AdaCamp: The Magic Wand Session (Day 1, Session 1)

Hi there. I was at AdaCamp DC earlier this week. AdaCamp is a conference put together by the Ada Initiative non-profit organization to help further women in open source and open culture. I’ll be putting posts in this category under the AdaCamp DC category so watch that category if you’d like to read more about the event.
AdaCamp is run barcamp style. Leading up to the event, Val and Mary led registered attendees in a brainstorm for barcamp topics to prime the pump. So, during the opening session on the first day, Mary read off the topics that we’d come up with collaboratively over email. Everyone was given a sheet of paper and invited to write up a proposal for either a topic off of the list Mary read or a new topic entirely. Then, Mary and Selena arranged the proposals along a schedule grid.
I believe there were 8 or 9 rooms going at any one time, and there were four slots per day. I’m going to walk you through the tracks I attended with a rough outline of what was discussed.

Session 1: If you could wave a magic wand, what would things look like?

The premise of this session was that right now, the gender balance in the open source and open culture communities is not what we’d like it to be. Selena proposed that we talk about what the world would be like if the gender balance was where we’d like it to be, and come up with some goals from that brainstorm. On day two, she took these goals and led a session where participants came up with strategies that would help make those goals happen using B.J. Fogg’s behavior modification model, but I sadly missed that part two session. 🙁
Here’s the rough breakdown of the model, though:

The model takes high-level goals and maps them down to specific behaviors that will get you to the goal. The process is to develop high-level goals, brainstorm a bunch of behaviors, then ‘crispify’ the behaviors to make them specific, concrete, and actionable. It involves changing long term behavior – forever – not just a one time change. This can fundamentally change people’s behavior and lead to serious societal change. Fogg’s research indicates that it’s much easier to get people to do something new than to stop doing what they’re already doing – so introducing new behaviors into their repertoire is the best way to stop an undesired behavior. For example, you can find new behaviors for people that make it impossible or hard to do the unwanted behavior. You could alternatively have them do something that takes up time, starving their available time for performing the unwanted behavior. You essentially design an antipattern of the unwanted behavior to stop behavior that pushes them away from achieving a goal.

(Anyone have aspirations of applying this to try to solve flame wars? 🙂 )
There were eight women in this round table discussion. For some it was their first time coming to a feminist conference. For others, they came looking for inspiration and ideas on how to improve their own community’s gender balance.
Here are the goals we came up with collectively as a group:

  • Goal #1: Less-developed communities worldwide will solve problems using open technology.

    We talked a bit about engaging both minority groups and less-developed countries. An example we talked about was Microsoft’s unethical business practices in Africa which have included locking governments into 3-5 year contracts and licenses and shutting out open source alternatives. Social justice could be supported by open source software throughout the world. Promoting the ethics of using free and open source software in places other than the developed world can help make that a reality.

    Both our current for-profit and non-proft business models don’t help us accomplish what we need to accomplish in solving the problems communities face. If an organization is non-profit, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s ethical. Other the other hand, ethics can help support for-profit business models.

  • Goal #2: In the developed world, people will recognize the ethics, outside of business model, around technology.

    Goal #1 sparked more discussion about ethics. Both our current for-profit and non-profit business models don’t help us accomplish what we need to accomplish in solving the problems communities face. If an organization is non-profit, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s ethical. Other the other hand, ethics can help support for-profit business models.

  • Goal #3: Women higher-up in an organization will regularly reach out and support women who are lower in the hierarchy.

    Someone mentioned Sarah Lacy of TechCrunch fame – I had never heard of Sarah Lacy before, but the woman who brought Sarah up seemed to suggest that that Sarah Lacy is someone who has broken a lot of barriers for females but instead of supporting other women, she takes a stance that women have to earn their place in tech the way that she did. I did find a few references that talk about things Sarah Lacy has said / done along these lines to support the assertion made by the roundtable member:

    The general idea then is that instead of pulling women who haven’t ‘made it’ yet up to their level, it seems sometimes women ‘at the top’ expect them to ‘suffer’ the way they ‘suffered.’ Which brings us to the next goal…

  • Goal #4: Achievement should not be tied to suffering and a high level of pain tolerance. Collectively we only suffer through rough stuff once and fix it for others.

