Women-only spaces are a hack

An explanation of women-only spaces for humans with programmer brains

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 most and felt the most comfortable wasn’t a women-only only space, it was Hacker School, which is about 40% women. I have so many friends who are thoughtful and considerate men and I love spending time with them.

The bug that we’re hacking is that women often get treated badly at tech meetups, and this makes people feel unsafe going to 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 unfortunate side effect of excluding all the delightful and wonderful men who would enrich an event. But it still makes people feel safer, and that’s what we’re trying to do.

At Montreal All-Girl Hack Night, our 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. Hacker School’s model of modelling excellent behaviour and only admitting people who they think will treat people well works. The Boston Python Workshop lets anyone come if they’re invited by a woman.

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