AdaCamp: Geek Moms (Day 1, Session 3)

Hi there. I was at AdaCamp DC last week. AdaCamp is a conference put together by the Ada Initiative non-profit organization to help further women in open source and open culture. My posts will reside in the AdaCamp DC category; watch that category if you’d like to read more about the event.

Session 3: Geek Moms

In this session, a group of AdaCampers talked about what it’s like to be a geek mom, the challenges geek moms (and dads) face, and ways to balance being a mother with a career or contributions to an open source / open culture project.

Participating in conferences and other travel is difficult for moms

Motherhood changes your ability to travel for your job and to conferences. When a parent travels, very young children have a hard time understanding where the parent went. It’s really difficult to leave them, because you don’t want them to feel abandoned.

  • Remote participation isn’t a real solution. Virtual participation in a conference sounds like a good idea, but even in 2012 the software to enable this just isn’t as good. Remote participation in conferences, if offered as an option at all, is a really far cry from the in-person experience.
  • Having less conferences is also not a solution. It’s simply not realistic.

Child care costs are expensive

Child care is not cheap. Child care costs can also escalate quickly if you bring the person caring for your child with you, because you’ll have to cover everyone’s travel costs, whereas if you had gone by yourself it’s only travel costs for one.

  • One of the women in the session suggested that there are some larger care communities and cooperative living situations that may help. For example, another session goer mentioned a child care coop in Silver Springs, where members traded babysitting hours. The members get many years of childcare for basically free as a barter. She said the coop is so popular that there is a waiting list to join.
  • There is a caveat to child care as a solution for travel and otherwise getting out of the house – when you have very young children and you have decided to breastfeed, that’s not something you really need to be present for. When you have older children, a larger community of care is helpful at that point. If you don’t travel when breast feeding, you may miss out on 2 years of professional development.

Women can’t have it all?

The Atlantic article Why Women Still Can’t Have it All by Anne-Marie Slaughter came up in the discussion at this point. One of the women mentioned that a man told her on the plane that she would have to choose between career and family. Another participant brought up the particulars of The Atlantic article, however, dealth with a very high-achieving woman. “Being a CEO takes a lot of personal sacrifice, whether you’re male or female,” she said.
It is odd, though, that while both men and woman can be parents, the ‘choice’ seems to lay solely on women.
We talked about some scenarios for making it all work:

  • Mother ramps up while father ramps down. One participant described an alternative living situation around having a child: at first, the mother takes more time off of work than the father, and as the child becomes less needful of the mother in particular (e.g., as a result of weaning,) the father could scale back work his hours and mother could scale up her work hours slowly over time until they work enough hours to get by but also so that the child is being cared for properly. This suggested scenario might not work so well in the United States, though: it is notoriously difficult to have meaningful part-time work in the US.
  • Time-shifting was another suggested solution. One woman described how she has used timeshifting to spend more time with her daughter. She leaves for the office late, spending the early morning hours with her daughter. Then, she leaves the office early to spend more time with her daughter in the evening. After her kid has been put to bed, she spends a few more hours working. Overall, she’s putting in her eight or so hours, it’s just shifted throughout the day to accommodate her child’s schedule, with only 6-7 hours actually in the office. While this suggestion doesn’t work at every company, flexible companies tend to care about getting the work done, not how many hours it took generally.
  • There are also more non-traditional situations that can help with rearing a child. Another participant described a situation she knows of with two male partners. One of the men had a child with a homosexual woman. It wasn’t a love relationship and they have completely different social lives, so they don’t mind splitting the child care as much. There’s a lot less drama over it.

On part-time work

“A part-time policy seems like it would be a real game-changer,” pointed out one of the session participants. “How do we make that a reality for everybody?”
It’s clear that people want part-time work really badly. There are a lot of scam sites offering ‘part time work for mothers’ on the internet. Part-time work doesn’t just benefit families, it can benefits other folks. For example, artists who want to step back from their day job to focus on their art, or developers who want some more time to themselves to spend on a side business or consulting.
Why don’t companies offer part-time work in the US?

  • One reason we thought this might be the case is that in the U.S., benefits packages (particularly for health care) might be prohibitively expensive for companies to offer to part-time employees, so they just don’t offer the positions at all.
  • IP might be another reason. A participant relayed a story about a friend who is an electrical engineer. They tried for years to get a part-time position and was never able to go part-time. The engineer felt it was an intellectual property concern on the employers’ part: the company can’t manage what you work on at home from an IP perspective.

A session-goer wondered if the IP concern exists in other careers, such as computer science, but we moved on to talk about parental leave as a job benefit.

Parental leave

In the U.S., maternity leave is mandated but paternity leave is not. In Western Europe, some countries mandate that paternity leave be offered to employees as well. Part-time work and the idea of men and women sharing child-rearing duties more, balancing with work and family flows out from the extended paternity leave that is guaranteed by the government in some Western European countries. If the leave was guaranteed in the United States, maybe it would help change the culture so the men can take time off to care for their child.
Right now, fathers taking time off for their children is not structurally enabled: usually parental leaves are only allowed during the year immediately after birth and not beyond that. If you want to breast feed, it’s a 2-year committment. It makes the best sense for the mother to take time off in the first year of a child’s life and for men to take the second year after the child has weaned. Father-child bond-building is not seen as a worthwhile usage of extended time from work.

Mom-friendly spaces

At this point, we’d talked about a lot of intractable issues at the core of American culture. So we decided to flip the discussion around and talk about mom-friendly spaces. Some of the cool things the women in the session brought up:

  • The Mothership HackerMoms hacker mom space in Berkeley, California is a cool place where moms are given an opportunity to hack on crafting, making, and other kinds of hacking.
  • Women-only co-working spaces, such as HeraHub in San Diego, California.
  • Conferences offering child care and child rooms, such as

On child care at conferences specifically… There seems to be a lump of people who graduated in the early 2000’s in the open source community that are starting to have children now. It may be because of this that we’re seeing some open source conferences start offering child care and child rooms.

