Women Techies Build a Room of Their Own

The symbol for the Mission's first feminist hackerspace, Double Union.

The symbol for the Mission's first feminist hackerspace, Double Union. Graphic provided by Double Union.

En Español.

By the end of the year, creative women will have a place in the Mission District where they can comfortably code, collaborate, do carpentry – or anything else they’re passionate about – without scrutiny.

Double Union, the neighborhood’s newest hacker and makerspace, is expected to officially open its doors in December and join a handful of creative community workshops in the country defined by gender.

“If you work in a male dominated field its easy to end up with all male or mostly male friends,” said Heather Rivers, 27, a new member of the all-female organization. “It’s very nice to meet like-minded women friends – people who are interested in collaborating and expanding ideas and materials and buildings things together.”

Rivers is one of 15 women who have already signed on and paid dues to use the collective space for creative work. Like other hacker and makerspaces, Double Union is a community-operated place for people to get together, share tools, pool resources, and collaborate on ideas.

“Part of what we are doing here is fairly radical – we’re not making a space for men to hang out. We want to make a space that is specifically for women,” said Liz Henry, 45, one of Double Union’s founders.

Inspired by similar efforts in other cities, including Seattle, Portland and Oakland, meetings to make the Mission’s first hackerspace began in June.  Roughly a dozen women have been in and out of talks all summer working out the logistics, members said.

Hanging from the high ceilings in the new hackerspace on Valencia between Four Barrel Coffee and Zeitgeist there will be pulleys that raise potted plants up to a skylight, there is a reading library with comfy seats, rows of tables to set up laptops and projects, and a wall dedicated to rotating art installations.

Members will have their own teacups, high-speed wifi and the freedom to use any of the available equipment including sewing machines and circular saws. Part of the space has been designed for industrial projects, but the furniture was consciously chosen to be lightweight so “everything can be reconfigured without a lot of muscle,” said Henry.

So far Double Union has kept membership numbers low on purpose since they’re not officially open yet. Until then interested parties must be invited by a member to a ‘semi-open’ house. New visitors are asked to sign the anti-harassment policy before entering the space. When they’re ready to grow, Henry expects their numbers will quickly swell to 80 or 100.

Amelia Greenhall, 27, another founder, is encouraged by the enthusiasm they’ve already received for the project. “People are interested in something they’ve always wanted, but didn’t think it existed,” she said. Without advertising, all 150 tickets for Double Union’s event on October 30th sold out in less than 72 hours. Since their space isn’t ready yet, New Relic in SOMA is sponsoring it.

Henry has been part of the tech community for more than 20 years. She credits the Internet for helping techy women find each other. She said the online conversation is gathering steam and empowering women in tech.

“As our numbers are growing in the field, I think it’s hitting a kind of tipping point.” Henry wouldn’t be surprised if many more feminist hacker and makerspaces pop up across the country in 2014.

Double Union members speak positively of other hackerspace experiences – but feel their needs, as women in tech, are not fully being met.

“We are adult professional women in the field and we want to do something that supports our goals,” said Henry. She is looking forward to “not having to fight against sexism in this protected space.”

Henry works for Mozilla, fixing issues with the Firefox web browser. She has a disability that makes it hard for her to get around. In and out of wheelchairs for the last two decades, she’s working to monitor and log data about the battery lives of mobility scooters and other electric wheelchairs.

“My ultimate goal would be to design open source hardware for electric scooters,” Henry said, “so people with disabilities can actually specify what we need.” She also intends to teach an electronics class at Double Union and to use her drawing skills to make a hackerspace coloring book.

Greenhall has a degree in electrical engineering. She is excited to be in a space where work and creativity don’t also come with conversations about gender, or being told “it’s cute you like to code.”

She’s currently working to link bike lights to a person’s heartbeat. Drivers then will have a human connection to the two-wheeled riders they share the road with. Double Union will provide her with the opportunity to work on hardware in a female-dominated environment for the first time.

When not elbow-deep in carpentry, Rivers is a senior software engineer, and the only woman, at a four-person start-up called Mode Analytics. “We’re actually 25 percent female, which is pretty good!” she said laughing.

Rivers can’t wait to take her construction projects out of the living room of her one-bedroom Mission apartment and into a place designed for electric sanders, paint and wood chips.

Although she’s made use of other Mission creative spaces – and enjoyed them – Double Union is the first Rivers has become a member of. “This is the intersection of so many things that I love,” she said.

Older, more established hackerspaces nearby have been welcoming and supportive of Double Union’s effort to cater to the tech feminists.

“There has been zero negative commentary or push back that I’ve been aware of or heard of,” said Henry. “It’s actually quite nice. I think a lot of the guys in the area are willing to see what happens and be good allies.”

Henry thinks creating a different kind of space for women might invite more of them into tech.  “Rather than having women reject hacker culture,” she said, “we can build a stronger population by providing a hub for those who may have felt uncomfortable or unwelcome in another space.”

For Rivers, being a part of Double Union is not a rejection of co-ed spaces. “I think different people have different preferences. If there were a similar co-ed space, I might be a member of both,” she said. “We need to strive to level the playing field for everyone.”

