At Double Union, San Francisco’s feminist hacker space, Amelia Greenhall was creating a sign for the front door. She had never used a vinyl cutter before, but she plugged the machine into her computer as if she had used it a million times, quietly designing the font and the Double Union logo, one U nested inside another. After a few minutes, she slid a piece of hot-pink vinyl paper into the feeder and watched as it etched her creation. When Greenhall, the space’s executive director, got to the door, she realized her mistake. Only about half of the letters would peel off the sheet, and she couldn’t pick off any part of the logo.
She went back to the Cameo machine and adjusted the settings. The second batch of letters came off the page with ease. She then moved on to her next creative project, scanning and making copies of her latest zine, The Automotive Retribution Catalog, a booklet of silly, but beautifully illustrated, ways for bikers to get back at inconsiderate drivers.
Like many area hacker spaces, Double Union offers a place for people to use and learn technical skills, charging a sliding scale fee between $10 and $50 a month. What differentiates DU from the dozen or so other Bay Area hacker spaces is that it exists specifically and exclusively for people who identify as both women and feminists. (That includes trans women. “Not all women have uteri, or xx chromosomes,” reads the DU website.) Double Union wants to provide a safe place for women to try things–and potentially fail–and then dust themselves off and try again, no judgment.
“It was hilariously radical just to make it,” Greenhall says of Double Union. “To have a space for women, and to have a space that you know, wasn’t like the Lean In style–just explicitly saying it was a feminist space.”
In the bright 700-square-foot room, Double Union members congregate for workshops and projects. Sturdy wooden high tops hold the $300 electronic cutting machine, a 3-D printer, and sewing machines. A reading nook’s library offers books about Ruby and Python next to Girls to the Front and The Big Feminist But. Shelves are filled with maker-friendly supplies: paper, Raspberry Pi microcomputers, copper tape, rulers, tweezers, screen-printing materials.
The room doesn’t feel particularly “radical,” as Greenhall refers to it; it feels casual and inviting. However, providing that kind of environment for women in the male-dominated tech industry is certainly unique. Both at their jobs and at the area’s other hacker spaces, women at best feel out of place, and at worst are harassed out of participating in activities related to their profession. Double Union offers women a place to go where they don’t have to worry about tokenism, or potentially being violated.
Resting on a counter inside Double Union is a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. The words “edit me” are written on its cover in black Sharpie, and the first chapter or so is filled with red markings challenging Sandberg’s “corporate feminism.” The edits begin on the title page, which reads “Lean In: (rich, white, straight, able-bodied) women, work, and the will to lead.” Another shelf holds the “creep book,” a binder filled with pictures of men not allowed in the space, along with any relevant identifying information. (The space also has an investigations committee specifically for doxing people who the members consider aggressors.)
Unlike Sheryl Sandberg’s brand of feminism, which puts the responsibility on women to lean in, the Double Unioneers take a structural approach. It’s the system that needs fixing, not women.
Much of the talk about the sexism in the technology industry focuses on ratios: only 25% of computing jobs were held by women in 2009. Other calculations put the number of female engineers much lower than that. Data released by Google earlier this month showed that women account for just 17% of its tech employees; at Facebook, women hold 15% of “tech” jobs. And those numbers won’t likely increase anytime soon. In 2013, women made up 14% of all computer science graduates, down from a peak of 36% in 1984.
But the gender imbalance is not just a pipeline issue. Nearly half the women in science, engineering, and technology jobs leave their industries by mid-career, double the attrition rate of men. Although that coincides with when some women are starting families, a 2008 study found that workers dropped out not because of growing demands at home but because of “antigens”–things that repel women from these fields such as isolation and a lack of mentors, and yes, harassment. A full 63% of women in science, engineering, and technology have experienced sexual harassment, according to the study.
Organizations like Girls Who Code and Code.org attempt to fix the pipeline issue by getting young girls interested in programming as the demand for technology jobs increases. But these training camps don’t address the sexism women face once in the industry, or even when they participate in discussions online–where comments tend to get ugly fast. “What I have seen in my last three to four years of studying online harassment is the types of harassment that women are subject to when they talk about tech specifically does not necessarily exist in other spaces,” says Alice Marwick, an associate professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at Fordham. Marwick is also the author of Status Update: Celebrity and Attention in Web 2.0, the result of a multi-year ethnography of the San Francisco tech industry.
Startup founders employ “culture fit” to rule out employees who aren’t the typical white male “brogrammer.” Recent high-profile incidents including the sexual harassment allegations from a former Tinder executive, the departure of Julie Ann Horvath from Github because of alleged harassment, discrimination, and intimidation, and incidents like the Titstare app presentation at TechCrunch Disrupt all point to a culture that can be aggressively unwelcoming to women.
