Friday, July 24, 2015

Civic Hacking For Everyone, Part 1: Women

One of my goals for this blog is to encourage as many people as possible in NE Wisconsin to learn about civic hacking and participate in it to some extent.

I don’t know if it’s useful or appropriate to do a post about civic hacking & women. Or about any civic hacking and ‘Demographic Group X’ that isn’t white, male, Western European, English-speaking, 20 - 30 year olds. Some people are strongly focused on creating special opportunities for different demographic groups for various reasons. Other people emphatically prefer a meritocratic approach that doesn’t involve a special focus on any demographic group.

My reason for reaching out specifically to women and the other demographic groups I’ll be writing posts about is that I think civic hacking will benefit from the widest possible range of viewpoints, experiences and skills. It’s fun to do things with a group of like-minded people who share likes, dislikes, experiences, vocabulary, and backgrounds. But it can also be fun and worthwhile to learn new stuff, be exposed to new ideas and learn to understand or approach a topic through the eyes and mind of someone with a much different outlook and background than yours. If participants in a community or event all have extremely similar experiences, points of view and needs, that community or event will often not take advantage of opportunities or even be aware of those opportunities. They may fail to work on or even imagine a particularly worthwhile civic hack because the idea never occurred to them.

A recent tech-world example of viewpoint limitations is that Apple HealthKit didn’t address women’s health issues such as menstruation. Maybe it's because I was a FemCare researcher developing and helping manufacture pads, liners, and tampons at a personal care company, but it seems to me that Apple ignored a huge audience by not launching HealthKit with the ability to monitor menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, and other health and fitness issues specific to women.

So, for better or worse, I’ll go ahead and write a series of posts about civic hacking as relates to various demographic groups. The reason this first ‘Civic Hacking For Everyone’ post focuses on women is because they’re the largest demographic group whose participation is noticeably lacking at many civic hacking events. I didn’t look up current statistics, but my guess is that NE Wisconsin is close to 51% women. If only 5% or 10% of the civic hackers at an event are women, that means we’re not promoting the event effectively or we’re not structuring the event in a way that makes women want to participate.

(Because I’m probably a stereotypical male engineer introvert with the resultant lack of empathy and soft skills, it would be good if a woman would help me out by writing a follow-up post giving her viewpoint about civic hacking...)

The low percentage of women civic hackers is partly due to civic hacker organizers often being coders, a group that is predominantly male. Those organizers may set a goal to have a high percentage of women participants in the community and at events, but a mostly-male organizing team will be less successful at achieving that goal than a balanced team of women and men.

A second reason for few women at civic hacking events is the strong emphasis on coding in most current civic hacks. Since most coders are men, it’s not surprising that a large percentage of people who show up for civic hacking will be men.

In addition to the statistically-driven higher number of men civic hackers, there’s also a certain amount of male prejudice or attitude, perceived or actual, that deters some women from participating in an event or community they think will be largely composed of men.

Another reason it can be challenging for women to participate in civic hacking events is childcare issues. Some families share childcare responsibilities equally, but in other families or in single-parent situations, the woman civic hacker may be less able to participate in a multi-hour or multi-day civic hacking event. When discussing how to encourage more women to participate in the DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015 last month, we talked about the need to get a sponsor for the cost of child care, just like we had a sponsor to cover the cost of lunch and the cost of t-shirts. In addition to having a sponsor cover the cost of childcare, we’d need an appropriate childcare provider.

As discussed above, there are obvious reasons for having fewer women civic hackers than men. To encourage more women to get involved, I’ve listed a few women-focused tech groups and civic hacking ideas:

  1. Women In Technology Wisconsin: "The mission of Women in Technology of Northeastern Wisconsin is to attract, grow and retain women and girls in technology-related careers. With programming designed for women in executive, senior, mid-manager, and junior technology positions, WIT provides an opportunity for personal and professional growth."
  2. Tech Lady Civic Hackathon: “Tech Lady Hackathon + Training Day is a day for women from experienced coders to total newbies to gather for training and civic hacking in a supportive environment. About 150 women gather for a Saturday about once a year. The training usually covers introductions to popular open source languages (e.g. HTML, CSS, Python, Rails) and topics that I think would be helpful, such as product management and impostor syndrome. I also co-run the civic hacking group Code for DC, so there is a civic hackathon running all day alongside the training. The only thing that everyone has in common is that they are a woman who is interested in learning or teaching tech.”
  3. Girl Develop It Burlington: “National Day of Civic Hacking is an amazing opportunity for women to lend their unique perspective to solve problems that are present here in our community. Often times women are an extreme minority at hackathons, so our goal is to lower the barrier to entry through participating in this low key introduction, and provide an opportunity to learn more about National Day of Civic Hacking. My goal is to help increase the number of women writing code at this event, so I’m hoping members of our community consider forming a team or joining an existing one that sparks their interest!
  4. Check out the list of inspiring women entrepreneurs who have built civic-minded products and startups in “Female Founders to Watch Changing the World with Civic-Minded Startups.”
  5. Reach out to Jennifer Pahlka, Catherine Bracy, Laurenellen McCann and other prominent woman civic hackers about participating in a NE Wisconsin civic hacking event and sharing information about civic hacking events or projects that have benefited from a woman’s point of view.
  6. Launch a civic hacking project for helping women veterans find jobs and build tech skills, especially homeless vets.
  7. Create a project around WIC, a federally-funded health and nutrition program for women, infants, and children, such as forking and localizing WICit or entering the relevant data for NE Wisconsin on the existing WICit website.
  8. Work with Lisa Abeyta to organize a Civic Entrepreneur Bootcamp as described in her posts “Why We Must Help Bridge the Gap For Women In Tech” and “Addressing the Downside of Civic Hacking: Creating A Financially Sustainable Model.”
  9. Other groups to consider collaborating with for civic hacking events and projects: League of Women Voters, Women Who Code, Girls Who Code, Million Women Mentors, National Girls Collaborative Project, Omaha Coding Women, and PyStar, as well as many women's non-tech groups.

If you’re a woman who’s willing to write a guest post for this blog about civic hacking and women, that would be fantastic! Email me at bwaldron (at) gmail [dott] com. It would be helpful to have a woman’s viewpoint to correct my inadvertent errors and totally incorrect perceptions of why women might want to be civic hackers. I’m not a particularly good judge of what most men think about anything, so there’s no reason to think I’d be able to provide a thorough or highly accurate portrayal of what women think about civic hacking or why they should participate in it.

I’m not a coder, but I’m writing blog posts to persuade a few NE Wisconsin coders to join us in civic hacking. I’m not an educator or a student, but I wrote a blog post encouraging civic hacking related to students and schools. Although I’m not a librarian, I think librarians would be great civic hackers, and libraries can be excellent venues for civic hacking events, so I wrote a post about civic hacking and libraries.

I’m not a woman, but I wrote this post hoping to get a few more NE Wisconsin women involved in civic hacking. We’ll see what happens…


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