Opening ‘open’: why I donated to The Ada Initiative

Open technology and open culture is important to me. Free and open source software is vital to my research work, and as a researcher and an educator, I do what I can to support open access to important materials. Open culture and technology help support a more equal society, making key tools and information available to those who would not otherwise be able to access them.

But the culture around ‘open’ is, in important senses, still not that equal or that open. Recent discussions about aggression within the Linux development community have highlighted the ways in which particular kinds of language and interactions can work to exclude women and other people who are not brought up to interact aggressively, or who tend to be penalised for ‘assertive behaviour’ (including black men). Issues such as this are, perhaps, one of the reasons that women are underrepresented in most (but not all!) free and open source software communities. Women are also underrepresented in the supposedly open and meritocratic field of academia, at least in more secure positions: women are more likely to work in insecure, poorly-paid sessional positions (which contributes to their lack of time for publishing). On Wikipedia, women’s contributions to the world tend to receive relatively limited coverage, and women are underrepresented as contributors (happily there are efforts underway to change that).

I donated to The Ada Initiative, as well as volunteering on the advisory board, because I want to see more women in open technology and open culture. More than that, though: I want to see the culture around ‘openness’ change. I want to go to conferences with clear codes of conduct and diverse speaker lineups (which means more than a better gender balance). I want to go to more events like AdaCamp, which connect women with different perspectives and life experiences.  I want technology that meets the needs of people other than the privileged (and I’m not sure that’s best done through any kind of ‘business model’). I want to help build ‘open’ spaces that actively engage with questions about how gender, class, sexuality, disability and race affect open culture and technology.

The Ada Initiative is making important contributions to this, including by modelling good practices for accessible events; supporting diverse participation at AdaCamp through the selection process and with travel grants; and providing a space for allies. If you can afford to donate, you’d help The Ada Initiative to run more AdaCamps, build resources for event coordinators, do important research on diversity in open technology and culture, and support gender diversity initiatives.

Want to read why others donated?

  • Sarah Sharp donated in part because AdaCamp helped her to recognise her own ‘impostor syndrome’.
  • Selena Deckelmann writes about how the networks formed at AdaCamp are reshaping her work.
  • Liz Henry supports the ways in which The Ada Initiative makes women in different open tech and culture communities visible to each other.
  • Connie Berardi says that AdaCamp can have lifechanging effects, as can other work supporting women in open technology and culture.

AdaCamp Melbourne

Donate to the Ada InitiativeI didn’t take too many notes at AdaCamp, partly because I wanted to be participating fully and partly to respect that we were working under Chatham House rules (which I think will probably be modified for future conferences, as many participants seemed happy to be identified). This summary is therefore quite general, and will just pick up on some of the themes and ideas that came up in the sessions. There’s also a brief wrap-up over at the Ada Initiative blog which links to other posts about the camp.

A young girl learning to solder.
Image courtesy of oaklandEarthGirl

The first session I went to was on mothering/caring friendly spaces. Several of the participants spoke about the ways in which many geeky spaces marginalise children, which can also make parents feel unwelcome. For example, children are often uniformly banned from hackerspaces, rather than creating safe areas for younger children and/or recognising that older children can work on potentially-risky equipment as long as they’re given the right training. People raised a number of different potential strategies for dealing with this, including asking people to think back to their own experiences when they were young and trying to support mentoring programmes. At a more abstract level, I also think that it’s important to actively address the ways in which caring work is gendered: to encourage more men to recognise the value of caring work and to participate in it.

There were plenty of links between this session and the following one on how to teach and learn about feminism in geek communities. People shared some great ideas on creative strategies for making material available (like using videos and comments), as well as potential issues with some of these strategies (women talking about feminism in a video that allows comments are almost certain to experience a heap of draining harassment, including comments on their appearance). We also talked about ‘magic man sparkles’: the tendency for people to pay attention to messages from men that they ignore or react to with hostility when coming from women. I feel quite conflicted about actively trying to use ‘magic man sparkles’ to get the message across: on the one hand it feeds into sexism, but on the other it allows allies to play a role in supporting the movement and it can be quite an effective strategy.

The session on gendered divisions of labour within geek communities had some great input from participants working in open tech and culture – I really appreciated the chance to hear more about this from the perspective of women working in FOSS and related areas. For example, people talked about the ways in which hierarchies of value play out in FOSS communities, with developers seen as most important and contributions of designers, testers, administrative workers, and other non-coding areas being marginalised. People also raised some interesting questions about the methodology for assessing contributions: someone pointed out that studies showing very little participation from women in Wikipedia may be skewed because women might be making small contributions without logging in, or may not feel comfortable identifying their gender online.

Grafittied wall and pavement with images of Emma Goldman and Emiliano Zapata
Image courtesy of Ariel Dovas

The session on ‘open * philosophy’ and the links between different ‘open’ projects was perhaps the most interesting to me, given my background. Many of the participants at AdaCamp came from programming or other open tech backgrounds and are largely self-taught in feminism, which they drew on in really nuanced and interesting ways during the discussions. However, there seemed to be less awareness of some of the political philosophies and traditions that might be useful when thinking about women in open tech and culture. This is understandable: not everyone has time to wade through a heap of political philosophy, especially when some of the more relevant work has been incorporated into feminist theory/practice. One of the ways in which I’d like to contribute to the ongoing discussion around AdaCamp is to put together a short reading list for anyone who is interested in learning more about potentially-useful political ideas. If you have anything you think should be on the list, let me know in the comments.

I’m very glad that I went to AdaCamp. As several people noted in the wrap-up session, it was an inspiring and restorative experience to be able to talk knowing that there were certain basic understandings in place about things like feminism and privilege. It was also great to meet so many people that I’ve come across online, and many others who I hadn’t (including a few from Perth). I’m looking forward to continuing the conversations that began at AdaCamp over the coming months.