I rarely talk about gender or race issues.Â Not because I am not interested but because I am afraid that I may say things that are viewed negatively by a socially acceptable norm.Â As a person who grew up in one country with one culture (the Confusian culture that is notoriously preferential to men to boot) and then moved to, live, and now work in another country with a completely different culture (just as discriminatory to women and minorities I am afraid) and who often has opinions that are different from those held by the majorities in both societies, I am acutely aware of various disadvantages, backlashes, and penalties that can result as a consequence of a minor slip and the pervasive social norm of inequality applied to women and racial/ethnic/gender minorities reinforced in everyday life.
I hate telling stories about how things went all wrong because it can reinforce negative sentiments such as frustration, anger, and the general sentiment of feeling pathetic about oneself. But I will make an exception and tell you this one story in the hope that you will join me in supportingÂ the Ada Initiative.
A few years ago, in one of the library mailing listservs, the idea of creating a sub-group of women among the members was floated up. I do not recall all the context now but in relation to that idea, which I supported, I posed a question to the listserv specifically directed at only women.Â To my dismay, this did not stop any men on the mailing list to liberally exercise their freedom to object to the idea in the name of the good of the listserv.Â The idea was attacked as something akin to a separatist movement and was vehemently objected by a man who is regarded as very influential in that venue. My response to this was simply “how dare you,” not personally to me but to the entire group of women in the listerv. The question was submitted to women. No opinion was solicited from men.
But this is not why I brought up this story. The reason why I brought up this story is that I wanted to tell you what I did after this incident.Â I didn’t respond back and communicate my indignation, frustration, and anger.Â I simply disengaged myself from the conversation and abandoned the whole thread.Â I didn’t want to have a conversation with this famous person who was so blatantly unaware of his faux pas. (Although his describing that idea as a separatist movement was not at all fair, I now see the point that it is actually a valid worry as women are not a minority but 50 percent of the population. And we all know well that the majority in the library is indeed women, not men. Potentially, the current listserv may have to compete with this new one -if the new one succeeds- and may lose its precious prestige and some other social privileges that go with the membership for some people.)
I justified my behavior by telling myself that I don’t have enough energy to deal with this right now. Fortunately, women who are much wiser, more articulate, and more courageous than me stood up and wrote great replies to this person.Â Because I decided to not attach myself to the thread any longer, I also sent a personal email to these women who were my heroes.Â At that time, I thought that was a good thing to do because I was so relieved by and hugely appreciated the fact that someone was taking the stance and was articulating the reasons in such a cool manner that I could not maintain. But looking back I can’t but think that it was so cowardly of me not openly supporting them. I have to add that this realization only dawned on me when the same thing happened to me only in the reverse role this time around. Another librarian sent me a private Twitter message personally thanking me about what I said openly. This taught me the lesson that what I meant as kudos to someone could have felt to that person like a punch in the gut instead. I thought about this incident a lot always as one of my (many) failings, although I only once dared to vent about it to one of my male colleagues because I knew he wouldn’t mind listening to me. (Our internalization of the social norm is indeed very deep even when we are critical of the very norm.)
It wasn’t until at last year’s Code4Lib pre-conference, “Technology, Librarianship, and Gender: Moving the conversation forward,” organized by Lisa Rabey and attended by many awesome people including Valerie Aurora from the Ada Initiative — She also gave the keynote at the Code4Lib Conference — that I was told for the first time that those who belong to minority groups do NOT have the obligation to always speak up, defend their positions, etc., etc. That was a refreshing thought that respects the additional burden that many minorities carry, the feeling of having to be a vocal champion of a cause at a personal level whether you are exhausted and sick or all or not. I also loved hearing that one thing that those with existing privileges can and should do is to listen to those without such privileges and their experience, not shouting out their own thoughts and dominating the conversation. It recognizes the important fact that the voice of sympathetic advocates should never overpower that of women and racial/ethnic/gender minorities. To be sustainable, a social change must be implemented by those who need and want the change by themselves.
So it is not an exaggeration to say that being a woman in technology can complicate things. (And I only told you just one story, and I am not even touching the issue of belonging to a racial/ethnic minority group here.) How many more awesome and productive things would women be able to achieve if they do not have to deal with this kind of crap that turns up all the time when they are simply trying to get things done?
I support the Ada Initiative because it acknowledges and articulates common issues often unacknowledged, opens and legitimizes a conversation about those issues, and helps organizations institute and establish more just and more equitable norms with useful and tangible tools and resources, thereby leveling the playing field for everyone. This results in benefiting all, not just women and minorities in race and gender.
Consider donating to the Ada Initiative below or at https://adainitiative.org/donate/?campaign=libraries. Share your reasons in Twitter with the hashtag, #libs4ada, and check out many thoughtful and amazing posts people wrote about their reasons for supporting the Ada Initiative. (If you think that this is all irrelevant because you have never been physically harmed or threatened in librarianship, check out this terrific post by the Library Loon.) I invite you to become an ally to those who are with less privileges than you. Thanks for reading this post!
If you are not familiar with the Ada initiative, here is some information from its website.
The Ada Initiative helps women get and stay involved in open source, open data, open education, and other areas of free and open technology and culture. These communities are changing the future of global society. If we want that society to be socially just and to serve the interests of all people, women must be involved in its creation and organization.
The Ada Initiative is a feminist organization. We strive to serve the interests and needs of women in open technology and culture who are at the intersection of multiple forms of oppression, including disabled women, women of color, LBTQ women, and women from around the world.
We are making a difference in open technology and culture by:
- Supporting and connecting women in these communities
- Changing the culture to better fit women, instead of changing women to fit the culture
- Helping women overcome internalized sexism that is the result of living within the existing culture
- Asking men and influential community members to take responsibility for culture change
- Giving people the tools they need to change their communities (e.g., policies and ally skills)
- Creating sustainable systems to support feminist activists in these communities
- Being the change we want to see by making our own events and communities safer and more inclusive