In defense of Women in Tech (WiT) groups

This is a guest post by Coral Sheldon-Hess, a web developer and librarian in Anchorage, Alaska.
She blogs at and tweets as @web_kunoichi.

This post originally appeared on Coral’s blog.

I’ve been rolling this post around in my head for a couple of days, in between attending conference and binge-(re)watching Firefly.

It turns out, I have put a lot of time and effort—and, more importantly, thought—into creating and running a WiT group, so I have a lot to say on this topic. Also, Rebecca Stavick’s post isn’t the first anti-WiT-post I’ve read by a woman (great response to that one, here), never mind dealing with men’s arguments against these groups; so I’ve had time to think through a lot of these issues.

Myth #1 – Meeting as a group of women isn’t valuable in a male-dominated field.

Rosie the RiveterI really liked Eric Phetteplace’s response on Twitter, but I’m going to add a bit, since I have more than 280 characters to play with.

Networking is incredibly important to moving forward in one’s career, maybe especially so in tech circles, where everything moves so quickly and invitations to work on cool projects, or give important talks, depend so heavily on who knows you. So, on the surface, sure, it makes sense to get face time with male colleagues, and nobody is suggesting you shouldn’t.

But networking within a group of women is also incredibly valuable. Take the Merrill Lynch Four, who met and shared information and talked up one another’s work; they all ultimately ended up better off for it. Self-promotion can be hard for women, but promoting the work of other women? It’s easy to do, it’s never frowned upon, and it’s very effective! Also, it’s only possible if you can get into an environment where 1) you’re talking to other women, 2) about work-related stuff, and 3) you won’t be interrupted by men, who are, on average, better at self-promotion and are therefore likely to dominate the discussion.

Myth #2 – Learning with women is less valuable than learning in a gender-mixed group.

I think most people are aware that women have a lower level of confidence than equally competent men, in STEM subjects, as explored in the Fiorentine paper from 1988, comparing male and female medical students. (Short version: women consistently rated themselves lower on every attribute than their equally capable male colleagues.) You can find a bunch of respectable academic citations about differences in teacher behavior toward male and female students here, but I can also tell you, from six years’ worth of personal experience in male-dominated STEM classrooms: women get very little opportunity to talk, even if they are brave enough to do so. Which they aren’t, on average, due to the confidence gap: women report being afraid of asking stupid questions in front of their far more confident male peers, in part because they tend to misinterpret increased confidence as increased competence.

xkcd: How it works (Two male figures: "Wow you suck at math", male and female figure: "Wow girls suck at math")There is also a legitimate concern, when a woman is outnumbered by men in a STEM setting, that anything she does wrong will be extrapolated unfairly out to all women.

Women in a male-dominated environment, trying to learn about a field that’s generally viewed as male-dominated, also suffer from stereotype threat, which is made worse by prominent tech industry assholes (sorry, but he is) who make incorrect sweeping generalizations like “You have to have started programming at the age of 13 to be any good.” That is, as Philip Guo will tell you, total crap.

Do you know how you go about combating stereotype threat for women? Logic dictates—and now a study shows—that female role models are essential.

So, there it is: female-dominated classrooms, with female instructors, are an obvious win, for women learning technology concepts.

Myth #3 – These groups support gender stereotypes by using “dumbed-down language” and female-coded fonts/colors.

Anchorage Programming Workshop logoAt first, I was totally on board with the idea that pink is problematic, which is why we chose a nice, bright blue-green for Anchorage Programming Workshop, with a logo featuring the Venus mirror to try to emphasize the “for women” aspect. Neither of the hosts for the group is overly feminine in our manner or dress, and we didn’t want to risk excluding other women who don’t identify with pink and rounded fonts. “Our group is for all women!” – that was our intended message.

But you know what? We ended up with pissed off dudes approaching our booth at the Anchorage Maker Faire and parents lamenting that we wouldn’t teach their sons how to code. Until we changed our RSVP form, we got guys RSVPing for our events and then not showing up after receiving the email (that went to all participants) emphasizing that “men are welcome, provided they are the guests of female-identified participants.”

