Category Archives: Editorial

Editorials and opinion pieces

The Ada Initiative founders on funding activism for women in open source

In December 2010, Valerie Aurora, then a leading Linux filesystems developer, announced that she was leaving software development to work on women in open source software activism full time. Behind the scenes, she asked several other geek feminist activists to join her to work on women in open source activism full time. “I don’t know what the world-wide economic capacity for paid activists [for women in open source] is, but let’s find out together!” she wrote.

In 2010, the smart money said that the world-wide economic capacity for paid activists for women in open source was well under one person. And only Mary Gardiner, then an unpaid computer science PhD student looking to leave academia, took Valerie up on the offer.

Thus began our long journey towards answering the question: “How does an activist get paid?

Mary and Valerie laughing

Ada Initiative founders Mary and Valerie, CC BY-SA Adam Novak

This article chronicles our own painful and sometimes expensive learning experiences around funding diversity in tech work, as well as advice and techniques from several other successful full-time diversity in tech activists and fundraising experts: Ashe Dryden, diversity advocate and consultant; Kellie Brownell, CiviCRM implementer at Giant Rabbit and former Ada Initiative fundraising consultant; Frances Hocutt, founding president of the Seattle Attic feminist hackerspace; and Emily May, executive director of Hollaback!.

Paying Activists and Funding Complications

The question we struggled with initially was why activism, and feminist activism in open source software in particular, should be a paid job at all. Thanks to the work of people including Kate Losse, today the tech community is increasingly aware that this kind of community-building labor is valuable and should be compensated. But in 2010, all we knew is that volunteer activism was not working. Women in open source software were working for free, burning themselves out while fighting for rights as simple as basic physical safety – let alone equal pay, equal treatment and a non-sexist culture.

And yet the expectation that women in open source should be unpaid activists was so high that in 2009, Emma Jane Westby formulated the “Unicorn Law,” which states: “If you are a woman in Open Source, you will eventually give a talk about being a woman in Open Source.” In October 2011, Skud — herself an activist and target of harassment — adapted Arlie Hochschild’s term “the second shift” to describe this phenomenon. But after ten years, and tens of thousands of hours of difficult, draining work, the percentage of women in open source software was still in the low single digits.

Valerie’s insight — radical, at the time — was that we needed full-time paid activists working on the problem in order to make any progress. We founded the Ada Initiative with the principle of paying fair market wages to anyone doing work for us more than a few hours a week. In 2010, this was a moonshot. In 2014, it’s increasingly how things are done. More and more diversity in technology initiatives are becoming paid activities, and a growing proportion of the technology industry recognizes this labour as something worth paying for.

For all this progress, relatively few “pre-fabricated” diversity in tech jobs exist, and the ones that do exist tend to be co-opted by corporations to narrowly focus on recruiting and, in effect, marketing. Many existing large diversity-in-tech non-profits are primarily corporate-funded and therefore end up compelled to do recruiting and marketing for for-profit tech corporations. An employee of a for-profit corporation who wants to advocate for significant cultural change as part of their job is stuck in an additional catch-22: they can’t criticize their competitors, because it looks like a conflict of interest, and they also can’t criticize their own employer, because that’s a great way to get fired.

Thus, full-time diversity activists who want to do effective, controversial, culture-changing work must often work out how to pay themselves, rather than taking existing jobs at tech companies or diversity in tech non-profits.

What follows is a survey of some of the most popular funding sources: corporate sponsorship, individual donations, and consulting and training.

But first…

Why you shouldn’t try them all

Often activists will reach for every funding opportunity they can: individual fundraising campaign, yes! Government grants, yes! Selling stickers, yes! Sucking up to wealthy potential donors at lavish one-on-one dinners, absolutely! But it is crucial to pick just two or three funding sources and concentrate on them.

Raising money in any form takes time, practice, dedication, and skill. Pursuing too many forms of funding will just mean that you’re bad at all of them. Some diversification of funding sources is often recommended, but the base requirement is a reliable funding source.

An activist’s choice will depend both on their mission and who they are able to reach. The Wikimedia Foundation is focusing exclusively on small donors from all over the world giving an average of $25 each and giving up pursuing most grants or large donors, in part because small donors are inherently diversified. However, the Wikimedia Foundation can use Wikipedia, one of the world’s most-read websites, as a fundraising platform, a rare advantage. No diversity in tech activists will have such a large pool of potential donors! Each individual and organization needs to assess which sources of funding are compatible with their mission, and of those sources, which they can access.

Corporate Sponsorship

The Ada Initiative, like many diversity in tech groups, initially planned on getting most of our funding from technology-related corporations. Our focus was on women in open technology and culture, which includes open source software, Wikipedia-related projects, open data, and similar areas. Our logic was charmingly naïve: since corporations reaped most of the benefit of open tech/culture, they should pay most of the cost of increasing the percentage of women in their talent pool because fairness. Also, corporations tend to have a lot of money.

