Promoting Women in Hackerspaces

lessons from a hackerspace with gender parity


I'm a member of NYC Resistor. A hackerspace in Brooklyn, NY. For those who are not familiar, a hackerspace is a mix between a computer club and a shared studio, with an emphasis on computers and technology. There are hackerspaces all over the world.

Our motto at NYC Resistor is Learn Share Make, we emphasize sharing our knowledge. We're a family not a fablab, and what I mean by that is that we don't just go to the space to get work done and then go home. We go to work on projects while sharing new ideas, collaborating, learning new things, teaching each other, and just hanging out.

What I really want to talk about today is our gender ratio. 46% female is unheard of among hackerspaces, excluding spaces that only allow women (which itself is an interesting topic). So, I want to share with you how we ended up with a high female membership, and how we've maintained it.

It's important to have a code of conduct, and it can't just be "Be excellent to each other". This doesn't work because everyone has their own interpretation of what this means. We started our space before code of conducts were a thing, but we always had as one of our guiding principles that members should not creep out women.

When we decided to write an actual code of conduct much later, we had to define exactly what we meant by this. We felt it was important to describe behaviors we didn't like, not people, so we dropped "creep", and we say that you should not pay unwanted attention to women, and not insult women. And actually we expanded this to cover ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ability, and age.

A code of conduct is useless if you don't enforce it. We have taken people aside to quietly discuss their behavior, and when they double down, we kick them out. It's very uncomfortable when it's only women saying "hey, this isn't cool", so men, if you want to promote women in tech it helps to call out other men's bad behavior.

Members at our space have keys for 24 hour access, so we need to make the space feel safe. Our rule for accepting new members is, if we all feel comfortable giving the person the keys to our apartments, we can give them the keys to Resistor. So yes, we curate our membership. We get to know people before we invite them to join. It turns out this is a great way to build a healthy community. We also have a veto system for new members. If anyone wants to veto someone joining they can do so with no questions asked. This is important in cases where someone has been harrassed and doesn't feel comfortable discussing the details or having to justify their decision. And anyway, if someone is not going to be comfortable with a potential member, you really probably don't want that person joining, anyway.

The only woman among our founders was Diana Eng, a fashion designer and ham radio enthusiast. Having at least one woman in your founding group helps prevent you from accidentally creating policies that are adverse to women, and more than just one woman is better! Include women who are not afraid to tell you what they think, listen to them, and ask their opinions in meetings.

Enthusiasm, curiosity, and willingness to learn are the most important qualifications for membership for us. We decided early on that we didn't want any knowledge tests. No one should feel they have to prove themselves, and we didn't want members with toxic levels of arrogance promoting a toxically intimidating atmosphere. We didn't want to hear "Well, actually.." in our space, and we didn't want anyone to be afraid they would be told "You're not a real hacker". Many people with real potential come from backgrounds where there wasn't an opportunity or encouragement to learn about computers, mechanics, or electronics, and we wanted to be able to bring these people in and help them grow.

When we encounter people who don't know something we see it as an opportunity to share something we love. And we look for members who have this attitude, who want to teach others and put others' success above their own.

To learn new things you need to feel like you can make mistakes without being ridiculed. Because sometimes you 3D print spaghetti, and sometimes you blow things up. And that's ok.

Because if you're afraid to try because you're afraid people might make fun of you, you'll miss out on learning new things. We try to encourage experimentation within our space and we celebrate our failures because they're great learning experiences. And, you know, if you're telling people "No, don't put food in the lasercutter", well, no pie for you!

Early on we made the decision to call our open house night "Craft Night" to bring in a broad range of people, not just highly technical people. People were knitting in our space from day one and we always saw that as normal. It makes the space approachable to people who may be curious but afraid that they may not know enough to fit in or be productive.

On our open nights we make a point to greet everyone who comes in, give them a tour, find out what they're working on, and maybe teach them something new.

Building a healthy community means lifting each other up. Whenever someone's project get's published on a blog or in the media, there's a long thread on our email list where everyone is congratulating them. It feels really good.

So, should you lower the bar for women? No. You should just throw the bar away. The bar is used to measure people against what you expect to see, but you don't want the expected. You want to be surprised by people who do unexpected, interesting, and innovative things. Having no tech bar or knowledge requirement means we have members who do interesting things, like Shelby who is a popup book engineer and teaches our paper electronics classes. Or Colleen who does comic book design and hosts nail art make-alongs that are really popular. I could go on and on. Getting to know people before inviting them to join helps you to discover who has potential regardless of level of knowledge.

And as a final point in how to create a welcoming environment -- this photo was taken in our restroom. Sometimes it's the little things that mean a lot.

Ok, so you have created a good environment in your space, but let's be honest, if you build it they still may not come. We make a point of actually reaching out and inviting women. Often, because of previous experiences, women will assume that you space is just not for them and won't bother to check it out. We make a point of inviting interesting women we meet to visit the space.

Make sure the women in your space are visible to the world. Encourage them to post on the blog and make videos, it's a great way for other women to see that there are women doing interesting things at your space.

We have members teaching classes within their first year of membership and we teach all kinds of things. Making kit projects, arduino stuff, mold making, wearables, learn-to-solder, paper electronics, css and html, python, bookbinding, etc. A lot of women show up to these classes and it's a great way for them to see and get a feel for the space.

We also developed relationships with companies in the area that have positive contributions from women. Look around your local area, you probably have places like this near you. Hang out with them and you'll meet lots of potential members.

And finally, when you do get women into your space, drop the gender stuff and talk about tech. Women are in your space for the tech, not for yet another discussion about their gender. No one wants to feel like a freak or an oddity, we just want to fit in and get to work.

If you're not sure what to say to them, ask what they're working on, like you would do with anyone.