I don’t think we’d get as much of that if we had gone with pink. So… I actually kind of respect the other groups’ forethought, on that count.

As for the “dumbed down language” thing, you know what? “Dumbed down” is so very rarely applicable that I propose we strike it from the lexicon. Making something approachable and friendly, so it doesn’t frighten off someone with low confidence, is a good thing! It’s also really hard to do, so, PROTIP: people who have put a lot of effort into making something usable get really angry when you use a phrase that dismisses their efforts and implies that incomprehensibility is a good goal.

Anything written by a competent instructor for an audience of new people will look “dumbed down” (argh) to an expert; that’s sort of the point. If you go look at the intro video and first week of CS50x, a freshman-level CS class at Harvard and online, you’ll see the same kind of language, the same reassuring tone. Because that is the right way to approach an introduction to technology. It has nothing to do with gender.

We do agree on one thing, sort of:

WiT groups—actually, all technology groups—need to do everything they can to be open to people who aren’t “exactly the same” as one another. Most WiT groups are really good about using “female-identified” as their descriptor, rather than just “female,” which is code that they are LGBT-friendly. Most have codes of conduct, which help advertise their commitment to diversity. Some are explicitly for women of color. These are all great! (And already happening, just, you know, for the record…) That isn’t to say any given WiT group shouldn’t work harder to increase the diversity of its participants; I just disagree that gender is the only path to diversity.

I find anti-WiT rhetoric frustrating, because it’s coming from both sides: men feel left out and want to tell us all about it, and women feel compelled to share their knee-jerk reactions to the color pink. Nobody starts with the assumption “This is a valid approach, based on good research and careful plans,” even though that is, in fact, the case. The arguments against these programs are shallow and easily countered, with only a few minutes’ research, yet they just keep coming.

Fact: WiT groups are a benefit to women and to the technology community at large, and their pedagogy and branding are, for the most part, well thought out and well implemented. They are worthwhile, and they deserve support. If you think they can be improved, volunteer to help, instead of tearing them down with grumpy blog posts.

15 thoughts on “In defense of Women in Tech (WiT) groups

    1. Coral Sheldon-Hess (@web_kunoichi)

      The idea that women lack confidence is NOT outdated. As someone who runs a group for new programmers and who has been through an undergraduate and a master’s degree in engineering, I have lots of experience that runs counter to yours.

      Here are some recent publications:
      * This book was re-released and made a NYT Notable Book of the Year in 2013:
      * Perhaps you’ll believe the Royal Society of Chemistry, as cited in Nature.
      * (March 2011 makes this the oldest of the three, but certainly not from the 90s.)

      Hopefully three sources from a hasty Google search, combined with lots of experience as both a teacher and a student in STEM subjects, will convince you that you’re very lucky to be so confident, that it is not universal.

      I want to clarify that I have never said people *shouldn’t* participate in “gender integrated” groups–I’ve said the opposite a couple of times in this discussion, I think. This isn’t an either-or proposition. One can benefit from the female-centric environment of a WiT group, for learning and support, and still participate in male-dominated events (because, let’s not kid ourselves, that’s what tech events are right now), too. I do, and I get different benefits from each.

      What I *have* said–and provided a lot of evidence for–is that WiT groups are beneficial. So, sure, it’s fine that you don’t get anything out of WiT groups, but must you tear them down? Has it occurred to you that a lot of thought and a lot of work have gone into them–yes, even GDI–and they have benefitted an awful lot of people? What is the point of this anti-WiT rhetoric and the hashtag you’re trying to co-opt? (Seriously, other people are using it already.) My goal is to defend something I believe is valuable (based on lots of data and also a fair bit of anecdote); what is your goal, in this?

      One factual correction: the program I co-host isn’t for kids, of either gender. There is a program for kids of both genders, locally, but it’s separate from ours. We teach adult women (and their friends) to code.

