girl ghettos

The double-edged sword of trying to address the lack of women in technology as a woman is that, if you manage to get a group of technical women together, you’re going to end up creating what’s called a girl ghetto. A girl ghetto is where you stick the women you’re keeping around to show you’re in favor of diversity, but don’t actually want to interact with. Girl ghettos fucking suck.

Girl ghettos end up making women even more powerless because if they complain about the status quo, they’re looking a gift horse in the mouth. Girl ghettos end up pushing women away from each other when women realize that if they hang out with more than one other woman, men who were making an effort to reach out and include them begin to disappear, they’re not getting invited to participate in things because it’s assumed they now have their own things, and they begin to be invisible. Girl ghettos keep us treading water on the issue of gender diversity because we corral women into them and then abandon them.

And yet, they have their value. I’ve read things in the past that suggest women should avoid girl ghettos, and not get sucked into the trap. That’s missing the point. I’ve had the chance to hang out with a bunch of really smart women over the past few weeks and it got me thinking about all the years I spent styling myself as “one of the guys,” avoiding other women because I secretly believed they weren’t as smart as the men, worrying about feminist guilt by association, and having no one in my industry I could actually talk to. I don’t mean no one to talk to about women stuff, I mean no one to talk to period. Why? Cause while people might be civil to me and even like me, they didn’t really respect me. Would you respect a woman who secretly agreed that most women were probably lesser programmers? If you’re still in that mindset, let me tell you something: you are not the one special woman who gets it. You’re selling other women down the river, and selling yourself down the river by extension.

Anyway, so these several conversations with brilliant women have been especially amazing for me, because I spent so much of my twenties missing out on exactly that. But also because it underlined the tragedy of girl ghettos: groups of women are something we should be excitedly seeking out. Not because women need a refuge from the demands and competition of professional software engineering but because hanging out with other women software engineers is fucking awesome. I love hanging out with my male professional friends. But there is a certain battle most of them have never had to fight and will never have to fight. It obviously doesn’t happen with every woman, but when I meet a female dev who I get along well with, being veterans of that war deepens the connection in a certain way. It’s nothing tangible or discussed, but there’s a sense I get that my male peers go home whole at the end of every day, whereas the women in my industry had to give a chunk of themselves – some mix of pride, sensitivity, femininity, modesty, and caution – had to leave it on the battlefield and will hopefully go home with money and acclaim and creative satisfaction where that other part of their identity used to be, but will never be the same as a result of sticking with this profession. I continue to form, seek out, and join girl ghettos because of this. I want to know those other women.

As an industry, we need to stop apologizing for groups of women, and we need to stop turning them into girl ghettos. In order to do that, we need to stop expecting them to fail. Because although it’s nice to meet other women in your gender-imbalanced profession, these groups are one of the ways people try to correct that gender imbalance. You know there’s a problem when every time you hear about one of these groups it’s being described as though no one had tried to do anything similar before and the problem it’s attempting to solve is described as though it were revelatory information. If I were a cynical person, I’d say the industry even wants these groups to fail. If it gets appropriately excited whenever a new one crops up, waits for them to go off and solve the problem without bothering anyone who’s OMG busy coding, and then there are still not very many women, well! That must mean women don’t like/aren’t cut out for software engineering in the first place. For those who aren’t in them, this is the function of girl ghettos – they “prove” that women aren’t actually peers.

This is a hard thing to talk about because as much as it means exposing cynical douchebags, it also means shitting all over people who are trying to help. If we want to stop assuming women in tech groups will be irrelevant in a year, if we want to actually increase the number of women in this industry, not use a progressive set of disappointing mirages as a tool to sift them out of it, we need to support the ones we have. If you have personal or political conflicts with the people in an existing group, join/support a different one, or just be an adult and suck it up. If you’re geographically isolated, don’t go off on your own and start something new, bring an existing group to your town, or take an online group offline. I made that mistake myself with All-Girl Hack Night and, while the group that came out of it is great, it would have been just as great if it were DevChix Austin or something, it would have probably attracted the same great group of ladies, but starting a new branch of an existing group wouldn’t have meant starting from zero. Again. Just like basically ever girl ghetto ever.