“I’m tired of the, ‘We need more women in tech’ thing,” one DU member told me. “How about we stop treating the ones that are here terribly?”
The Double Union application asks prospective members to “tell us about your feminism.” People who belong should share the organization’s values, as outlined in its Base Assumptions document. Some of those principles include: feminism is good, intersectionality is super important, sexism exists, and meritocracy is a joke.
Neither all women nor all feminists fit into the DU mold. Those who suggest that women should be nicer to men, or that an all-female space leaves people out, for example, are rejected. Some might call it exclusionary; Greenhall argues that members should feel comfortable with each other, and enter the space with the same attitudes. “We’re all operating on the common ground that we ‘get’ Feminism 101,” that the Base Assumptions document explains.
Greenhall is like Double Union incarnate, both girly and radical; artistic and technical. Dressed in black tights, black booties, a black skirt, and black sweater with half her head shaved, she gets just as giddy illustrating a “not owl men” parody sticker as she does while talking quantified self.
Born in Hawaii and raised in Alabama, Greenhall, 27, had feminist and activist inklings starting at least as early as middle school. “We made zines that showed where the teacher that tried to look down your shirt was, and where the teacher that would try to tuck your shirt in was, with a map of how to go to your classes and how to avoid them,” she said. She cites her mom, a nurse who moved to Hawaii to escape her controlling parents, as a powerful role model. “[Feminism] was definitely something that my mom always talked to my sister and I about growing up,” she said. Her engineering interests came from her father, who worked on the space station in Alabama.
After obtaining a master’s in public health from the University of Washington in 2011, Greenhall worked as a UX/UI designer at Habit Labs, where she helped develop an interactive health app. In 2012, Habit Labs failed. Greenhall went to work as a data scientist for investment platform FutureAdvisor, which eventually moved to the Bay Area, where she witnessed an intensified version of Seattle’s male-driven startup culture.
That’s what drew her to last year’s AdaCamp, a feminist female-only conference dedicated to increasing women’s participation in technology, where she met the two other DU founders, Liz Henry and Valerie Aurora. After spending a weekend with other women and feminists, the three wanted to create something like AdaCamp, but year round.
“It’s just amazing to be in a big group of technical women where it’s not like you’re this weird anomaly,” said Greenhall, “where you feel totally comfortable and just your mere presence isn’t a strange thing.”
The existing area hacker spaces felt unwelcoming to Greenhall and her cofounders. “Men act like the space is theirs,” DU cofounder Henry, a bugmaster at Mozilla, wrote in a piece on feminist hacker spaces. She continues:
Women face harassment ranging from assault to much milder, but more constant, come-ons and innuendos. Our geek cred is constantly challenged or belittled. You might be there coding, and you want to stop for a while and draw in your notebook and think, but if you’re not staring at a black and green screen or, like, melding your brain with an Arduino every second, some dude is going to come up to you and act like you need his expert lessons in how to hack.
Many Double Union members brought up a hacker space just a few blocks away in The Mission, Noisebridge, as a particular offender. When I mentioned possible plans to visit, Leigh Honeywell, a member of Double Union who also helped found Seattle’s feminist hacker space The Seattle Attic, whispered, “bring somebody with you.” One longtime member of the space wrote about being called a “cunt” and having her ass slapped. Multiple people have been banned from the space for inappropriate behavior.
Founded by two gay men, Noisebridge has one official rule: Be excellent to each other. “We started Noisebridge with a strong culture of zero tolerance for racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and other social ills,” Mitch Altman, one of the space’s co-founders told Fast Company. “But there is no guarantee that people will always follow our one rule. When the rule is violated, it is up to everyone there, including the person who perceived the breech, to call the person on it.”
Noisebridge now has an anti-harassment policy, but Greenhall characterized it as “a place where you couldn’t go as a woman. Any time I would go there I would get followed around, and stared at, and asked what am I doing,” she said.
So “no boys allowed” was the first rule the founders agreed on for DU, which officially opened to its 104 members in January of this year. Men can visit, but only with another member, or for any events open to the public.
As feminist groups like Riot Grrrrls have argued for decades, all-female groups create a safe space for women where they don’t have to worry about everyday sexism or running into their aggressors, a real issue in an industry with a well-documented history of harassment. Aurora started the Ada Initiative, which produces codes of conduct and anti-harassment policies, because of her experiences getting groped at conferences. Honeywell said, “I’ve definitely been through bad crap at work. I’ve done the going to HR thing and it turned out really badly and I ended up leaving that particular job.” Even if a woman doesn’t feel physically or emotionally threatened by the presence of men, removing them from the situation helps combat more subtle forms of sexism, like impostor syndrome.
