I grew up in the States. While growing up, I got interested in the country of Garistan. I was drawn to a country full hard-core passion for living a happy life. I studied the history and geography of Garistan, and got a pretty good feel for it.
So I moved there. At first, things seemed to go OK. Sure, there was a bit of a language barrier, but I was committed. I had a phrasebook. Some days were great, I did everything I needed to do and felt on top of the world. Some days I felt clumsy just trying to do normal tasks like food shopping. But I kept on going.
One day, I found a group of ex-patriots from the US. I went to the first meeting, a bit nervous, not quite sure what I was seeking out. What I found was relief. I could speak English without worry about how fast I was talking, or that anyone would assume I was a tourist. I could speak broken Garistanese without worrying about my accent and without worrying that I was being judged. I could talk about American things without having to explain it in detail. It was so calming, and it made those hard, clumsy days just a bit easier, because I would go back to the group and talk about struggling for a word, or my embarrassment.
We would also go out together, and there was strength in our numbers. I noticed that we all spoke better Garistanese when we were out with each other. I guess we just felt more comfortable.
Then Christmas came around. And let me tell you, it was unbelievably difficult. I love Christmas. Decorating the tree, baking cookies, shopping, the way everyone is nice to each other for 6 weeks (except when trying to find a parking space). Best of all, I love singing Christmas carols.
My first Christmas in Garistan made me realize just how different I really was. They put cotton candy on their trees to decorate them? What’s with the buckets in front of the fireplace? Tell me again what the traditional Garistan Christmas cake is? There are different songs….and even the familiar ones are sung in Garistanese.
I was out of my element. It was upsetting and frustrating. I could do what I wanted in my own apartment, but venturing forth into the street just reminded me how different I really was. My group of English-speaking US compatriots were the best gift I had that year. They helped me navigate the Christmas differences, and they even pointed out some similarities I was taking for granted. We did our own American-style traditions, including a cookie swap. It was so comfortable, and made that first Christmas really bearable.
But I cannot deny that I felt I was an outsider. I would have moved back to the States if it weren’t for my group, encouraging me and just being the same as me. It was not really the Garistan people that had me feeling so uncomfortable, it was the culture in general. It is not what I am used to, and several times I felt as though I was being treated rudely, though now that I have more experience with the Garistan community, I understand that is the way they interact, and culturally it is not thought of as rude. My Garistan friends would ask me to come out with them, but sometimes I did not want to go to a large crowded party full of all those things that made me feel uncomfortable.
SPOILER: Garistan is a made-up country. This story is an analogy about women in tech. Think of Garistan as a random tech community – maybe it’s MySQL, maybe it’s Python, maybe it’s sysadmins, devops, whatever. The group of US expatriates? That is a women-only space.
It is not sexist to have a women-only space in a community that’s so very male-oriented and has so many men in it. It is (arguably) a necessity if you want more women to be a part of the community. If you want more folks from the US to move to Garistan, wouldn’t it make sense to have comfortable spaces for those who speak English?
Christmas in this story could represent a conference or big event. I read an article that complained about women-only hackathons, because a men-only hackathon would be sexist, so of course a women-only hackathon would be sexist. And it is so utterly and completely wrong. Most men do not need a comfortable space to be among other men during a tech conference, because the conference is already mostly men. Just like most folks in Garistan do not need “Garistanese-only” spaces, because Garistanese is the dominant language there.
Is it the fault of Garistan people, that they have a Garistanese culture? No. And it is not the fault of men that they have a male culture. But if you want to retain those who come from the US, you have to change a little, offer up some more English, maybe acknowledge the Fourth of July in some little way. Same thing with tech culture – if you want to retain more women in the community, you have to make the space a little more comfortable for us.
I would also like to point out that not all women feel this uncomfortable. In fact, I actually do not feel this way most of the time. A mostly-male space does not feel that foreign to me. I always hung out with my two brothers, most of my friends growing up were male, and I actually have to put effort into being friends with other women. You can think of this as someone who moved to Garistan after visiting every year for decades. I know how “male spaces” work and I am comfortable in them.
Some women are comfortable in mostly male spaces. That does not indicate that those spaces are welcoming towards women. Maybe they are, maybe they are not. The presence of a few women means that those women are comfortable enough, but that does not mean that many women would feel comfortable there.
The level of comfort that any one woman has can vary, not just on their own experiences, but also depending on the community, and depending on her own situation. Back to the analogy, someone might be completely comfortable with the Garistanese language, having studied it, but still have a hard time with Garistanese culture. Or maybe that person is fine with everything except the different Christmas traditions. Most of the time, that person would fit right in, but Christmas is a trigger point.
If I make a “math is hard!” joke among my coworkers, they know I am smart and maybe just having an off day. If I make the same joke and someone’s listening who does not know me, they might get the impression that I really do not know what I am doing.
I will freely admit that I laugh at inappropriate humor on a locked-down IRC channel, because I know the audience, and I know the intention of the person telling the joke. Those same jokes on a public channel or at a party where I did not know anyone or even on Facebook have caused me to speak up and say “that is not funny.” Context is critical.
To the men reading this – you have a male culture. That is perfectly OK, just like Garistan has a Garistanese culture and everyone speaks Garistanese. But if you want more women in a particular space, you have to change the culture in that space. If you do not know everyone who is listening, be more thoughtful about what you say. And try to remember that we women are trying to learn technical stuff (Garistanese) and cultural stuff (Christmas traditions) at the same time.