Major corporate sponsorship for diversity in tech work comes in several common forms: conference sponsorships, grants for specific projects, fellowships employing a specific person for a few months, and completely unrestricted grants (our favorite). Corporate donors are attractive because, compared to the typical activist, many have effectively infinite amounts of money.

However, corporate sponsorship has clear downsides for many diversity in tech activists. The sponsor’s goal tends to be making sure the corporate sponsor has access to a diverse hiring pool. Most companies therefore prefer to support events and education initiatives that serve as recruitment opportunities in the short or medium term.

Corporate sponsorship is also often very cautious. They are looking to associate their name with a popular message, and groups who do not yet have a history of successful programs may have trouble accessing corporate donations. Organizations intending to rely on corporate donations may have to bootstrap with other funds or volunteer labor while building a history of success.

The main exception to these rules, in our experience, is smaller privately-held companies whose owners account only to themselves for how the company’s money is spent. They tend to be less conservative and more risk-tolerant than publicly owned companies. In the Ada Initiative’s case, these kinds of corporate donors were crucial to our success and included Puppet Labs, Dreamhost, Dreamwidth, and Inktank.

Early on, our philosophy at Ada Initiative was to accept any no-strings-attached corporate sponsorship as long as the company’s business model wasn’t fundamentally anathema to our mission. But since many corporations — and corporate management — are complicit in discrimination and harassment of women in tech, much of the effective work to support women in tech involves criticizing the status quo and has the potential to offend the very corporations who sponsor us. We gradually came to realize that every corporate sponsorship has an invisible condition: unspoken internalized pressure to avoid any actions that might cause that corporation to stop donating to us.

We had another motivation for our initial corporate-funded model: guilt. We felt guilty asking individual people to support our work but no such compunction when it came to corporations. We suspect this kind of guilt plagues many activists; we tend to want to help others, not ask others to help us. Our guilt about asking individuals to support our work instead of corporations drove us to end our first fundraiser early, resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of dollars from eager donors and forcing us to start another, less-efficient fundraising campaign only 5 months later. Reframing how we viewed asking individual people for donations took three years, a career counselor, a therapist, several books, and a perceptive fundraising consultant, Kellie Brownell.

So let’s talk about…

Individual Donations

Since mid-2011, the bedrock of the Ada Initiative’s funding has come from a few hundred individuals within the technology community. Being accountable to donors who are primarily interested in culture change even when it has no direct benefit to themselves allows us to take on more radical programs. This includes work that is not directly connected with hiring or careers, or that is connected with gift and alternative economies like media fandom with little direct connection to corporate profits.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to adopt an individual donor funding model is that donors often become advocates for diversity in tech themselves. Kellie Brownell, our former fundraising consultant, says, “While fundraising at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, I kept noticing that our donors were the first to take action when we asked for help.” Many an Ada Initiative donor has gone on to successfully advocate for an anti-harassment policy or a diversity scholarship in their community. We also receive many thank-you notes from people too shy, too burned out, or too busy to be advocates themselves, who are relieved that they can take action in some way by donating. Individual donors create a virtuous circle where fundraising supports our mission, and our mission increases our fundraising.

Two women smiling, CC BY-SA Adam Novak

AdaCamp DC attendees, CC BY-SA Adam Novak

Diversity in tech organizations are increasingly bootstrapped with a crowdfunding campaign. Diversity advocate and consultant Ashe Dryden raised $20,000 in July 2013; Trans*H4CK raised $6,000 beginning in May 2013; feminist hackerspaces Double Union and Seattle Attic raised $15,000 and $11,000 respectively in November 2013; and in March 2014 Lesbians Who Tech raised $29,000 for a summit in San Francisco and $20,000 for a summit in New York.

Crowdfunding, with its constant outreach and rewards is an excellent way to interest donors and community members in an organization, but Dryden cautions that “[it was and] still is a considerably larger amount of work on top of the other work I’m doing.” At the extreme, the work required to publicise a fundraising drive and then fulfill rewards can risk exhausting the funds raised! It may also only work a limited number of times. Emily May, executive director of anti-street harassment non-profit Hollaback!, says “80% of our donors are young[…] They are incentivized to give by new exciting initiatives, but there are only so many ‘new exciting initiatives’ that [we] can launch without overwhelming our capacity.”

Activists are beginning to be able to raise enough money to pay themselves from many very small regular donations. Dryden’s funding now comes primarily from Gittip, a service that allows people to make anonymous weekly donations directly to her. She is the top Gittip recipient with an income of $750 a week, and is not the only diversity in tech activist among Gittip’s top receivers. Others include Lynn Cyrin, a trans woman of color working on a guide to class mobility and CallbackWomen, working to increase women’s representation at conferences.

