Two champions for women in technology

Drawing inspiration and the name of their organization from Ada Lovelace, the 19th century English mathematician, Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner have a very specific mission: equity for women. Lovelace is best known for proposing algorithms for use on the mechanical computer Charles Babbage aimed to construct and, thus, is often considered the world's first programmer. Like her, both Aurora and Gardiner are deeply involved in technology.

Aurora, an open source computer programmer, got hooked on technology, as a self-described “gawky 17-year-old,” when she attended DefCon back in 1995. Although inspired by the brilliant work and creative dispositions she encountered there, she also was wary of ever returning because of the offensive behavior she encountered from the predominantly male attendees. “Every time I read about something cool happening at DefCon, I wanted to jump on the next flight to Las Vegas,” she once wrote. “But I didn't, because of my own bad experiences there.”

Valerie Aurora 

Age: 34

Occupation: executive director at the Ada Initiative

College: New Mexico Tech 

Accomplishments: With Mary Gardiner, developed and helped implement an anti-harassment policy for technical conferences to increase participation by women. She organized and ran the most recent AdaCamp, the only conference dedicated to women in open technology and culture

Like many other women, Aurora believed the industry was ignoring the behavioral problems that, she says, characterized many technically focused events. But for the most part, she simply remained silent as she tried to pursue her career. But over time it became clear that ignoring the problem didn't help. She heard from others about similar issues and, more to the point, the hostile environment was making it difficult for women to participate meaningfully in key industry events in security, open source and other areas of technology.

Meanwhile, in Australia, Mary Gardiner, also actively working in open source, was encountering an identical situation in the technical community there. Eventually, the two became acquainted and started a decade-long collaboration on a variety of “women in open source” advocacy projects.

Gardiner says the open source and security worlds are similar in that women in both are an extreme minority. She says some of the problems that have marginalized women are simply a result of ignorance. In other cases, though, she says “some men are attracted to the idea of a male-only experience, which results in actively exclusionary behavior.”

Aurora and Gardiner launched the Ada Initiative in February 2011 with the support of small contributions, mostly from women, across the tech industry, as well as with help from a few grant-making organizations.

Aurora says the undertaking promoted a kind of do-it-yourself ethic. What's more, she says, “We saw that the problem was bigger than corporations or national laws. We understood that there is a global, open culture and we had to find new ways to change things on a peer-to-peer and grassroots basis.”

And their work matters. KC Crowell, a San Francisco-based journalism student and “savvy geek,” explains that she met Aurora after writing some blog posts that discussed the sexist environment at DefCon. 

“I don't know what I would have done without her advice and support,” Crowell says. “When I say support, I don't mean that she just sent me some encouraging words. She reached out with the intention of collaborating and addressing conference harassment on a scale that was far wider than anything I could have done on my own.”

Mary Gardiner 

Age: 31

Occupation: director of operations and research at the
Ada Initiative

College: University of Sydney and Macquarie University 

Accomplishments: With Valerie Aurora, developed and helped implement an anti-harassment policy for technical conferences with the goal of increasing participation by women. Gardiner submitted her Ph.D. thesis in computational linguistics in May (still under review), and was the keynote speaker at the international conference for Wikipedia and related projects, Wikimania 2012, sharing the stage with founder Jimmy Wales

That kind of connection is part of what led to the Ada Initiative's major success to date: the implementation of anti-harassment policies at a number of leading tech conferences. With a distressingly long list of incidents of sexual assault and harassment at conferences as their motivation, Aurora and Gardiner wrote and promoted a model anti-harassment policy for conference organizers to adopt, modify and develop further. To date, more than 100 conferences have implemented the policy, including in the security field BruCon and DeepSec. Among organizations supporting the Ada Initiative policy are the Linux Foundation and a special interest group of educational and scientific computing society ACM (Association for Computing Machinery). 

“For more than a decade we worked on a part-time basis to make the open source community friendlier to women,” says Aurora. “It was very frustrating, but in the past two years we have accomplished more than we had in all those previous years.”

Aurora emphasizes that harassment has a direct consequence on career opportunities for women. For examples, she says, companies and agencies, like the National Security Agency, come to events like DefCon to recruit talent. “If women are being driven out of these events, they do not have those opportunities,” she says.

“That is the true value of the Ada Initiative,” says Crowell. “They have the amazing ability to connect women in tech who want to share resources and collaborate to bring about major change. That level of open collaboration and networking is so vitally important, especially in the relatively small community of women working within the tech industry.”

Gardiner also points out the success of the endeavor's other major project, AdaCamp, which she describes as an “unconference” for women in open technology. The “un” part of the title refers to the way the event is self-organized by the attendees as it progresses, rather than structured around a pre-set agenda. The first AdaCamp was held in January in Melbourne, Australia, and a second, larger event was put on in July in Washington, D.C.

“We had discussions on child-care issues and on specific examples of discrimination,” recalls Gardiner. In addition, she says, the conferences fostered a great deal of knowledge-sharing. “We even ran technical workshops focused on teaching more about programming to women,” she says.

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