Group of male-type and female-type body symbols, 8 male, 2 female

More is different

This is a guest post by Brianna Laugher. Brianna is a software developer who appreciates significant whitespace. She is also known around the web as pfctdayelise.

I have spent the past weekend in Sydney attending PyCon AU, the second Australian conference for the Python programming language. It’s only the second time this conference has been held, but attendance grew by 50% (from 200 to 300) and to my mind, the programme was noticably better as well. (I might be biased though, as I appeared in it.)

However by far the most cheering aspect to me was the extent to which the organisers made efforts to make it a women-friendly event. They had diversity grants to attract women who would not otherwise be able to attend. They had a code of conduct, announced it each morning, and reiterated it when they informed delegates that they had had to enforce it. They announced a ‘women in Python’ breakfast as part of their schedule. And they invited two women keynotes: Audrey Roy of PyLadies, and GF’s own Mary Gardiner of the Ada Initiative, both organisations that support women in software development, more-or-less broadly.

Their efforts paid off: women’s attendance increased from 10 last year (5%), to 35 this year (11.6%).

It made a visceral difference to my experience: instead of glancing around and finding myself the only woman in a room, this year there was always women in my line of sight. It was so nice to talk to many different women from all over the country and find out how they are using Python. It’s so nice to have conversations where you know for sure that you are ordinary rather than exceptional. I mean literally, being viewed as an exception. It’s so nice to know you can confess all you don’t know, without feeling that you might be [ ruining the reputation of women everywhere].

After there was a lightning talk about the Girl Geek Coffees network, @fphhotchips opined,

While I understand that there are many issues with women in IT/SE, I wonder if so many groups for women results in exclusion.

It’s not clear to me what kind of exclusion @fphhotchips is concerned about. Men missing out on their fair share of geeky conversations with women? That would be disappointing I suppose, although those conversations can happen at any time during the conference. But the flipside is an order of magnitude more important: most women in software developer roles in Australia miss out every single day on the chance to see themselves reflected amongst their peers and their seniors. Reflected in numbers that cannot be reduced to an enumerable number of individuals: that is, the feeling of 10 is different to the feeling of 35. More, as they say, is different.

Maybe once a month, at a “girl geek” event, or once a year at a women-focused event at a conference, can technical women enjoy relief from a mental burden that they may not even consciously realise they are carrying. It is not the world’s hugest burden by any measure, but it exists, and can keep us self-silencing, self-doubting, and generally takes away our energy from changing the world, or at least making the next release deadline.

When the burden is lifted, we can enjoy a brief respite called freedom. Freedom to admit mistakes. Freedom to not have to wonder if someone reacted some particular way because you’re a woman. Freedom to compliment someone on their cute bag without being seen as frivolous or invoking an unwanted reminder to others that you are a woman. Freedom to enjoy the norms of speech that women more commonly (but not exclusively) follow, like turn-taking. Freedom to make a (radical!) feminist comment without hurting anyone’s ego. Freedom to not represent 50% of the population. And I am not even getting into the much heavier burdens that some women bear, with actively hostile workplaces, harassment, the need to conceal aspects of themselves for their own safety.

Freedom to look around and see people like you. For some of us it comes around more often than others. If you see an event for women happening and feel left out, just chill out and remember we’ll soon enough be back to our usual distribution. And remember that we, as presumably you do too, want most of all to not need to hold such events. And when we are more, we will not.

8 thoughts on “More is different

  1. Lukas Blakk

    Freedom to make a (radical!) feminist comment without hurting anyone’s ego.

    Oh how I long to make more of those kinds of comments :)

    Thanks for writing this. You’ve put it very well and I’m gonna crib a bit from this post for the introduction to the upcoming PyStar SF (intro to Python programming for women). Hope to meet you someday at future Python events.

  2. Matarij

    Wow – as a non-geek feminist, I had not appreciated how hard it must be to operate in a male arena as a lone female. Well done for this post – very informative.

  3. Elena

    Awesome post Brianna! Couldn’t agree more.

    Didn’t chat to you at PyCon but am really interested to have a poke around with Zookeepr some time and hope to cross your path again also :)

    1. pfctdayelise

      thanks Elena. Be sure to drop me a line or say hi on the developers mailing list if you do :) Hopefully I’ll see you in Hobart if not before!

  4. Casandra

    Freedom to compliment someone on their cute bag without being seen as frivolous or invoking an unwanted reminder to others that you are a woman.

    This. I always feel I’ve got to navigate around this at work. To be one of the guys or to be ignored. I don’t know of any all female events here in the Netherlands, but if there is one I’d love to go.

  5. Name *azurelunatic

    I think I know what @fphhotchips may have been thinking: if a part of the population voluntarily forms exclusive groups, won’t that cause more trouble in the long run integrating with the rest of the community?

    I am pretty sure that not only is that concern not particularly a problem, but that it’s been debunked a number of places.

    When the minority community is not actually safe or comfortable in the majority community, they need a place of refuge where they do not have to worry about the things they have to worry about otherwise, and where they can connect with other people with the same experiences. It’s not for exclusion, it’s for regrouping.

    As a genderqueer geek, I do not always feel that I am appropriate in women’s spaces, but they are important, and will continue to be important so long as the default human being is assumed to be a man.

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