Dryden says, “Community funding is great because it means I’m working directly for the community. I often tell people that the community is my employer, so I’m working directly for them, instead of what would look best for a company. It also means that I can be impartial in critiquing what’s wrong with the industry without worrying about financial ramifications either through my employer’s view not aligning with mine or people attempting to get me fired for my views, which many other activists and advocates have experienced.” Dryden’s model is beginning to approach what Sue Gardner, the outgoing executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation and an Ada Initiative board member, identifies as the future of non-profit funding: small donations from a large number of donors, requiring relatively little fundraising effort from the organisation compared to traditional models.

Every individual donor population is unique. In Dryden’s case, anonymous donors make small weekly donations on the order of $5. In the Ada Initiative’s case, we tend to have donors with high-paying technology jobs (or who own technology companies themselves) with generous bonuses, stock grants, and programs that match employee donations to non-profits. Kellie Brownell explains how we grew our individual donor base: “We adapted fundraising practices from individual major giving, for example, (1) thanking donors quickly, (2) asking what motivated them to give, and (3) reporting back later what we did with their money. Major giving practices are highly personal and aim to help donors grow in their understanding of an organization’s mission and why this mission matters to them. Once a fundraising team becomes good at doing both these things, you can develop this model further by giving donors opportunities to participate in the process.”

Relying on individual donors has downsides. Recruiting the initial slate of donors can take months of full-time work, and reminding them to give again takes more work (which is one reason why non-profits tend to prefer automatic recurring donations). Individual donors may also attempt to redirect the person or organization’s work towards less controversial programs. Dryden explains that the anonymity of her donors, which is not an option for most non-profit corporations, “removes the pressure to fit my message into what I think my larger funders would agree with, which protects the integrity of my work.”

Membership

A variant of individual donations is the membership model of funding, where funders pay membership fees instead of donating, and in return receive benefits from the organization such as access to private events, training or spaces. It often comes with input into the activist group’s governance, usually as the right to vote for or stand for the governing committee.

This model is most successful where activists are primarily working to provide ongoing benefits to a small group of people; for example, feminist hackerspaces (a.k.a., community workshops), which exist for the benefit of local women and others who are not welcomed in existing hackerspaces. Frances Hocutt, founding president of the Seattle Attic feminist hackerspace, says “We aim for members to fund the bulk of our operations because we want our community to be able to continue even if donations drop off. We are trying to build a community that is sustainable and can be self-supporting if need be.”

For organizations like the Ada Initiative, which aims to benefit a very large group of people and provide resources widely and freely, the membership model is less suitable as we have little additional benefit to offer members. Hocutt also observes that it is not ideal when activists are trying to benefit people who can’t afford membership fees: “We believe that ability to pay dues has nothing to do with a person’s ability to contribute to the creativity and energy of the Attic community, and we want to remove barriers that keep some of us from doing that.” Seattle Attic offers the ability for donors to donate memberships for people who can’t afford one, and a transport subsidy to members who don’t have access to transport.

Consulting and training

Counterintuitively, one way to raise money from donors without giving them undue influence is to provide consulting and training directly to them for a fee. This makes the terms of the relationship very clear; they receive a specific tangible benefit in return for their fee, rather than there being an unspoken expectation of a long term PR or recruiting boost.

In addition to her Gittip income, Ashe Dryden funds her work by consulting for corporations looking for help improving diversity in their organization. The Ada Initiative’s training programs include the Allies Workshop, which teaches men simple, everyday techniques to fight sexism in their workplace and open tech/culture communities. The Allies Workshop is a fairly challenging and confrontational program, as it teaches people to directly confront sexism and harassment without being transphobic, homophobic, racist, ablist, or classist. By offering it as a corporate training program on a voluntary attendance basis only, we attracted companies with employees who were ready to take personal action to support our existing strategy.

As with the membership model, providing consulting or training in return for a fee may compromise the ability of an organization to benefit the public.

“I would love a stronger earned income revenue stream, but our values of making it free to launch a Hollaback! in [any] community conflict with that,” reports Emily May, whose organization’s funding is primarily foundations (65%) and government (20%). In order to combat this effect, the Ada Initiative makes our training materials available publicly, and offers cheap and free spots at public training sessions, as well as offering training using the same materials to fee-paying clients.

Incorporation and funding

The Ada Initiative is incorporated as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit in the United States with tax-exempt status. This has some immense practical benefits in exempting us from corporate income taxes and allowing us to receive tax-deductible donations in the US.

Incorporating in some form — non-profit, B-corp, limited liability company, etc. — is not a requirement for funding diversity in tech work. We were astonished to discover how much money people would give us with the ink barely dry on our mail-order certificate of incorporation from the State of Delaware. In retrospect, we realized people were initially donating to Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora, not the Ada Initiative, Inc. In the tech sector, people are frequently willing to give hundreds or thousands of dollars to individuals as long as they personally trust the recipient, with or without the incentive of tax deductions or certification by some charity-related authority (e.g., the U.S. Internal Revenue Service).