Providing child care at conferences

We then dived a bit deeper into talking about child care at conferences.
Linux had child rooms and provided nannies for child care. The men didn’t want to leave their kids at home, especially folks from North America who only have 2 weeks of leave: they didn’t want to spend one of their precious holiday weeks without their children. A lot of people from that generation are having babies now so we’re seeing more support for it.
Another session participant talked about how there was a push for child care at a conference she helped organize. She tried to get critical mass from folks in her organization with kids, to help make a case for it. The only other employees with kids were men, so she asked them if they would be interested in child care at the conference. “They looked at me as if I was from another planet,” she said, “and they told me they’d leave their kids with their wife.”
One woman was involved in organizing PyCon in the US. The conference organizers talk about providing child care every year and are willing to commit to it. Every year they put out feelers to guage interest in child care and they haven’t yet gotten enough of a response to justify support for it. She thinks maybe a lot more communities would have turned the corner and offered child care if there was enough obvious demand for it. She recommended that moms and dads interested in child care should, “be vocal about it if your conference isn’t supporting it yet.”
Someone else gave an example of a conference (sorry I didn’t get the name of it) that set of a child care fund. When every attendee registers for this conference, they are given the option to donate to child care fund for everyone. Whether or not an attendee is willing to pay for child care is separated from asking then if they’re planning on using it. The community overpays for the child care and always provides it.
One of the ways the Wikimedia Foundation is trying to address gender gap is to try to convince women to come to their conference. They also tried to publicize child care. Simply feeling out whether or not folks would be interested in child care is a hard way to get people to commit. Instead, they put together a conference sign up area just for kids, so you could sign up your kid with their age and name or pseudonym. They were able to understand the child care needs for their conference better that way. It’s been fun to be sitting in a room with women, men, with kids running around. The organizers tried to photograph and document the environment as an outcome so others can see a family-friendly space happening. It’s hard to say if having that documentation will encourage that family-friendly environment to grow. They are currently investigating ways of integrating child care rather than it being a side thing.
“Can we do a mailing list to do a babysitting exchange?” one women asked. “It would be a low-infrastructure setup.”
A nice side-effect of having children present at the conference: women with children working together with women without children, serving as an example / role-model to show how having kids and being involved in technology can work.

Getting kids more involved

One woman in the session talked about trying to get older children involved in geek life rather than simply trying to find a babysitter for them. Some folks who don’t have kids, however, don’t understand the difference between a 3-year-old and a 10-year-old. A 10-year-old could undergo a lot of safety training for hackerspace equipment. After advocating for it, her hackerspace is accepting kids under 18 to allow them to use certain equipment.
The insurance policy is an issue though – they ended up individually rating each workstation and determine on a one-by-one basis whether or not it’s adult-only or okay for children to use as well. This speaks to treating people based on their ability to do things and their skills rather than their age.
“Computers not complex, dangeorus machinery though,” another participant pointed out. “I have a problem trying to get my kids off of the computer – they play games.”
One woman told a story about how a couple of her technical friends would force their children to get out of the house and off of the computer. Their 14-year old started out just gaming, but now he’s making YouTube videos to teach people how to do javascript mods to web games – and his videos are widely popular. Gaming was not a shared hobby with him, though. They tried to discourage him, “Don’t be like us! Be like a normal person,” they would tell him.
Sometimes pushing a family member off of the computer goes from child to parent as well. Another participant talked about how her children get sad when she uses the computer – they don’t like it their parents using the computer because they want their attention and don’t like competing with the computer.

How to make big changes to support children and career

“Are there any parenting lobby groups?” one of the women in the session asked. Another participant gave Moms Rising as an example.
The Anita Borg Foundation Systers mailing list is another resource participants cited as a good resource.

Where to go from here

While I did not attend the second ‘Geek Moms’ session, we parted at the first session with one idea:

Is there an existing structure for sharing case studies of more family-friendly work policies that women have worked out with their companies so we can share stories and help each other advocate for better policies at our own work place? Could the Ada Initiative work on putting together plans / proposals / resources for conferences and companies to use to build out better support for families?

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? What do you think about geek motherhood? Do you have any ideas on how to balance your career with providing your children with a great childhood?
Check out my other posts on AdaCamp.


  1. i would add in the conference section, that it’s not just about abandonment. if you are breastfeeding a young child, it takes real effort to stock up on milk to feed them, and manage your milk supply while you’re away.

  2. Michael says:

    One of the issue ( at least in France ) with having child care is that depending on the age of the kids, this require someone “certified” for that ( ie, a professional with a diploma ). This unfortunately also place more burden on the organizers, as there is a legal limit on the ratio kids/(adult to supervise). My girl friend told me this should be 2 adults for 10 childs ( so if there is 1 issue, 1 adult can watch over kids and the other can go to the doctor ), and I think that’s around 1 adult for 3 younger one ( from what I remember from my collegue who have childs ).
    This also add some constraint on the conference space, like a room dedicated for this, etc.
    I know the Libre Software meeting organizers have tried to set this up some years ago, but the cost was prohibitive. So the best way to solve the issue is not only to have support for that, but also manage to have money for that, and for most of the conferences I usually attend ( ie grass root ones, with lots of volunteers, few sponsors, room given for free by university, museum, etc ), that’s far from being easy.
    On the other hand, I think there is more success on that point for paid conference, like CCC in Berlin, but paid conferences put other type of barriers.

  3. Thank you — yes, I’m finding these session notes useful and thought-provoking!

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