This weekend I hosted FemmeHacks, an all-women* collegiate hackathon. We (FemmeHacks organizers) use * to intentionally bring attention to the fact that “woman” is a complicated label and we include cis and trans women, gender-queer, and non-binary folks. For the rest of this article, when I refer to women, please know this is what I mean. By hosting FemmeHacks, we create this space for women to come together, to build, and to learn from one another. To have space to focus on hacking and not to have to educate men. To have space to focus on creating and not the fact that we are the minority in the tech sphere. To not have to explain what it feels like to be the marginalized population. We had incredible diversity at FemmeHacks: cis and trans women, non-binary and gender-queer folks, a large number of Latina and Black women, high schoolers and undergrads and PhD students. We hosted workshops for beginners to learn how to code and for intermediate coders to improve their skills. We consistently heard the hackers say how empowered they felt, how much fun they were having, how they want to become computer scientists.
FemmeHacks wouldn’t be possible without the amazing companies that sponsor us. These companies donate money and send engineers to mentor our hackers. The engineers work with our hackers (many new to computer science) to help their dream projects become a reality. Groups of women who had never coded before were able to create full stack web apps in 12 hours thanks to these mentors.
At FemmeHacks last year, one of these mentors made an inappropriate comment. He told me he was impressed with FemmeHacks and that he “wanted to apologize for staring, [he] was enamored.” I was shocked and confused. He wasn’t staring so this wasn’t an apology. This was some pathetic pick-up line shrouded in ‘nice-guy’ persona. My heart started racing the way it does when I am both outraged and about to cry. I immediately called the other FemmeHacks organizers and asked what to do. I went through the usual stages: first thinking I did something wrong, then thinking I misinterpreted his message, then thinking I need to do something about this, then being afraid that I’m making this a big deal when it doesn’t have to be. I went through these stages when a male teaching assistant hit on me during office hours, when a male professor made an uncomfortable joke about having an all-female teaching assistant staff, when a male coworker told me that women don’t have to feel excluded if we just tried harder to belong.
I decided to email this mentor’s CEO (the company was a small start up and the CEO strongly established himself as an ally). The CEO responded well, told me he was sorry, told me he would deal with it, thanked me for telling him, etc. However, this still kind of ruined FemmeHacks for me. At least for a little while. Eventually the shock wore off and I could go back to basking in the glory of throwing an amazing event and empowering so many young women. My co-organizers (two of my best friends and strongest supporters) would joke about this man, try to make light of what happened. I would laugh too, trying to find it funny, but I still feel a twinge of pain when I think about it. Add this to my emotional baggage labeled “Existing as a woman in tech.”
This year, I was determined to make sure this didn’t happen again. We asked all of our sponsors to send mentors that identify as women, non-binary, or gender-queer. I explained if they were uncomfortable with this request or had questions about why, I’d be happy to explain. Almost every company was happy to comply. Two companies “never got these emails” and sent men. While a little upset, I addressed it quickly in the morning (saying something along the lines of, “While we did ask for women* mentors, we’re happy to have you here. Please be aware of some things: ask for hackers’ preferred pronouns, realize you’re in a women’s* space and be conscious of your choice of words and any unconscious bias you may carry, and have fun!”). Most of the male mentors apologized for not getting the memo and went on to enjoy FemmeHacks and help hackers work on their projects.
One male mentor came up to me to ask why we ‘excluded’ men from FemmeHacks. I told him we want to create a space just for women*, that having these spaces is important for marginalized groups, and this is the goal of FemmeHacks. He asked why I would deny men the opportunity to join, just because one man made an inappropriate comment. I explained that FemmeHacks doesn’t exist to teach men that women are equal; FemmeHacks exists to empower women and create a safe space for women to learn and build and create community without the usual burdens of being a woman* in tech. I asked him if he had heard of the hashtag “#NotAllMen” and the fact that this counter-protest detracts from the conversation women are trying to have. He quickly got angry and said that I wasn’t hearing him. He referred to us as “girls.” He questioned the fact that I was allowed to say “badass bitches” and men weren’t. He told me I was denying men the opportunity to learn from women. He told me FemmeHacks would be better if men were allowed in. I asked him if he realized the implications of him trying to teach me how to run a hackathon, if he realized that he was insulting me and the event I worked for months to put together. I told him calling us “girls” is infantilizing and is not the equivalent to “guys.” He called himself an ally, and then said this conversation was a waste of his time. Then he left.
Once again, I felt the familiar rushed heartbeat of wanting to cry and wanting to scream. I asked my co-organizers if I did something wrong, adrenaline coursing. I immediately felt guilty that I escalated a situation and maybe it didn’t need to be escalated. I replayed the conversation over and over in my head to see if I said the things I wanted to say, if I was inappropriate, if maybe I just didn’t hear him correctly. I commiserated on this event with other women that I trusted. Some of these were other mentors, women that inspire me and were astounded at this man’s behavior. Slowly the adrenaline receded and I gathered my thoughts, realizing he was completely out of line and I did say what I wanted to say. That he laughably considered himself an ally but was so far from it. That this is just another memory to be added to my emotional baggage labeled “Existing as a woman in tech.”
This story doesn’t have a resolution. I will continue to feel guilty about it, and then feel guilty about feeling guilty, to carry this emotional burden, to be angry, to be the feminist killjoy. I can only imagine that this man took nothing productive from our conversation — this I realized after he said he “just wanted to have a civilized conversation” and that I “attacked him” just for giving me a “completely valid suggestion.” I will continue to have these conversations with men, to carry the weight of having to be a computer scientist and educate my male coworkers on why diversity and inclusion is necessary, on how to be a good ally, on why that last comment he made was inappropriate. I will continue to reconsider my decision to be a computer scientist, especially when there are so many other fields I can work in that would be more comfortable.
But I will also remember the glowing faces of hackers when I helped them debug their code and finally got it to work. The young woman who came up to me and said, “This is the most motivated I’ve ever been.” The amazing projects our hackers created, especially those who had never coded before. I will celebrate the amazing work of my FemmeHacks teammates and of the hackers. I will continue to support and be supported by my co-organizers. The two women that consistently make me believe in myself, make me laugh, show me the fun side of working in tech. The two women that commiserate with me when our code doesn’t work, when our interview didn’t go as well as it could have, when we get labeled “women engineers” instead of just “engineers.” The two women that have inspired me endlessly, that are the first of many women that I look up to in tech, that are friends and allies and supporters and two of the smartest people I know. It is for them that I continue to carry this emotional baggage. For them that I continue to be the feminist killjoy, to make myself uncomfortable by calling out my male coworkers, to work in tech even though it isn’t the easiest decision. And together, we will return to basking in the glory of throwing an amazing event and empowering so many young women. Of introducing so many women to computer science. Of reinforcing our belonging in this field. Of creating a community of future leaders and badass bitches, to which we confidently belong.