Sorry to top-post, but a friend of mine has recently convinced me basically the opposite of what I’m saying in this post, and I needed to be sure that this historical context-providing post was framed in the right light, which now includes me disagreeing with my past self.
The conversation that convinced me to change my mind culminated in realizing that while women-only programs are bad, a situation where no women-only programs exist would be even worse, leaving women at a disadvantaged stage, because society is still pretty unbalanced.
At first I was happy to say that things like women-only support groups and hackerspaces were OK, because they provided support that was integral to giving women an edge, especially in such a male-dominated field like the tech industry, but that policies governing the distribution of salaries or stipends should be radically gender-neutral. The turning point on that principle was the realization that, to quote an unnamed wonderful person, “money is the primary medium for transferral of social power!” After making that connection, I stopped being particularly opposed to OPW, because I realized the necessity of that transferral and that money is one of the best ways to accomplish it.
The original post is preserved below, again, for historical reasons.
One of my favourite teachers ever was my 11th grade history teacher, Ms. Conway. She would give lectures that made us laugh and cry. But the most memorable thing she ever said to our class follows:
How many of you are feminists? (a few people raise their hands) You know, feminism only means that you think women and men should have the same rights. Now, how many of you are feminists? (nearly everyone raises their hands)
(see the definition of feminism at Merriam-Webster, e.g.)
Since then, I’ve firmly identified as a feminist. Maybe that makes me a member of a minority, especially considering the sort of person I seem to interact with on a daily basis. My feeling is that feminism is viewed as an extreme, radical thing, and that feminists are seen as people who hate men. Neither are true – feminism is the simple belief that neither women nor men are better than the other.
With that in mind, let’s talk about GNOME’s “Outreach Program for Women” (OPW), for which I was a mentor from January through April, and through which I met a lot of cool and interesting people. Another Wikimedian, an OPW intern herself, has already written about the idea that OPW is a sexist program, and I have to say, I have had a very similar feeling about it from the start.
In December, when I was asked whether I’d like to be part of more mentorship programs, I responded “yes” emphatically. A few days later, I got some emails and IRC messages about OPW, and read the literature. I was excited that the program would be bringing in more contributors for Wikimedia, so I again responded yes.
After a few more days had passed, though, I thought back on some of the literature, and on some of the things I’ve read in the past about affirmative action programs. I asked a few questions in various channels about why this program, specifically, needed to exclude men. Why was it that a program offering paid internships for working on free software was being offered to half of the population but not the other? The answers were a little dismissive, but satisfactory for me at the time, and ones that I had heard before and would hear again: Women are disproportionately affected by the current lack of women in the tech industry, we need to actively seek them out, and it’s helpful for them to have a place where they feel comfortable when they start out working somewhere, as well as a place that specifically indicates to them that they’re qualified to apply.
During the program, there was a lot of busy time. Not a lot of progression of my ideas on the matter. When the program closed, though, I asked in the OPW channel about the same thing. The same answers seemed to come out, but for the most part, I’m not sure I was convinced. While I’m glad that women feel more comfortable in that scenario, it’s at best a stopgap measure. Sustainable growth isn’t accomplished by treating women specially, it’s accomplished by making sure that the industry, and the communities where women will be joining along with men, are friendly enough places that nobody feels excluded.
Segregation isn’t the way to solve segregation. Affirmative action was maybe a good idea once upon a time, to open the door, or maybe just because we didn’t fully understand the issues at play, but we’re in a different time. Discrimination, at least in the Western world, is not looked upon as acceptable, and sexism is no exception. So maybe we should stop practicing it as if we still need to use these temporary solutions to crack open the door. The door is already open, or opening, and we just need to let everyone through. Having women-only events or programs excludes men who might want to learn too.
Things People Say
When I ask people why they’re choosing a women-only event, group, or program, I often hear many of the same answers and continue to be unimpressed. A few of the ones I’ve heard are below (please, comment, and I’ll try to add yours!) (also, if you want to rebut one or more of these, I’m happy to continue the conversation in the comments)
- Women need to be able to count on support from peers
- This is one of the more common explanations I hear, though it comes in different forms. Women and men sometimes have different needs, but some men have the same needs as most women and some women don’t have the same needs as other women. It’s ridiculous to offer a service to women and not men just because most women need the same service.
- Women are intimidated by the male-dominated industry and need a women-only place to find support
- While there’s certainly some truth in the intimidation, I reject the concept that women can only find support with other women. If there’s some *quality* of women that you’re looking for, maybe you should start a group that allows entry based on that quality rather than based on the professed gender of a person. It’s insane to block men from entry simply because they’re men.
I fully recognize that I’m missing things here. I invite people who understand this topic better than I to comment and help me understand. Hopefully we can learn from each other. I promise not to dismiss your ideas out of hand and strive for a fair conversation on the subject. I want to learn from you just as much as you want to learn from me.