Why there is more than one women in tech group

Women in Tech groups proliferate, and a community leader questions why

I needed to get this off my chest before I can write what I really want to write. My next post will contain observations about the kinds of women’s technology communities I’ve seen.

But before I go into that, I want to address a thinking error that crops up around communities, and especially around women in technology communities.

I was chatting at a table at a conference. A friend had brought pie to the table, was serving it and was making nerdy puns. I was handing out stickers of varying levels of appropriateness. We were all being noisy, and I imagine we seemed like a fun group to join — if only just to get a piece of pie.

Someone famous in that developer community, a technical and social leader in the community, saw us and joined the table.

Among my stickers were “Free Software Fuck Yeah”, JSConf, many different Javascript tools (they have great stickers), Python stickers, a few PHP ones, Firefox, Persona, Postgres, and stickers from the Ada Initiative, PyLadies, WoFOSS, the Anarcha Hacker Hive and more.

Stickers are cultural currency in the tech community. We often are involved in so many diverse and changing technologies. Talking about each of them in turn is sometimes impossible with our colleagues. And that’s not because we don’t want to. It’s that our experience, knowledge and vocabulary varies so widely we often can’t talk with one another meaningfully without spending a lot of time building up background knowledge.

The stickers are a short cut to finding something I can probably talk about with my new tech buddy. Trading stickers is something I do at nearly every conference.

Seeing the diversity among the women’s group stickers and recalling how many booths were present at that conference for women’s groups, the leader asked me: Why are there so many women in tech groups?

And the follow up question was: Shouldn’t women just create and belong to a single group?

Why there is more than one women in tech group

So, I realize some people might think that this is a totally legit question to ask.

For those people, I am going to ask you to do something really difficult. Please bear with me for a moment and join me in thinking this through, slowly.

Consider any kind of software you might use or work with.

Let’s start with browsers — Firefox, Safari, Chrome, IceWeasel, Explorer. Maybe a language — JavaScript? Lua? Scala? Or, a database — Postgres, MySQL, CouchDB, Redis, Memcached.

Why do we have more than one?

Now, think about each of the communities around each technology. Take JavaScript. Is there more than one JavaScript community?

An easy way to tell is to look at conferences. Is there just one JavaScript conference? Just one mailing list for JavaScript developers? Just one Twitter list all JavaScript developers exist on? One Google+ group?

And if you see that there are, in fact, multiple communities, you might question why.

Wouldn’t it be easier to learn JavaScript if there was a consistent voice in the documentation for it? If there was just one place to report bugs, wouldn’t it be easier to fix them? And, if we had just one interpreter, couldn’t we focus our energy on improving just that one?

At this point in the thought experiment, you might come up with an idea that goes something like this: if all the JavaScript developers would just get together in one group they’d be a lot better at JavaScript advocacy. More powerful. Better understood.

Because the purpose of communities, some people believe, is to present a unified explanation for their existence to the rest of the world. The reason why the community should present a unified front, in many people’s minds, is that the community needs to explain itself to the rest of the world in terms that the rest of the world can understand.


It turns out that communities exist for a variety of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with explaining themselves, a cause, a technology or a gender to the rest of the world. They might be affinity groups, where members just meet one another. A community might exist only to create art. They might be around as an experiment in anarchist management of a space. Anyway, there are lots of reasons that have nothing to do with explaining themselves or a technology.

These groups very naturally arise from the fact that women, like all people, have different goals, aspirations, personalities and interests.

If it still bothers you that these groups exist, think of all the other places in the world and technology specifically where we have differences and be comforted.

Or just deal with it.

Long story short, I explained in very patient terms to the leader that women had different needs, that the different groups reflected that and then went into a great deal of detail about what each kind of group does for the women (and men) who are involved.

My next post is going to be an explanation of the different kinds of groups I’ve seen, learned about and been a member of in the past eight years. There are quite a few, and super interesting work is being done in all of them.