures to this trend (which still exists)

    Also the assumption that Hackers are always Hetero is a silly one. But I guess that is simply because humans are human and we need to further explore the other aspects of our society and not assume that the CURRENT social norms are “normal” – Whatever normal is…

    From Luxembourg with Love,


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