The decision of whether or not to create a 501(c)3 requires weighing significant trade-offs. Preparing our application for tax-exempt status and then following various accounting and reporting rules to retain it take an astonishingly high proportion of our time — our 2012 taxation filing consumed approximately a month of staff time. In the U.S., non-profit incorporation is most suited to an organization that, like the Ada Initiative, intends to grow into a larger multi-person effort. We deliberately created an organization that would allow our projects to be continued by other activists if and when we burned out and move on to easier jobs (like writing operating systems software or leading a computational research lab).

To The Moon!

In 2010, Valerie described paying one activist to work on issues facing women in open technology and culture as a “moonshot”. In the short time since, so many activists have found that the work they do or the resources they need both should be paid for and can be paid for. The Ada Initiative, Black Girls Code, Seattle Attic, Double Union, Trans*H4ck, Lesbians Who Tech and others have joined older organizations such as the Anita Borg Institute and the Level Playing Field Institute. More are appearing every month. They are joined by community-funded individual activists such as Ashe Dryden and Lynn Cyrin.

Diversity in tech activists are using a wide variety of strategies: corporate sponsorship, yearly fundraising campaigns, monthly or even weekly small donors, foundation grants, conference sponsorships, and many more. The technology and culture around giving are changing so quickly that funding strategies that were completely impractical three years ago can now fund a full-time activist or an entire non-profit with several paid employees. Conventional fundraising experts, raised on a diet of buying email lists and snail mail appeals, are hard-pressed to keep up with these massive changes. We recommend that diversity in tech activists learn fundraising techniques from each other in addition to learning established fundraising best practices. In many ways, diversity in tech activists are outstripping received fundraising wisdom.

Wikimedians at AdaCamp DC
CC BY-SA Adam Novak

We can’t imagine what diversity in tech activism will look like in another four years, but we’d love to see reliance on corporate donations fall back to simply being one of many options for activists to consider. We hope that people who have benefited from the technology industry continue to give back by supporting diversity in tech activism, by joining diversity activist communities and by donating to individuals and organizations working towards a diverse and equitable tech workforce.

Deleting Ada Lovelace from the history of computing

This is a repost of our Ada Lovelace Day 2012 article on the attempts to delete Countess Ada Lovelace from the history of computing, with minor updates and an announcement of the first Ada Lovelace conference in October 2013.

Ada Lovelace portrait

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace (full name: Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace) is a familiar figure in the history of computing. She is the world’s first computer programmer, writing the instructions to carry out a computer program on what would have been the world’s first computer if it had been built – the Analytical Engine, designed by famous inventor Charles Babbage.

Lovelace published the first computer program in a paper in 1843. Her paper was presented as “notes” on a previous, less complete paper on the subject which she also translated, but her “notes” were longer than the original paper and were considerably more insightful. She spent many months perfecting the paper, writing letters back and forth with Charles Babbage to check her work.

The depressing part? Some people argue that Lovelace did not write the first computer program, that Charles Babbage wrote it for her and she took the credit. Despite ample contemporary evidence in the form of Lovelace’s letters to Babbage while she was writing the Notes, people have many arguments (often tinged with anger and contempt) for why she didn’t write or even understand the first computer program.

A full length oil portrait of a woman in 19th c. dress

Ada Lovelace: stupid, arrogant, and insane?

Arguments against Lovelace’s authorship include: Lovelace made mathematical mistakes when she was learning mathematics, Lovelace failed to correct a mathematical error introduced by a printer in a reprint of someone else’s work, Lovelace was literally insane, Lovelace had too high an opinion of herself, etc.

Interestingly, these arguments are rarely used to question men’s authorship of joint works; indeed mental instability or difficult personalities sometimes seems to add to the reputation of male scientists and mathematicians (Nikola Tesla, John Nash, and Isaac Newton, to name just a few). Certainly I’ve personally never seen a single published mathematical error (actually, in her case merely failure to correct someone else’s error) used as an argument against a male scientist’s competency as a whole.

As another example of the lengths to which Lovelace’s critics will go, Charles Babbage’s biography, written long after Lovelace’s death, has this statement on Lovelace’s paper:

I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.

People argue that “the algebraic working out” of the numbers of Bernoulli means that Babbage wrote the program to calculate the numbers of Bernoulli. Yet the paper contains an actual algebraic equation for calculating the numbers of Bernoulli – separate from the computer program – which would seem much more likely to be what Babbage is referring to.

Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2, CC BY-SA Canticle

Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2, CC BY-SA Canticle

More contemporary evidence in Lovelace’s favor includes her extrapolations of what a general purpose computer could do, which stretched far beyond Babbage’s ideas for its use (printing mathematical tables, mostly). She even proposed that computers could make music – definitely not Babbage’s idea, since he was famous for his passionate hatred of music. The Computer History Museum’s biography of Ada Lovelace says:

The idea of a machine that could manipulate symbols in accordance with rules and that number could represent entities other than quantity mark the fundamental transition from calculation to computation. Ada was the first to explicitly articulate this notion and in this she appears to have seen further than Babbage.

