The School of Information’s entrepreneurship program and the University’s chapter of the American Library Association hosted a panel Thursday highlighting women in technology.
The event, held in North Quad, featured two prominent feminist technologists, Stefanie Wuschitz, founder of a feminist hackerspace in Vienna, and Lisa Nakamura, co-facilitator of FemTechNet and the University’s coordinator of digital studies.
Both discussed the growing role of women in the digital realm, the issue of gender over the Internet and feminist approaches to combatting discrimination in these areas.
Though the panel was female-centric, the audience was comprised of both males and females, which the coordinators said they were pleased to see.
“We had no idea what to expect,” said Emily Puckett Rodgers, entrepreneurship program manager for the School of Information. “We just shared this as broadly as we could, and I think this shows that this is a conversation that’s happening on campus and this is a conversation that we can continue. As we move from learners into professionals, I think that we can take these experiences, this critical thinking and these skills with us.”
During the panel, Wuschitz discussed why she chose to create her own feminist hackerspace — spaces where people with interests in technology, computing and science can collaborate and socialize.
She said hackerspaces are often almost all male and not always comforting, alluding to a time when one of the best programmers in Austria and a cofounder of the all-female hackerspace was sexually harassed in a hackerspace.
“So that was a moment for me when I thought, we need our own space.” Wuschitz said. “Usually such hackerspaces are wonderful environments, but they are really male dominated so at some point we felt just very uncozy there.”
While Wuschitz said she appreciates the growing inclusion of women in technology, she said pink or purple hardware produced over the past year perpetuates gendered stereotypes. She noted that when she would teach workshops on microcontroller programming with pink and blue controllers, people would often assume that the pink controller was easier, though it was actually the harder of the two.
The first feminist hackerspace Wuschitz was involved in was created out of these experiences. All the women involved split the rent, tempering the level of hierarchy that bothered women in the original hackerspace.
Though most of the males have welcomed the all-female hackerspace, Wuschitz said she received the most criticism for the space’s use of the feminized versions of technical terms.
In the German language, words are associated with a gender and all of the words dealing with technology are in the masculine form. In protest, the technological feminists created female versions of these words. Despite some criticism, many men, specifically in Wuschitz’s classes, have adopted the terms.
Nakamura, on the other hand, became involved in the relationship between feminism and technology during the Internet’s earlier days. She said since people online were not aware of her gender, they often assumed she was male. Later, she helped to create FemTechNet, which offers free online classes on feminism and technology.
“There’s really robust evidence that women in technology succeed because they have a mentor who is also one,” she said. “It’s hard to find female mentors in technology.”
Both panelists stressed the necessity of having feminist technology resources available for free and the importance of promoting a culture that values sharing knowledge and skills, as well as increasing diversity in the field.
“The more diverse it is, the easier it is for others to identify with them,” Wuschitz said.
Wuschitz said many women canceled their workshops because they did not have the confidence to teach them. She said increased inclusion of women in technology fields will help to resolve this issue.
“As a woman in technology, I was interested in hearing perspectives from people who are working in the fields,” said Denise Foley, a second-year graduate student School of Information, who attended the panel. “I am newly working in the field of technology in the library so I wanted to learn more about what’s going on in the field of female technologists.”