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  2. skud

    Ha. I didn’t read the original article until I saw it linked here, but I found myself thinking “I have problems with women in tech groups too! I wonder if they’re the same?” Turns out they’re not.

    My problems with (some/many) women in tech groups are:

    * Many of them don’t identify as feminist, or occasionally are explicitly anti-feminist. How the hell can you even do this thing without recognising that it’s feminism? ARGH. (One incident actually involved a blog post saying “we’re not feminazis” — yes, that exact word — to make themselves seem less challenging.)
    * Some of them repeatedly privilege the voices of male “allies” over actual women in tech. I’m looking at you, NCWIT.
    * So many of them are about “bootstraps” and “empowerment” in a way that really grates on me. Think “Lean In”.
    * So many are about supporting young or early-career women in tech, and older or more experienced women are left by the wayside. No, I don’t need a beginner HTML class, I just need some peer support from people who’ve been through 20 years of this shit like I have.
    * Some of them intentionally present themselves as being “against” the stereotype of techies as ill-dressed loner nerds or whatever… in a way that makes them unwelcoming to women who *are* ill-dressed loner nerds. It’s nice that pretty, feminine women can be into tech… but if you actively exclude ill-dressed loner nerds who happen to be women, I will hate you.
    * Corporate sponsorship, ugh. Shanley’s all over this at the moment, go read her stuff.

    1. Coral Sheldon-Hess (@web_kunoichi)

      Hi, Skud!

      Interesting points. It surprises me that any WiT group would identify as explicitly anti-feminist, though I absolutely believe you that they do, and I share your horror. The one I help run doesn’t explicitly use the word “feminist” anywhere on our website (though perhaps we should), but we share feminist and female-empowerment stories on our Twitter feed–and just generally try to showcase female voices WAY more than male ones, in our online presence. (We have no male teachers, because female role models are half the point. We’ll probably have some male teaching assistants whenever we get to the full day Python or Ruby workshop, because a high teacher-to-student ratio is also important.) I’ll watch NCWIT harder, though; I had no idea there was a gender disparity in what they shared!

      I hear you on the early-career part, though, I mean, part of the goal is to increase the numbers of women in tech, and that requires recruiting some beginners. I get some of my networking-with-experienced-folks done by being part of the teaching staff, and that’s definitely one thing I’d recommend. The other is, why not create a women’s networking group of your own? Name aside, I love the idea of Geek Girl Dinners! (They do often have sponsors, but I think the concept could be adapted, so no sponsorship was required.)

      I’m with you on the loner-nerd thing, too. Maybe the theory is that all the loner-nerd-girls already found tech? Or maybe it’s just a bad kind of bias and anti-feminism creeping in somehow, like some of your other bullet points. But this is another thing we don’t do, with my local group; at least one of us will do the “geek shirt and jeans” thing, while [sometimes, depending on the event] the other will wear a broomstick skirt and blouse–again, trying to get across the “ALL women are welcome” idea.

      This got kind of long, but I guess my point is, you have some reasonable critiques. I stand by my suggestion from the post: please please please, volunteer with your local WiT group(s), or create your own, to help fix some of these things! You have good ideas and experience, so I feel like you would be an asset to any WiT group!

      1. skud

        Um, I find this comment quite condescending :-/ I’ve started several women in tech groups over the last decade or so (including Geek Feminism blog and wiki, and serving on the advisory board of the Ada Initiative, and a local meetup group operating as a safer space for women to give tech talks) and volunteered for others in various roles. I’ll volunteer as and when my energy and interest allow, however, I don’t feel in any way obliged and resent being pushed to volunteer for orgs that make me feel unwelcome.

        1. Coral Sheldon-Hess (@web_kunoichi)

          I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to sound condescending. You listed the problems you had with WiT groups, and it didn’t occur to me that you might already have created and volunteered for some. I read your disagreement with some specific groups as disagreement with the movement.

          Again, I apologize.

    2. megpie71

      Okay, I’m coming from a somewhat unusual direction here.

