Women’s geek groups

I’ve been, and am still, a member of various women-in-tech groups aimed at promoting women’s participation in or education about various geeky things. A couple of months back Melissa and I were discussing another of these groups (not one I’m in) which apparently has an IRC channel which is less women talking among themselves and more a place for men to come and talk to women about their personal problems.

We went on to discuss what a common problem this is: frankly it’s the major failure mode of women-in-tech groups that I know of (excepting just not doing anything, which is the major failure mode of every endeavour ever). It’s not so much about actual sex: if nothing else, it’s easier to get agreement among women members that your local supporting-women-in-tech arena is not supposed to be a place to pick up. It’s more about emotional vampirism: that is, people (especially men) who show up in order to have a place to off-load their emotional woes and pick up whatever cuddles they aren’t getting elsewhere. (Or, sometimes, men who don’t need emotional support but just want to hang with their women friends and shoot the breeze… who attract more men who are there to shoot the breeze with the existing men, thus resulting in a place that is called a women’s group but is in fact a bunch of men talking to each other. But at least the core participants will be more sane when you explain the problem.)

In women’s blogs apparently the problem is more reasonably well-meaning men who show up just asking if the women would mind breaking it down for them a little. I mean, please? Men yell stuff about your body in the street? C’mon. How often does that really happen? Is it actually a problem or is there just one guy left in the whole world doing this stuff already? (You can go here and find out more about that, by the way. The answer is: for a lot of women, it’s a hell of a lot. And also, the endless advice given to feminists and various activists about how to make their message friendlier and cuddlier and one day we promise it will be friendly and cuddly enough to be listened to we promise really this time for sure, that’s called concern trolling and I love that it has a name.)

Anyway, the reason this tends to be hard to deal with is that once it sets in many women participants do want to help these guys, occasionally to the point of wanting to explicitly re-purpose the group to do so. I mean, they’re there, they’re on board with the goals, they aren’t horribly rude (it’s depressing how many people have this as their acceptable standard of behaviour for good person worth hanging out with) and they, sometimes, actually are in need of someone to talk to and probably could do something with the love of a good woman, etc. Or, in some cases, they’re actually your friend from work who you invited because he’s a really nice guy and so wants to help. But meanwhile women are showing up wanting help with your C++ API, or to confirm whether or not the guy who has the keys to the ftp server really did say that about his wife and what to do about it and they’re finding a bunch of men all running their own woes past a bunch of women and a lot of them are thinking yeah, you know, I do that for enough men already.

And this inspired me to go out and provide a few resources if you’re thinking of founding a geeky women group, particularly one that is going to have social or semi-social spaces (you will almost never have an IRC channel that is anything else, by the way). I have wikied up a couple of statements of purpose (and codes of behaviour) that your group could hack up for their own purposes. I recommend doing so fairly early on in your group’s history.