I’m one of the founding board members and advisors to the Ada Initiative, a 501(c)3 charitable non-profit that supports women in open technology and culture. This year, I am supporting the organization through a donation of $1024.
My reasons for supporting the Ada Initiative, advocating for their work, and now donating are many. I started out working with open source software in 1996, as a sysadmin setting up backups for a small research lab at the University of Oregon. I’d installed Linux from floppies in 1994, and surrounded myself with other open source advocates, sysadmins, hackers and finally, computer science students. Open source software has defined my career, and most of what I’ve chosen to do with my life.
In those few years in college, I met only two women who were interested in open source software – one that I brought with me from Chemistry into the Computer Science program and a woman who worked in Academic Services. I met no other professors, fellow students or friends online to collaborate or talk with.
All my mentors and friends were men. And, to be honest, I never thought much about that. Growing up, I tended to hang out with boys or spend a lot of time alone. As I started to think about computers and programming as fundamentally changing society, as tools that enabled and could dramatically change lives, I felt discomfort that only men seemed to know the things I knew.
A critically important aspect of being involved in the work that the Ada Initiative does is simply introducing women to each other in our communities. I’ve attended all three AdaCamps – in Melbourne, AU, Washington DC and San Francisco. Each gathering was larger than the last, and I’ve had important conversations at each that have changed my thinking and my activism in significant ways.
My most striking realization is how little work is done to educate adult women about computer science, about open source and open culture. Most outreach efforts focus on children, with the implication that adults are some how “not worth the effort”, “beyond help”, or that adults will simply find the things that interest them on their own.
My experience with the Ada Initiative, and with PyLadies contradicts everything that I had assumed, and everything that some advocates for early CS education for girls have implied — that the only way to change diversity is to start with a new generation of kids.
Adult women want the same skills that anyone interested in computers want. But there are important social and economic barriers to pursuing those goals.
The grassroots movement to educate adult women in writing software is inspiring. It reinforces my belief that it is never too late to learn these skills, and the women who seek out these classes inspire me with their dedication and fearlessness. Because of what I’ve learned and experienced, I’m now taking a break from the Ada Initiative advisors board to focus on my work with PyLadies.
Many people share my discomfort with a world whose code is only written by men. We’re making important changes in the way women view open technology and culture. We’re showing women that they definitely can learn and master these skills, that there are huge benefits to doing so and that women fundamentally belong in our communities. That work, I believe, also leads to the kind of intersectional awakening about diversity that all community builders should have.
The work of the Ada Initiative is difficult, wonderful and making a huge difference in my life. Please join me in supporting the Ada Initiative in 2013.