On balance, the evidence would suggest, if anything, that Babbage was the person who did not fully understand the computing capabilities of his invention and Lovelace had the greater knowledge.

A woman in 18th c. French dress seated at a table with a book and holding a compass

Émilie du Châtelet

In the end, most arguments that Lovelace did not write the first program only make sense in the context of a common assumption: in any partnership between a man and woman, the man did the important work and the woman assisted and polished. Look at Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet. Du Châtelet was a pioneer in the new discipline of physics, publishing several seminal papers in physics, a physics textbook, and a translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Voltaire and du Châtelet were long-term collaborators in the areas of physics and mathematics, working closely on many works, as well as lovers. However, Voltaire’s primary or sole authorship of many of their joint works is rarely questioned.

As one example, only Voltaire’s name appeared on a book he published, of which he later wrote, “Minerva dictated, and I wrote.” Voltaire often referred to du Châtelet as Minerva (interesting in itself as it suggests that du Châtelet was a channel for the goddess of wisdom rather than the originator of her ideas). Is there any serious contention that Voltaire was not the primary author of his publications during the time he collaborated with du Châtelet? No. Was there plenty of evidence that she contributed significantly to his published works? Yes.

A book cover reading "How to Suppress Women's Writing" by Joanna RussHow to Suppress Women’s Writing” by Joanna Russ shows the patterns in how people dismiss women’s writing: “She didn’t write it. She wrote it but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it but look what she wrote about. She wrote it but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art,” ad nauseum. The exact same arguments are used by people trying to dismiss Lovelace’s programming, right down to “She wrote it but she isn’t really a programmer, and it isn’t really a program.”

Lovelace’s current Wikipedia page reflects the effect of thousands of people arguing against giving credit to Lovelace: “[…] She is often considered the world’s first computer programmer” – unfortunately, probably the most positive statement we can reasonably expect. But what Lovelace needs is not a better Wikipedia page, but a better biography.

Cover of book reading "Ada, Enchantress of Numbers; Poetical Science; Betty Alexandra Toole"The most evidence-based biography, “Ada: The Enchantress of Numbers,” by Betty Alexandra Toole, quotes heavily from Lovelace’s letters, but is written by someone without a deep understanding of computing. Other biographical works are written by people who appear to be heavily biased against Lovelace, often making extremely critical personal judgements and sweeping statements contradicting contemporary evidence without citing evidence to the contrary.

We’re beginning to make progress, though: the first Ada Lovelace conference is scheduled for October 18, 2013 at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. Created by Dr. Robin Hammerman, this conference will celebrate “Lovelace’s many achievements as well as the impact of her life and work, which reverberated through the sciences and humanities since the late nineteenth century. This conference heralds a recent resurgence in Lovelace scholarship thanks to the growth of interdisciplinary thinking and the expanding influence of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” Ada Initiative executive director Valerie Aurora will be giving a keynote address, “Rebooting the Ada Lovelace Mythos.”

We should not be denigrating women’s accomplishments in science based on specious arguments about personality, occasional errors, and collaborations with men. That’s one of the purposes of Ada Lovelace Day: to bring recognition to women who have had credit for their accomplishments stolen from them.

Deleting Ada Lovelace

Today is Ada Lovelace’s 197th birthday. This is a repost of our Ada Lovelace Day article on Ada Lovelace, focusing on the debate over her authorship of the first computer program and attempts to write women out of the history of science. The most recent version of this post, including information about the new Ada Lovelace conference, can be found here.

Ada Lovelace portrait

Ada Lovelace

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (known as Ada Lovelace) is probably a familiar figure to most of our readers. She is the world’s first computer programmer, writing the instructions to carry out a computer program on what would have been the world’s first computer if it had been built – the Analytical Engine, designed by famous inventor Charles Babbage.

Lovelace published the first computer program in a paper in 1843. It was presented as “Notes” to a previous, less complete paper on the subject which she also translated, but her “notes” were longer than the original paper and were considerable more insightful. She spent many months perfecting the paper, writing letters back and forth with Charles Babbage to check her work.

The depressing part? Some people argue that Lovelace did not write the first computer program, instead Charles Babbage wrote it for her and she took the credit. Despite ample contemporary evidence in the form of Lovelace’s letters to Babbage while she was writing the Notes, people have many arguments (often tinged with anger and contempt) for why she didn’t write or even understand the first computer program.