      I’ve worked in tech. I worked for five years in the technical support section of a major government agency while I was living in Canberra. No outreach from any “Women In Tech” groups there – in fact, I still don’t even know whether there are any “Women In Tech” groups in Canberra. I moved back to Western Australia, and worked on and off contracting for about another year and a half in tech support – no indication of Women in Tech groups or any outreach done there either. Wound up on the dole for a year or two after the crisis of 2008, and an employment service provider suggested I consider getting a degree in IT as a way of improving my employability in an industry where a lot of the employment appears to be done through Central Casting (if you don’t look like what Central Casting would send down as a helpdesk tech, you’re going to have a lot of trouble getting past the initial screenings). So I went back to uni, and started studying Computer Science (I’m still studying it part-time). During my first few months, I discovered there was a Women in Technology group here in WA (it’s called “Women in Technology WA” or WiTWA for short) so I signed up for their newsletter.

      I get about two or three emails a year from the group. They’re generally invitations to corporately sponsored dinners, at about $100 a plate. (I’m unemployed. I can’t afford a $100 a plate dinner; $100 is about one fifth of my fortnightly dole cheque, and it’s the fifth I usually use to pay for groceries for two people for the fortnight). The most recent such item is an invitation to a workshop on “Behavioural Profiling” costing $35, running from 5.15pm to 7.30pm in an office building in the Perth city centre. (Sorry, how does this relate to technology?)

      From the evidence I have at hand, the WA group is mainly centred around the networking opportunities for those women who are already employed in the IT industry here – as HR managers. Very little of what’s come out to me over the few years I’ve been a member has made me even vaguely enthusiastic about joining up or joining in (and given I have chronic depression, I do NOT have the energy to try and reform things).

      So I can see where Skud’s coming from here. Possibly it’s a disease which has crept into the Aussie WiT scene – where it’s been taken over by HR and management to the point where actual geeks don’t get a look-in. But it doesn’t make me feel enthused about participating in technology, or welcome in the space.

      1. Mary

        Background: like you and Skud, I live in Australia. I’ve been employed in tech in the past and currently am employed in… meta-tech, I guess (the Ada Initiative, which doesn’t presently have events planned in Australia).

        We do have many more networking focussed WiT groups. It’s not really a disease that has crept into Australia so much as that the evolution of WiT groups has actually tended to be that the expensive, corporate-focussed ones that are focussed on networking between the kind of people who can afford the price of admission came earlier (or at least survived longer). Some of them have been around for decades.

        I’d be more inclined to say that more grassroots WiT groups and initiatives like, say, RailsBridge, are what hasn’t so much crept into Australia, it’s something that has happened less here so far. Especially outside Sydney and Melbourne. They, to me, seem to arise from the traditions of FOSS groups, which have a long history of free/cheap/grassroots events (and of course a well-known problem with sexism). The FOSS scene in Australia is also pretty big and pretty old, but doesn’t seem to have a critical mass to form really active women’s groups.

        FWIW, what I know of in Australia (and I am not necessarily endorsing all these groups, but they at least have a pricing model that’s more acceptable):
        There are active Girl Geek Dinners in Sydney (although the website is down), Melbourne and Brisbane that are generally free for attendees (usually due to corporate sponsorship) and at least more inclusive of students, unemployed and hobbyists than older WiT groups. There was also an active GGD in Canberra in recent years but the organiser moved.
        There’s a PyLadies Australia (Python) organisation in the early stages of getting organised, and for that matter PyCon Australia has a reasonable history of admission and travel scholarships to encourage women to attend PyCon itself.
        There’s Oceania Women of Open Tech, in which I am pretty involved, but we are very very quiescent right now. The IRC channel is probably the best way to meet people in OWOOT.

        (I know non-Perth or online groups won’t be useful to you specifically, but there are probably also lurkers/searchers who might benefit.)

    3. Lindsey Kuper

      Skud, I think your comment pretty well addresses my frustration with certain aspects of how certain women-in-tech groups operate, as well.