    There’s an attitude from some women that, “Yes, things were harder for me, but it’s made me who I am. If you can’t go through it, you’re not as good as I am. Once you break through, it’s to your credit…” It’s a dismissive stance. All work and achievement shouldn’t require suffering. If we had a magic wand, for every thing a woman suffered through, no one else would have to suffer through it because there would be something like a puppet recipe to fix it!

    You have to document what you’re doing to make it easier for others to break in.

  • Goal #5: People at an early age should realize that technology is a career option for them.

    Young women are not aware that technology is a field they could get a job in. Two roundtable participants mentioned this point. One told the story of how she participated in a technology camp when she was younger. “I didn’t know you could have a job in tech and progamming,” she said. The other said, “I didn’t discover computer science was a major until I was 17 and looking at lists of college majors.”

    Exposure at an early age makes a huge difference. “The more I talk to other people, the more I find out is that women came to it really late,” another participant pointed out. “I would like to see at a very early age, letting people know what they can do.” The book Unlocking the Clubhouse by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher was mentioned as being a good resource on this topic.

    Another participant made the point that parents tend to give girls computer much later than boys. She said when her parents bought a computer, they put it in her brother’s room. She had to use the family computer until she got her own too. Parents need to be a part of the equation: her family was very encouraging in her being interested in tech, but still did this implicit thing by giving the a computer to her brother first.

In coming up with these goals, there were some other points we hit on in the discussion:

  1. If you work on proprietary software, you can’t talk about what you’re doing and the cool things you’ve done. It makes it harder for you to be an example to other women because what you’re doing as a woman in tech is in secret.

    Women working for proprietary companies have built cool stuff, but they can’t show you any of it. It can also hurt their chances in gaining credibility when trying to join an open source project, because they don’t have a body of open source code to point to that demonstrates their skills. “I’ve been programming the whole time and have no credibility because I can’t talk about it,” said one roundtable member.

  2. There’s a spectrum between being a visible technologist and being a social activist – and it’s hard to figure out the right place to be in that spectrum.

    One participant brought up the point that she doesn’t i aspire to be a teacher; she teaches only because she want to spread the technology skills to others to meet her social activism goals. How do you integrate those behaviors without losing what you are? What’s the ideal balance? What percentage of time should you spend on doing what you are so passionate about vs advocating?

    (This one struck a particular note with me – I haven’t posted to this blog in well over a month because I’ve been heads down and out of time for documenting and advocating.)

  3. We’re all fighting for that “token women” position.

    So sometimes it feels like there’s a bit of cattiness when two women encounter each other in a male-dominated group – it’s this weird thing that happens when there’s less women in a group. There was another session on day 2 devoted to this topic that I also sadly missed. 🙁

  4. People want to be with other people who are like them.

    One participant made this point, bringing up Black Girls Code. “That name seems a little exclusive, doesn’t it? People want to be surrounded by other pepole like themselves, though: getting other people who are similar and like-minded in the same environment.” Another woman mentioned some findings that indicated in order to increase the gender ratio in a computer science program, you have to have other women who are similar, otherwise women you encourage to join the program will feel alienated. She mentioned a study from cultural resistence research that looked at study groups formed by ethnic minority groups that indicated participants in study groups based on ethnicity in a computer science program were found to be much more likely to stay in that program.

  5. The structure of your family impacts your career choices later in life.

    When you have children, sometimes you have to choose between your family and a job. If you grow up in a family where your mother was the primary caregiver and your dad spends time in the garage ‘tinkering with cool things,’ you might get the impression that women shouldn’t tinker with cool things.

  6. Women have childcare expectations placed on them in an unbalanced banner.

    The Atlantic’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” article by Anne-Marie Slaughter is generating a lot of discussion on this topic as of late. Why can’t the guy have to choose? Why is that choice a burden on women only? That choice should be available to men too, but men don’t feel like they have a choice. One roundtable participant talked about how her husband is the nuturing one of the couple, but a lot of men – even if naturally nuturing and caring – worry about staying home with the kids because ‘it’s weird.’