Arguments against Lovelace’s authorship include that Lovelace made mathematical mistakes when she was learning mathematics, Lovelace failed to correct a mathematical error introduced by a printer in a reprint of someone else’s work, Lovelace was literally insane, Lovelace had too high an opinion of herself, etc. Interestingly, these arguments are rarely used to question men’s authorship of joint works; indeed mental instability or difficult personalities sometimes seems to add to the reputation of male scientists and mathematicians (Nikola Tesla, John Nash, and Isaac Newton, to name just a few). Certainly I’ve personally never seen a single published mathematical error (actually, in her case merely failure to correct someone else’s error) used as an argument against a male scientist’s competency as a whole.

As another example of the lengths to which Lovelace’s critics will go, Charles Babbage’s biography, written long after Lovelace’s death (and after they worked on the paper) has this statement on Lovelace’s paper:

I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.

People argue that “the algebraic working out” of the numbers of Bernoulli means that Babbage wrote the program to calculate the numbers of Bernoulli. Yet the paper contains an actual algebraic equation for calculating the numbers of Bernoulli – separate from the computer program – which would seem much more likely to be what Babbage is referring to.

More contemporary evidence in Lovelace’s favor includes her extrapolations of what a general purpose computer could do, which stretched far beyond Babbage’s ideas for its use (printing mathematical tables, mostly). She even proposed that computers could make music, which definitely wasn’t Babbage’s idea as he was famous for his passionate hatred of music. The Computer History Museum’s biography of Ada Lovelace says, “The idea of a machine that could manipulate symbols in accordance with rules and that number could represent entities other than quantity mark the fundamental transition from calculation to computation. Ada was the first to explicitly articulate this notion and in this she appears to have seen further than Babbage.” On balance, the evidence would suggest, if anything, that Babbage was the person who did not fully understand the computing capabilities of his invention and Lovelace had the greater knowledge.

In the end, most arguments that Lovelace did not write the first program only make sense in the context of a common assumption: in any partnership between a man and woman, the man did the important work and the woman assisted and polished. Look at Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet. Du Châtelet was a pioneer in the new discipline of physics, publishing several seminal papers in physics, a physics textbook, and a translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Voltaire and du Châtelet were long-term collaborators in the areas of physics and mathematics, working closely on many works, as well as lovers. However, Voltaire’s primary or sole authorship of many of their joint works is rarely questioned.

As one example, only Voltaire’s name appeared on a book he published, of which he later wrote, “Minerva dictated, and I wrote.” Voltaire often referred to du Châtelet as Minerva (interesting in itself as it suggests that du Châtelet was a channel for the goddess of wisdom rather than the originator of her ideas). Is there any serious contention that Voltaire was not the primary author of his publications during the time he collaborated with du Chatelet? No. Was there plenty of evidence that she contributed significantly to his published works? Yes.

How to Suppress Women’s Writing” by Joanna Russ shows the patterns in how people dismiss women’s writing: “She didn’t write it. She wrote it but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it but look what she wrote about. She wrote it but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art,” ad nauseum. (Substitute “computer programmer” for the last – people also argue that what Lovelace wrote wasn’t really a program, either.)

Lovelace’s current Wikipedia page reflects the effect of thousands of people arguing against giving credit to Lovelace: “[…] She is sometimes considered the world’s first computer programmer.” [Update: As of Dec. 9, 2012, it is now “often considered” – the debate rages!] But what Lovelace needs is not a better Wikipedia page, but a better biography.

The most evidence-based biography, “Ada: The Enchantress of Numbers,” quotes heavily from Lovelace’s letters, but is written by someone without a deep understanding of computing. Other biographical works are written by people who appear to be heavily biased against Lovelace, often making extremely critical personal judgements and sweeping statements contradicting contemporary evidence without citing evidence to the contrary.

In 2012, we should not be denigrating women’s accomplishments in science based on specious arguments about personality, occasional errors, and collaborations with men. That’s one of the purposes of Ada Lovelace Day: to bring recognition to women who have had credit for their accomplishments stolen from them.

DEFCON: Why conference harassment matters

This weekend was DEFCON 20, the largest and most famous hacker[1] conference in the world. I didn’t go to DEFCON because I’m a woman, and I don’t like it when strangers grab my crotch.

Let’s back up a little bit. DEFCON is a stellar computer security conference, attended by famous computer security experts, shadowy government “spooks,” creative hackers of all sorts, and the journalists who write about them. I first attended DEFCON in 1995 as a gawky 17-year-old. DEFCON 3 was just a few hundred computer security experts wearing black leather jackets and milling around in a ballroomat the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas.

DEFCON 3 badge

The author’s first DEFCON badge

That weekend I learned about Kevin Mitnick getting hunted down by the FBI, war-dialing for modems, and the existence of the Internet. I met a guy with long red hair named Dan Farmer who had written a program called something like EVIL, or SATAN, I wasn’t sure which.

I was so inspired by the fascinating, brilliant, frequently leather-clad people I met at DEFCON 3 that I became a computer programmer. I still have my first DEFCON badge, a cheesy purple and white laminated number with only my first name – at age 17, I wasn’t about to to give my full name to a conference full of hackers!