Impostor syndrome was exactly what I experienced when I first got to Double Union–that moment of inadequacy as a “non-techy” member of this exclusive society. High-achieving women, especially in fast-moving fields, where experts say, mentors are scarce, tend to doubt their qualifications. The irony of impostor syndrome is that research has also found that women who think they don’t deserve their jobs are actually the most talented and capable. And the tragedy of impostor syndrome is that lack of confidence deters all-star employees from negotiating for high raises or promotions, a phenomenon called downshifting.
Within the context of a hacker space, that feeling can turn women off from projects, tinkering, or even showing up at all. Taking men out of the equation alleviates those anxieties to an extent. “A lot of people talk about ‘Oh, it feels like I can let my guard down, or I can be myself, or be more vulnerable, or not have this like armor up,'” says Greenhall. One DU member said when she comes to the hacker space she feels like she’s treated like a person, rather than the token woman. Another said the working style suits her better. “There’s often a lot of one-upping that happens,” in male groups, she said.
The most powerful force for encouragement at Double Union, in contrast, might be Greenhall herself.
After helping me figure out my first spin on the vinyl cutter, Greenhall dropped a piece of construction paper, folded into a six-page booklet, in front of me. “You should make a zine,” she said. I have terrible handwriting. What would my zine be about? Anything I made wouldn’t compare to hers, with its hand-drawn illustrations of cyclists. (In retrospect, this thought process was absurd. Who isn’t qualified to scribble doodles on construction paper?)
I decided to make A Feminist Guide to Talking Like a Girl, a mini-manifesto about the way women talk (since linguistics is an interest of mine). I cut headlines from news articles and pasted them next to my sad excuse for illustrations; after I finished, Greenhall flipped through it, laughing and proclaiming it “great.” She suggested I make copies, and brought over a paper cutter for cleaning up the edges. Whenever someone new came into the room, I beamed about my first zine, each reader making me feel like it was one of the greatest things they had ever seen. By the end of the night, I had made a very basic paper circuit, too.
The stated goal of Double Union is to create a safe space for women, and it does that in many ways. DU tries very hard to make its members feel welcome, while actively keeping “creeps” out. Most of the time the door stays shut and locked. People take the anti-harassment policy seriously.
“There is an enormous amount of research on the benefits of spaces for people who are culturally marginalized,” says Marwick, who also runs the feminist technology blog Tiara.Org. “Even if the only benefit is that it helps women who wouldn’t feel comfortable going into a co-ed or mostly male hacker space, and gives them a sense that they can sit and experiment with these things, and that they can be empowered to be creative with technology, and they can fail and make mistakes without it being representative of their gender. Even if the only people who benefit are the people involved, I think that’s really powerful.”
DU has also started to meet another one of its goals: spreading feminist hacker spaces around the country. A group of women are working to open one in Washington, D.C.
But can a handful of members of a feminist hacker space, well-meaning as they may be, really make significant strides in how women in tech are treated outside their protective doors?
Making things feels great, and is to an extent empowering. Recruitment is another obvious way Double Union could help female coders. It has an “honest” jobs fair planned, where people will talk candidly about their employers. Networking also happens by osmosis. One woman from the Seattle Attic who had been harassed out of her computer science program, after working out of the hacker space for two months, found a new job in tech. “Honestly, if that had been the only thing to come out of that space I would consider it a huge success,” founder Honeywell said. However, at DU, the founders are trying not to over-emphasize recruiting.
All of these things are tangential to DU’s role, and not very far reaching. In reality, a hundred women making zines and misandry jokes while working on circuitry projects won’t stop sexual harassment from happening at tech companies. An organization like the Ada Initiative, which has an explicit goal of getting more conferences to adopt anti-harassment policies, will likely have more far reaching effects.
As for Greenhall, changing the system, despite being a part of her politics, is not her focus, for now. She’s working to make Double Union a welcoming place for women to work on projects. After assembling her zine, she spent the rest of the evening researching equipment to buy for the space. A woman to her left did some construction on the workbenches to better equip the growing collection of supplies. And a group to Greenhall’s right worked on coding the Double Union app so that it could better handle new-member registration, which last week opened up again.
“The path forward looks like adding another hundred members in the next few months, (run by) small, self-organized groups of interest-based committees, and watching as people connect one another with new jobs, and start companies and projects together,” Greenhall told me.
That’s not industry-rocking ambition, but in a world where a quiet, clean, well-lit, all-girls hacker wonderland is considered radical, it’s a start.