Authors: Deborah Tatar
Posted: Wed, November 25, 2015 - 12:42:23

I started this series of posts with concerns about the allure of “going west” to my undergraduate students. My concern is about all the students and indeed my own sons, but especially the women. Sarah Fox, Rachel Rose Ulgado, and Daniela Rosner wrote a wonderful article about feminist hackerspaces [1] for the 2015 CSCW conference. The women they studied were by-and-large employed as professionals in the high tech industry. They were successful. Yet these women did not find what they sought or imagined through work. And when they turned to hacker spaces, there was more disappointment. The male hacker spaces were imbued with what they called ****-testing. 

Fox et al.’s account gave me a kind of PTSD-y flashback. Silicon Valley was a world in which the more prestige I acquired, the less I enjoyed success. The more I encountered the ultra-confident fantasies of freedom and superiority that drove so much behavior, the less I wanted to play the game. Eventually, I escaped. In Silicon Valley, freedom is often a zero-sum game, enforced by what some social scientists call micro-aggressions. Efficiency is often a way of one person taking for him or herself without having to think about or appreciate others.

I am so glad that the women Fox et al. report on have been able to make their own spaces, and I hope that these spaces truly help them lead the lives of whole people. But I do not think that feminist hacker spaces are going to solve the problems. 

The conditions that lead women to create feminist spaces are not the conditions that my students imagine when their eyes light up with the hope of going west. Well, that is not true. Some of my female students have a kind of untrammeled ambition. They really do seem to believe that, as one of my male students wrote in an essay on ethics some years ago, their chief obligation in life is to have a job. Anything that might threaten their job or success is just an inefficiency.

The feminist hackers were more like the other kind of student, the kind that hope to use their capabilities to be part of something bigger than themselves. This is a confusing mental space to be in. The feminist hackers exhibit an instructive ambivalent resentment towards Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean-In Circles.” As Fox et al. note, while the feminist hackers have long engaged in many of the behaviors that Sandberg now recommends, they resent her and her advice. Indeed, it is important to realize that the same advice, the same behavior, is not the always the same. When women, for example, get together to address “imposter syndrome,” their larger attitude makes all the difference. Is the discussion a tool to understand their position in the world or a club used as a way to reproach women for lack of perfection? Lots of people say “Be more confident!” but no one seems to notice the cost that we pay for failed attempts at assertion. I remember watching my contributions to meetings regularly being ascribed to men—and then being called “arrogant” by my boss for acting exactly as I believed that the men had acted. I was devastated—and trapped. 

It also makes all the difference in the world whether the womens’ collective ambition is to dominate others or to connect. Sheryl Sandberg may be a perfectly lovely person, but her ability to get herself heard is also part of a willingness to profit off of other people’s compliance. I don’t admire that and I don’t want to design for it. 


1. Fox, S., Ulgado, R. R., & Rosner, D. (2015, February). Hacking Culture, Not Devices: Access and Recognition in Feminist Hackerspaces. Proc. of the 18th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing (pp. 56-68). ACM.

Posted in: on Wed, November 25, 2015 - 12:42:23

Deborah Tatar

Deborah Tatar is a professor of computer science and, by courtesy, psychology, at Virginia Tech.
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