DEFCON today

Fast forward 17 years to DEFCON 20. Every time I read about something cool happening at DEFCON, I wanted to jump on the next flight to Las Vegas. But I didn’t, because of my own bad experiences at DEFCON, and those of people like KC, a journalist and student in San Francisco who wrote about attending DEFCON 19:

Nothing could have prepared me for the onslaught of bad behavior I experienced. Like the man who drunkenly tried to lick my shoulder tattoo. Like the man who grabbed my hips while I was waiting for a drink at the EFF party. Like the man who tried to get me to show him my tits so he could punch a hole in a card that, when filled, would net him a favor from one of the official security staff.

Or the experience of one of my friends, who prefers to remain anonymous. At a recent DEFCON, while leaning over to get her drink at the bar, someone slid his hand up all the way between her legs and grabbed her crotch. When she turned around, the perpetrator had already disappeared into the crowd.

My own stories from DEFCON seem tame compared to what these women went through, but I couldn’t take the constant barrage of sexual insults and walked out halfway through DEFCON 16, swearing not to return if I was going to be harassed like that again.

Unfortunately, DEFCON isn’t unusual among hacker conferences. Similar stories about Black Hat, HOPE, CCC, and others are also common. Sexual harassment at other computer conferences often appears unintentional, but at hacker conferences it’s often clear that the perp is doing it on purpose, and enjoying the hell out of it. As a woman, it’s hard to justify attending a hacker conference when I can go to an academic computer conference and get treated like a human being most of the time.

Why harassment matters

At this point, some of you are thinking, “Well, if DEFCON is so bad for women, women just shouldn’t go. Who cares?”

As KC puts it, “Defcon is also many wonderful things. It is a fantastic environment to learn, network, and connect with friends old and new.” There’s a reason that I attended DEFCON five times before I quit. DEFCON and other hacker conferences are popular for all the reasons that conferences exist at all: learning new things, meeting people in your field, improving your reputation, finding jobs, and making new friends.

I’ll start with the most obvious benefit of attending DEFCON: jobs. Did you know that Twitter is recruiting computer security experts at DEFCON? So are Zynga and the NSA:

@netik: Twitter is hiring security people. If you are at defcon and need work, @ reply me and let's meet up.

Happy Recruiting! NSA top spy going to #Defcon 2012 http://exm.nr/NKEIOM  via @examinercom #infosec #cybersecurity

I am recruiting for AppSec, SecEng, and SecIR positions at @Zynga this week at BsidesLV, Defcon, and Blackhat. Lets talk.

Twitter, Zynga, and the NSA are only a few of the companies and government agencies that consider DEFCON prime recruiting ground for experts in all sorts of areas: network security, operating systems, robotics, surveillance, electrical engineering, intrusion detection, and anything that communicates via electromagnetic waves. When companies recruit at DEFCON, and women aren’t at DEFCON, both the companies and the women miss out.

But how do you become qualified for a computer security job in the first place? Computer security isn’t very well documented, or taught in any depth in most universities. After my first DEFCON, I knew to sign up for the DEFCON mailing list, read the 2600 magazine, and check out a copy of the UNIX Systems Administration Handbook from the computer center library. When I got a computer account at my university, I logged into the UNIX workstations instead of the Windows machines because I knew UNIX was what hackers used. I poked around UNIX until I found files I couldn’t read and commands I couldn’t run, and then I started reading manuals to understand why. I eventually became a worldwide UNIX file systems expert – all because I went to this obscure little conference in Las Vegas in 1995.

For those women who work or want to work in a computer security related field, conferences like DEFCON are the best chance to meet influential people in the field. Take Bruce Schneier, a professional speaker and the author of “Applied Cryptography” (known outside computer security for coining the term “security theater” to describe TSA security measures). I met Schneier at DEFCON 6, when I made a joke that he reused in his talk a few minutes later. The DEFCON speaker list is a who’s who of modern digital glitterati – and in a strange twist of fate, now includes the Director of the NSA.

Giving the right talk at DEFCON can make your entire career and net you dozens of offers for jobs, contracts, and book deals. DEFCON is good for hands-on learning too: For example, every year teams of security experts compete in contests like “Capture the Flag” to show off their skills and learn from each other.

Finally, everyone at DEFCON benefits from more women attending. Women “hackers” – in the creative technologist sense – are everywhere, and many of them are brilliant, interesting, and just plain good company (think Limor Fried, Jeri Ellsworth, and Angela Byron). Companies recruiting for talent get access to the full range of qualified applicants, not just the ones who can put up with a brogrammer atmosphere. We get more and better talks on a wider range of subjects. Conversations are more fun. Conferences and everyone at them loses when amazing women don’t attend.

When you say, “Women shouldn’t go to DEFCON if they don’t like it,” you are saying that women shouldn’t have all of the opportunities that come with attending DEFCON: jobs, education, networking, book contracts, speaking opportunities – or else should be willing to undergo sexual harassment and assault to get access to them. Is that really what you believe?