This applies even if you’re not a group organizer or a woman looking for professional camaraderie. If you want to do something about the lack of women in technology, the best thing to do is partner up with a group of women. Not only is this the most direct way to help women, but it sends an important message: that you are not invisible in the girl ghetto. That you as a female developer are not worthy of assistance only when you’re completely alone, without peers male or female supporting you. That hanging out with other women is not the bunny slope, that it doesn’t demonstrate lack of professional skill or seriousness, and is not evidence that you can’t “play with the big boys”. When organizations overlook the girl ghetto, that is the message that’s sent: you better stay away from other women and succeed on your own, or alone in a crowd of men, if you want to be noticed and taken seriously. It’s a bunch of fucking bullshit.

Honestly, I don’t give a shit whether other women join a women’s group or not. I think they’re great, and I’ve met incredible people through them who, statistically, I’d be unlikely to otherwise. I believe in paying it forward and making my support available to women who aren’t yet on the other side of this industry’s inherent Concord fallacy, but whether that’s a role she wants to play is a decision an individual has to make for herself. But don’t shit all over the girl ghetto. You’re not into it? Cool. You don’t like hanging out with other women? That’s probably not cool, but I’m not your therapist. No one should be condescending to or failing to take seriously any group of developers just because it doesn’t include men. And certainly no one should be claiming to support women while using women in technology groups as a way to ignore them in bulk.

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3 Responses to “girl ghettos”

  1. Melanie Says:

    I go back and forth on this issue as well. While I’ve definitely enjoyed and benefited from participating in tech women’s groups, I’ve reduced my involvement to just a few. I grew impatient with the often general nature of the women’s groups–“women in tech” would include marketing, SEO, recruiting, design, HR people, and the discussions would be rather unfocused and not beneficial.

  2. Augustina Says:

    Wonderful blog entry Garann, definitely an issue near and dear to my heart ;D

    I’ve really benefited from being involved with women’s groups in my career, and I’ve also been frustrated by them. While at Adobe, some wonderful women started a happy hour for all the women at the company to interact. I was able to move from a shitty NOC position to a position on the InDesign Team in Release Engineering because of a woman dev manager I met there. On the flip side, I used to run Seattle LinuxChix and ended up disbanding the group because of the toxic negativity of some of the members. One thing I see that tends to crop up in some women’s tech groups is an attitude that all men are bad and too much of a focus on negative things that have happened in the past. It got to the point where a few individuals were making public claims about other Open Source groups in the area in such a way that they were starting to isolate Seattle LinuxChix :(

    Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to work with other women (which is like never) I always reach out to them!! Some have become long term friends while others were clearly uncomfortable and not sure what to make of my friendliness. But yeah, to your comments, I think women are traditionally a lot harsher on other women in tech. And while I agree it’s important to seek out women’s groups, it’s also important to keep a healthy mental balance (ie, men are not the enemy).

    I wrote a blog entry for Ada Lovelace Day a few years ago about the topic… http://augustinalareina.wordpress.com/2009/03/14/ada-lovelace-day-post/

  3. Andy Davies Says:

    As someone who’s been in software for a (long) while and dad to a 17 year old geeky girl…

    Women have traditionally formed groups for both social reasons and to support each other (Women’s Institute for example) but…

    What seems to be happening in technology is some of the female only groups are formed as a ‘defence mechanism’ because women are a minority and as you highlight there are dangers in that.

    I don’t have a problem with women only groups but for everyone’s benefit I think they have to be “as well as” not “instead of” mixed groups.

    The questions I ponder over are things like:
    Are women always going to be a minority in tech, and is that natural or is it a result of the environment.
    If it’s natural how do we support those women who want to go into tech?
    If it’s not natural how do we change things so more women go into and stay in tech?

    Andy