Julia Evans

Women-only spaces are a hack

(this is migrated from Medium post I wrote – it turns out I don’t want to maintain 2 blogs.)

Imagine you have a program, and it has a pretty serious issue. It needs some deep architectural changes to fix it, but you can alleviate some of the symptoms by just changing a few lines of code. You don’t yet know the best way to resolve the larger problem, but you need to do something, so you start with a hack.

This is why we have women-only spaces. I’d rather not. The place where I’ve learned the fast and is my favorite wasn’t a women-only space, it was the Recurse Center, which was about 40% women at the time.

The bug that we’re hacking is that women are often treated badly at tech meetups, and this makes some women feel unsafe going to those events. If you want examples, see this description of two women going to a BitCoin meetup, or the Geek Feminism list of incidents.

If there are no men, nobody can get harassed by men. That’s it. That’s the entire hack. This has the, to me, unpleasant side effect of excluding lots of people who I would like to hang out with. It means you need to be careful about making it clear that trans women are welcome, and make some careful decisions about nonbinary folks. But it still sometimes makes people feel safer, and that’s what we’re trying to do.

I help organize a meetup called Montreal All-Girl Hack Night, where the goal is to have a fun technical meetup where nobody gets asked if they’re “really a programmer” because they’re wearing makeup. We’re not trying to change the world. We’re just trying to learn some things, meet some people, and have a good time. We asked people if we should let men come to Hack Night. There was some disagreement, but several people told us they felt safer in a women-only environment and that sold it for us.

Women-only events aren’t the only way. At the Recurse Center, they model excellent behaviour, build a strong community, have social rules, and only admit people who they think will treat others well. It works. The Boston Python Workshop, a workshop for women to learn programming, lets anyone come if they’re invited by a woman.

Women-only events aren’t a perfect solution, but they can be effective at making people feel safer. It’s a hack and it doesn’t fix the root cause of the bug, but sometimes it’s good enough for now. That’s what hacks are supposed to do.