Is change coming to hacker conferences?

Back to KC:

I know Im not alone in being frustrated with the climate at Defcon. Last year at Deepsec in Vienna, I met a fantastically intelligent woman developer who flat out refused to attend Defcon because of interactions like those listed above. I can think of countless other women I know in the tech industry who are regular Defcon participants and speakers who are just as fed up with this crap as me. I wonder why weve all been so polite about such an unhealthy atmosphere.

Red/yellow (and green) cardsRed/yellow (and green) cardsKC stopped being polite, and started doing something about the sexist atmosphere at DEFCON: she created the Red/Yellow Card Project. She got the idea from a joke a rugby-obsessed friend made after she complained about sexism at DEFCON, suggesting that she hand out red and yellow penalty cards to people making sexist comments. She designed and printed the cards and distributed them at this year’s DEFCON, with mixed reception. Some people vehemently objected, but others loved it. DEFCON founder Jeff Moss offered to pay for the printing costs of the cards.

How the Ada Initiative is changing conferences

The cards are a hilarious way to raise awareness of the problem of brutal sexual harassment at DEFCON and similar conferences. Unfortunately, it will take more than raising awareness to make hacker conferences safe for women. That’s one reason why I quit my cushy computer programmer job and co-founded the Ada Initiative, a non-profit supporting women in open technology and culture. Our scope includes open source software, open hardware, and open data – all of which are major parts of hacker conferences like DEFCON.

The Ada Initiative’s first project: an example written policy that bans harassment at conferences, sexual or otherwise, of people of all genders. Organizers for literally hundreds of conferences have adopted some form of this policy, including open source software conferences from Linux to Python to Git, the world’s largest Wikipedia conference, Wikimania, and a plethora of others including gaming cons, open video conferences, science fiction conventions, and even skeptic/atheist meetups.

The policies aren’t just empty words; several conferences have enforced their policies successfully. Many conference organizers have told us that they had record women’s attendance after they adopted a policy aimed at reducing harassment (and often higher overall attendance as well). One conference organizer said that the first year they worked hard to invite 30% women, everyone enjoyed the conference so much more that they’ve done it every year since. When women feel welcome at a conference, everyone enjoys the conference more.

A call to action and a challenge

We’re waiting to hear about the first[2] hacker conference to adopt a specific, enforceable, well-planned policy protecting women from harassment – and then we’re going to promote the hell out of it. Will it be HOPE? CCC? DEFCON? Whichever hacker conference is first will get dozens or hundreds of new attendees, women and everyone else, too. If you want this to be your conference, and you want help designing and implementing a policy, email us at contact@adainitiative.org.

Updated to add on August 6, 2012: BruCON, a computer security conference in Belgium, is the first conference to meet our challenge! BruCON 2012 will be in Ghent, Belgium, on September 24-25, 2012. See their policy here and keep an eye out for related posts on our blogs. We will continue to update the list of computer security and hacker conferences with specific, enforceable policies preventing harassment on the Geek Feminism wiki.

If you’re not a conference organizer, you can help too! We’ve created a list of actions to take to support policies preventing harassment at conferences, all field-tested for effectiveness. To name just a few, you can publicly request a policy by blogging or tweeting, organize a community petition asking for a policy, and when speaking, make your appearance contingent on a policy.

Finally, if you like the work that the Ada Initiative is doing, you can support us by joining our announcement mailing list or donating to support our work for women in open technology and culture (we’re a tax-exempt non-profit charitable organization supported by donations).


[1] The precise meaning of the word “hacker” has been the subject of furious debate for at least 30 years. Suffice to say that in this post it does not mean exclusively “person who breaks into computers” and it includes people who experiment with computers and hardware for curiosity’s sake.

[2] Kiwicon is a hacker conference that has a (hilarious) Code of Conduct:

Kiwicon attempts to be a relatively informal conference where all members of the hacking community can come together over one weekend. Individuals intent on sprinkling fetid douchenuggets over the ice-cream sundae of anyone else’s enjoyment may incur penalties, reprisals or sanctions at the discretion of the Crue. In other words, the Crue reserve the right to kick you out, own your boxen and publicly shame you if you’re being an idiot.

However, our (rather extensive) experience with harassment at conferences is that policies don’t work unless they are specific about what isn’t allowed, for many reasons. Often the people doing the harassing believe that their behavior is acceptable at that conference, so unacceptable behavior has to be spelled out or people will keep doing it. Plus, specifically listing unacceptable behavior is often enough to stop it from occurring at all. People who are nervous about attending the conference can’t tell what the organizers consider harassing behavior and don’t know whether the organizers will back them up. Finally, it’s simply inconsiderate to tell your attendees that they can get kicked out of a conference if they behave badly – and then not give them some idea of what you consider bad behavior. See the example policy guide for more details.