Women Only Events
Though I’d been a participant in female-focused events in the past, I had never helped to make one happen until this month. In the last few weeks, I helped to organize two women-focused events in scientific computing. My experiences as an organizer of these events brought up a few thoughts for me. Foremost, I was reminded that women are excellent. Also, though, it raised concerns for me about the effects of gendered isolation, the need for supportive non-female allies, and remaining change needed in STEM culture.
Three Weeks, Two Events, Hundreds of Women
The first of these events was a Software Carpentry bootcamp for Women in Science and Engineering. For that bootcamp, I was the lead instructor, and my summary of that event can be found at the Berkeley Science Review. The second event was a Women In Tech data science tutorial for female Bay Area high schoolers. It took place in conjunction with the Silicon Valley PyData conference and was led by the unstoppable Cindee Madison.
Sometimes, you want to hold an event at a conference that is intended just for women. It’s tempting to hold it in parallel with the conference, but the result is often that the actual conference is left bereft of women. This happened last year at SciPy2013 when we held the ladies mixer at the same time as the full conference mixer. The result was the women felt left out of a large part of the social aspects of the SciPy conference. It also happened somewhat last weekend at the WIT event. While the WIT event drew many women who otherwise might not have attended PyData at all (myself included), we were certainly isolated from the rest of the conference for most of that day.
At SciPy2014 (this year), we’re going to hold the women’s event over lunch, when there aren’t any other official social events going on.
Just as the queer community benefits from heterosexual allies, so too, women and women’s events benefit greatly from non-female allies. These allies might be volunteer helpers (as in the WiSE bootcamp), helpful venue employees running the A/V (as in the WIT event), or supportive discussants (as in the mixer at SciPy2013). Allies come in other forms as well. Often, they’re community leaders. For Software Carpentry, we have an all-star supporter in Greg Wilson. In the WIT event, we had Travis Oliphant, who dropped by just to smile in the background and quietly observe what NumFocus had supported.
When women are only a small fraction of a community (as is the case in STEM) our allies from a better-represented demographic are essential for boosting our signal, but are too often forgotten. I’m looking forward to the SciPy 2014 ladies lunch, which may have a number of supportive ally attendees.
The most important thing that was solidified for me in these events was the importance of culture. Apropos ‘leaning in’ and ‘whistling Vivaldi,’ the culture of a learning or working environment is so pervasive it can be simultaneously indetectible and debilitating. It was jolting to notice in these events that a room full of women felt so vastly different from the culture I breathe day-to-day. As we are chronically exposed to the effects of our gendered culture, we somtimes forget their power. A few hours not feeling the weight of my ‘otherness’ reminded me of the immense mass of the culture that still needs to be shifted.