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16 Comments

  1. John

    I don’t know. isn’t creating special places for women, Hispanics, gays, the old etc. just a form of segregation (albeit self-segregation) that conflicts with the idea of a diverse community?

    Separate but equal kinda went out of fashion, no?

    • Britta

      (I’m not a Double Union member, and I don’t speak for them, but I’m interested in it.) The idea of Double Union isn’t to spend all of your time there and never participate in other communities. If you’re usually a minority in a significant way, such as one of few women at your company and at professional conferences, it can be relaxing and fun to also be able to visit a space where you aren’t unusual for being a woman interested in tech. (Double Union includes lots of other kinds of diversity.)

      It’s also likely that a lot of the people interested in Double Union have tried or considered participating in other hackerspaces and had negative experiences (or heard/read about problems happening to people like them) – sometimes other communities aren’t adequately welcoming of certain kinds of diversity, and sometimes you just want to be able to work on your cool project instead of first trying to improve the culture of a place.

      There are lots of healthy ways in which people freely choose to associate with other people who are like them in some ways, and to me Double Union sounds like one of those healthy ways.

    • Zannie

      It’s not segregation, it’s a community. A place where women can feel safe–not just physically (I’m not aware of that being an issue in tech) but culturally safe. A place where they can express ideas and interests without worrying in the back of their minds about how it will be perceived coming from a woman.

      I don’t know what the rules of Double Union are or will be, but the female oriented tech club I belonged to in college had one man in it as well. He was totally welcome. It’s not about excluding men, it’s about including only people who respect women in tech and want to offer support.

    • Maybe you should be asking that question to the white heterosexual cis men (with a few token South Asian and East Asian heterosexual cis men, yes, as well as a few token white heterosexual cis women who are willing to never speak up for anything that a white heterosexual cis man wouldn’t want) who have effectively made Silicon Valley an all-white-heterosexual-cis-male space. Of course, it’s not that other people are officially excluded from that space — nobody would want to get sued. But every single out-group person who works in the space understands that if you want to stay in it, you have to play by the in-group rules.

      Double Union is one tiny space (compared to all the big ones, some of them with names like “Apple”, “Google”, and “Mozilla”) where women will set the terms. Of course, that terrifies some men; perhaps you’re one of them. But perhaps you should take a good, long look at yourself and ask yourself why.

      • John

        I’m sorry, but you lost me at the first “cis”. I can’t really take anyone seriously who uses that acronym (if it even is an acronym).

        • What word would you prefer to use to refer to people who were assigned a gender at birth that is right for them?

          • John

            Tim, I do not need a word for people who have no issues with their gender.

            I need a word only for the tiny minority who are of indeterminate, ambivalent or ambiguous gender. Typically that word is “transsexual”.

            If you mean non-transsexual, then say that, although it sounds clumsy and pejorative.

    • C. Russo

      That’s funny from someone who preaches ad nauseum that only market solutions work. Isn’t selling SF to the highest bidders just a form of economic segregation?

      • John

        I do not know what the term “economic segregation” means. If it means that being able to afford a Mercedes somehow “segregates” you from people who cannot afford a Mercedes, then isn’t that inevitable? Not everyone is equally funded and so not everyone gets the same stuff.

        I was talking more about voluntarily self-segregating, and I continue to find it odd that San Franciscans love to crow about the “diversity” here and yet, given half a chance, they devolve into tribes, factions and homogeneous segments.

        • C. Russo

          Ah, but if we as a majoritarian society decide that it’s not in our interest to abide a huge wealth disparity, we can take measures against it. Even if that means rent control, progressive taxes and limiting the power of corporations.

          • John

            Yes, Russo, we can decide collectively to pass laws that redistribute wealth.

            But since wealth inequality in the US has been increasing for the last 30 years, I would feel compelled to infer that such policies are not popular with most American voters, Even if you personally enjoy fantasies deriving from the politics of envy.

            I guess you are just going to have to keep on working, rather than relying on some windfall obtained as a result of legally mugging someone more successful than yourself.

  2. eee

    Wait, I thought we’re supposed to hate techies???

  3. elizabeth c. creely

    I love this: the fusion of Dianic feminism, the likes of which haven’t been seen around V-Street since the late eighties/early nineties, with tech culture.
    I think this is really cool. Anyone concerned about segregation will also have to challenge clubs like the Bohemian Club, The Pacific Union Club, the Olympic Club or other private associations that segregate based on wealth like The Battery.
    If this is the first private association that roused your anti-segregationist ire, you’ll find you have your work cut out for you.

    • John

      Dunno, Liz, I thought that identity politics reached its apogee somewhere in the 1990′s on the coattails of the then fashionable but now dreary political correctness crusade.

      Then again, I’m not very tribal.

      • ConFigures

        Thanks for your example of why women sometimes need their own space, Jay!

        • John

          Because retreating into stereotypical tribes and cabals is conducive for celebrating our wonderful diversity?

          I think I will celebrate SF’s great diversity this week-end by hanging out solely with straight wealthy WASP males. Works for you?

Comments are closed.