      In Rebecca Stavick’s post, she specifically complained about the Girl Develop It slogan “don’t be shy”. I realized that I dislike that slogan as well, but not exactly for the same reasons. I think my reasons for disliking it are related to a couple of your points, Skud. (First, what if someone *is* shy? There should still be a place for her in tech. Second, it subtly turns blame for failure back on individuals, rather than addressing the structural reasons for inequality in tech. I hear a subtle message in there that if I’m a woman and not succeeding in tech, then it must be my fault for being too shy, rather than a structural problem.)

      That said, I don’t think disliking one group’s slogan is anything even close to a reason to indict the group as a whole, let alone all women-in-tech groups.

  3. rebeccastavick

    Of course women-in-tech groups are valuable – they’ve benefitted countless people, and I’ve never claimed otherwise. I recognize that bad ass tech leaders like yourself have put a lot of hard work into developing women-in-tech groups. I don’t really disagree with you on many of your points and the concept of integrated gender groups would in no way replace women-in-tech groups

    My post is about how I prefer to learn as part of a diverse crowd. My message is that men and women can learn together, and if we can get people in the same room together, face-to-face, then we can break down barriers together. To me, bringing all genders together to learn and collaborate with one another is the ideal situation. So – why not shoot for the ideal?

    Interestingly enough, a local woman tech leader pointed out yesterday that a big tech event coming up this month has over 40 male speakers, and 0 female speakers. This is a situation where both women-in-tech groups AND gender-integrated groups can help – women only groups can boost confidence and integrated groups can provide that essential face time that men and women need to understand each other. If men encountered more women at their tech meetups, don’t you think they’d be more inclined to notice if they didn’t see any women at big events? I think so. And a lot of men and women agree with me.

    As a result of this conversation, I had a gentleman ask me yesterday about how members of tech meetups in the area can encourage women to attend meetups. I realized that inviting women might be hard, weird, or awkward for some men, or maybe the idea has never crossed their mind. I’m going to meet up with him to chat and brainstorm ideas. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll be damned if I don’t try to make a positive impact in my own way.

    1. Tim Chevalier

      Do you think that men sexually harass women who attend tech events because they’ve missed out on “that essential face time that men and women need to understand each other”? Or that women cause this harassment by not “understanding” men enough?

  4. rebeccastavick

    That’s absolutely ridiculous. I hope you realize you’re only reading one negative opinion of my post (well, the only one actually, all others have been positive) that’s coming from someone who thinks gender-integrated tech groups threaten women’s tech groups. They don’t. I hope she’s starting to realize that.
    I’m arguing that it’s a good idea for all genders to learn together in tech groups. I’m also arguing that gender-integrated groups will (and currently does) great things for gender equality in tech. Do you disagree? Do you think women and men shouldn’t learn tech together?

    1. Sparrow

      Wow, are those leading questions. I’m assuming you’re responding to Tim, here. It is a good idea for mixed-gender groups to learn together. *Some* mixed-gender groups do great things for gender equality in tech.

      *Some* mixed-gender groups include people who behave in sexist and creepifying ways, and people who excuse and defend such behavior. *Some* mixed-gender groups are toxic, hostile to women and queers, and generally gross. I think that in this non-ideal world where some people have the options “join a mixed-gender group where people will be condescending and unwelcoming” and “take my toys and leave for a no-boys-allowed or otherwise less hostile space,” I have nothing but respect for the people who take option 2, and I don’t think they’re the problem. I’ve done option 1, for years, and I don’t think it was a great thing for gender equality in tech. It was a great thing for nailing home the point that a handful of guys are douchebags, and a lot of other people will sit quietly and/or make excuses for them rather than doing anything about it.

      I don’t think women’s tech groups threaten mixed-gender groups, or the other way around. When you discount the experiences of people who have put up with a lot of hostility in mixed-gender groups, and suggest that their interest in women’s tech groups is exclusive or otherwise uncool, I think you’re blaming people for having been victimized by sexism, and blaming people for making the rational choice to try to avoid (some of) it.

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