(Web)making it better for girls in tech at MozFest

Me standing in front of the MozFest "To Make/Making/Made" scrum board. Photo by Sammy James Dodds.

The MozFest “To Make/Making/Made” board. Photo by Sammy James Dodds

My passion runs high for getting more girls into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), so I was thrilled to be invited to Mozilla’s annual festival in London, UK this October to facilitate the development of a Girls in Tech teaching kit. MozFest is a sprawling, buzzing, beeping, humming multi-floor combination of science fair, conference and hackathon. I knew from previous experience with Mozilla that MozFest would be colour-saturated, high-energy and hospitable for a variety of learners. What I didn’t know is how hospitable the space would be for a critical feminist perspective on girls in tech.

I’ve worked and volunteered in a wide variety of “women in tech” spaces and, in my experience, most of them serve up gallons of delicious status quo Kool-Aid. Everyone laments the lack of women’s representation in the field, but the solutions usually espoused are typically of the “Lean In” variety: “If we all just work hard!…” We foist the solutions onto women’s shoulders and refuse to do anything about the commonly accepted beliefs and behaviours that perpetuate the problem. Beliefs and behaviours like rampant objectification of women (Titstare, anyone?), industry worship of a faulty concept of meritocracy, and those pesky, deeply-held sexist cultural beliefs about gender (and what different genders are capable of).

There is an intimate and nuanced connection between how women are treated and represented as technology makers, users, and in the products themselves (e.g. video game characters). This means that, in the long game, changing how women are treated in one sphere will probably impact their representation in other spheres. But it also means that we can’t just focus on creating spaces for girls to become technology makers, without making changes elsewhere in the industry culture. Otherwise we’re helping girls build the skills and confidence they need to kick ass in tech, then sending them into an occupational community ill-equipped to understand and welcome women kicking ass.

Much like how our culture treats the problem of sexual assault, we are more comfortable prescribing ways that women can think or behave to improve their lot in tech than we are prescribing changes for men and the industry’s gendered normative behaviour. Perhaps that’s because, as Clementine Ford suggests in the context of sexual violence, it is easier to understand the women in our lives as potential victims than the men in our lives as potential aggressors (or Part Of The Problem).

That’s why, when I had the opportunity to build a Girls in Tech teaching kit at MozFest, I wanted it to touch on gender stereotypes and sexism – despite the fact that, in other “women in tech” spaces, I have been explicitly discouraged from describing myself as a feminist or addressing the industry’s problems with sexism. When I worked with Mozilla before, they heartily encouraged my feminist muckraking with their Webmaker suite (they even shared some of it on the main stage at MozFest!), so I was hopeful. I felt I was in the right space to make a gender-critical Girls in Tech kit happen, but was still pretty sure I’d come up against pushback from a prospective scrum participant.

Imagine my surprise when every single conversation I had at MozFest about the kit (or women in tech more generally) delved comfortably into critical and political territory. Imagine my surprise when, even if a few of the people at the table had a less critical understanding of the problem, there was always someone to back me up. Imagine my surprise when every. educator. I worked with. understood my need to combine positivity and encouragement with critical analysis of industry and cultural norms and the false premises on which they rest. Imagine my surprise when I sheepishly proposed a less political angle for one activity, and the scrum group I was facilitating unanimously disagreed with me. There just aren’t enough <3′s in the world.

The first iteration of my Girls in Tech teaching kit is the product of 10 people, many of them educators, who were drawn to the project because they are passionate about making the STEM fields more hospitable places for women. MozFest was a gigantic event practically exploding with awesome things to see, do and make (highlights in the MozFest blog, Flickr and Tumblr), yet most of these people spent the better part of Saturday building a component of the Girls in Tech kit. Many others stopped by to ask questions or show their support of the project. Within nine hours we completed the kit’s first iteration, from learning objectives to activities to examples to discussion questions. And then I slept for, oh, five minutes, and hopped on a plane back to Toronto to do a(n also very awesome) workshop with Long & McQuade department managers on how to not be this guy.

The pace of work, the support and independence afforded to facilitators, the level of talent and commitment, and the tone of MozFest in general left me feeling exhilarated and inspired. I can’t wait to workshop the kit with a few more educators, refine its content and hopefully encourage a few organizations to adopt it as a free teaching tool. Feel free to use and remix the Girls in Tech teaching kit yourself, or share it with a parent or educator in your life.

2 thoughts on “(Web)making it better for girls in tech at MozFest

  1. I’m glad you had a positive experience advocating for feminism at MozFest. My experiences at Mozilla have been different. On more than one occasion, co-workers have told me that my advocacy of feminism has harmed my career as an engineer here. I’ve been told that I was “too aggressive” for asking others not to refer to a mixed-gender group with “hey, guys!” I’m leaving Mozilla soon, and honestly I don’t know if the environment at my next job will be better, but I feel like I hit a dead end.

    It might have something to do with the group you’re dealing with, of course. Engineering at Mozilla is more male-dominated than the software industry as a whole, and generally men in male-dominated groups feel the need to justify male domination (by appealing to everything except facts).

    • Hi Tim, WOW that is a complete bummer to hear. While it’s different from my experience at Mozfest, it doesn’t shock me – Mozfest is only a weekend, after all, and I did speak with a woman who works as a developer with Mozilla and said it is extremely male-dominated. You make a lot of good points, including that the folks who gravitated toward my project likely fell in a similar place on the ideological spectrum in comparison with other people at the company. I hope the new role you’re stepping into is more equitable and supportive of your feminist perspective. For what it’s worth, I’m very glad to hear from guys who are doing what they can to change the culture by asking for better from their colleagues. It’s a big mess of a problem that won’t be ironed out anytime soon, but speaking up as you do is one of the surest ways to slowly, incrementally bring about change. Thanks for sharing your experience here.

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