    (This reminded me of the ongoing TV series Up All Night. The show is about a dad taking time off work while the mom continues her career and is an example that might help dads not feel like they are alone in that situation, maybe.)

  7. Having female role models at the top makes a cultural difference in an organization.

    One woman talked about how she started her career at a male-dominated consulting firm that nevertheless had a strong female culture, at least in part because there were women high up the chain who invested a lot in their female peers still working their way up, sharing how they balanced work-life and encouraging and mentoring them. Her current position is for an organization that does not have many high ranking women, and the gender gap at the organization is not something that is talked about. It feels like a huge gap to her, like something is missing that she had at her previous job.

  8. Sometimes the organizations pushing for cultural and societal change are in dire need of it themselves.

    Someone brought up the example of it not being an uncommon thing that union organizers work 90-100 hours a week. You have to take the positive change that you’re working towards and actually apply it to your own organization! When you push for a change, you have to make sure you live that way too. It’s a big issue.

    (As I’m cleaning up my transcription of the talk here, this point definitely reminds me of the ‘we have to eat our own dogfood’ mantra we repeat a lot in the open source community. Nice sly link bomb there, right? 😉 But yeah, depending on the computer you’re reading this blog post on, maybe the complexity of this point – which might otherwise seem an obvious and simple thing to do – is clearer.)

  9. There are real economic consequences to feminizing an industry.

    There is a lot of backlash that happens when the gender disparity of a field is pointed out and actions are taken to try to adjust that imbalance. One roundtabler cited Naomi Wolf’s book Fire with Fire. It discusses a lot of the issues that arise when a feminist position is advocated for in a previously male-dominated industry. One of the first things that happens, according to this book, is that the industry average wages drop, because women make lower wages.

  10. We aren’t all necessarily aiming for a 50/50 gender balance.

    “My goal is much more inclusive,” a woman in the session said. “There are a lot more different types of thinkers than just along gender lines.” She talked about how there are women who are tinkerers, but there are also women who are more interested in applying technology to solving a specific problem. She wasn’t a tinkerer – there’s nothing wrong with it, but the open source / open culture community already engages those types of thinkers. “We don’t engage people who are just trying to accomplish something big, and show them how to use technology to do that,” she pointed out. It seems to be a divide between low-level thinkers trying to control technology, and folks using technology towards a bigger end.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these session notes. Did we come up with any insights here that you think you might be able to build on?
Check out my other posts on AdaCamp.


  1. Michael says:

    People like Sarah Lacy are not uncommon, I also know some people like this ( I would count myself in this category, even being male ). And being tenacious is how some people progress in hierarchy, and so you tend to see this point of view quite a lot from people who made their way to the top, not only from womens and to womens.

    1. mairin says:

      I guess the thing is, it’s great for you to be able to cut through being tenacious if you are naturally that way. But for folks who have great things to contribute who have a different personality – they have to either change who they are fundamentally or give up.
      Seems like it’d be better if they could just meet somewhere closer to the middle?

  2. A little incentive for the guys to stay at home with the kids from my favorite children’s artist:
    I think guys should be a part of the equation (and “having it all” does seem to involve both parents collectively deciding what is “best” for their family). What likely complicates this (in general) is the continued income disparity between men and women even when working the same job.

    1. mairin says:

      Eek, that is a really good point. The parent who makes the highest salary, for a family with only one wage-earner, is absolutely the smartest choice from an economic perspective. It is really sad that the wage disparity is such that it forces the choice of parent the same way over and over. 🙁

  3. […] was skimming through Planet Fedora today, and came across a post by Mairin Duffy, one of the designers at Red Hat. She was writing about a conference called Ada […]
    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The comment’s server IP ( doesn’t match the comment’s URL host IP ( and so is spam.

  4. Really enjoyed this. Especially eye-opening for me because the gender balance where I work seems to be the opposite from what I generally hear. I believe the current count is 24 women, 3 men (including myself). We don’t write software — we’re communications — but the majority of my co-workers are either interactive designers or interactive developers.

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