Social Engineering

by Leslie Hawthorn
09/04/2007

Leslie Hawthorn held various roles at Google before joining the Open Source Programs Office in March 2006.

On any given day, it seems I do more than I can recount or recollect, such as spec out new initiatives for the Open Source Programs Office, write documentation, answer questions on the Google Summer of Code ™ mailing lists, plan future improvements to the program both from a technical and logistics perspective, organize community conferences, make sure that the right people are talking to each other, and peruse the latest offerings on Digg. What I do every day is fairly straightforward, but trying to summarize my role as a woman in the technical community has proved a difficult enterprise.

Roles in the technical community are well-defined and, not surprisingly, focus almost exclusively on technology. However, I am no industry pundit nor kernel hacker; I do not intend to create the next mashup hotness nor will I ever fix torturous bugs while in the throes of a coffee bender. I don't write code and, honestly, I didn't enjoy it in the slightest when I tried to. I understand technical concepts well and delight in discussing them, but the implementation details hold no allure. Yet, I spend my days surrounded by programmers and, in the open source world, a near monoculture of men writing code and talking about code, gaining credibility with their peers through the code they produce. I've asked myself what the hell I'm actually doing here on more than one occasion.

I've never thought of my role in the technical community as being the result of or in any way inextricably tied to my femininity. If anything, in an effort to be the change I wish to see in the world, I've distanced myself from questions of gender roles in my work. If we are all (to be) equal, it seems counter-intuitive to look at my work as informed by my being a woman. I do and I make, I listen and I advise, I lead and I follow, and none of these things are the exclusive purview of women. While others might, I would not argue that either sex has a particular aptitude for any of these things. Still, when I look at what I do and what I make, I far more often than not find women playing a similar role and doing similar tasks: building communities, creating space for creativity and connection to manifest, taking care of mundane and arcane details so that others can focus on executing to a grander vision.

Like everyone else, I've been called many things in my day, and often the word used is mother – “a mother of open source” or “geek mama.” I usually hear these words after organizing a particularly effective conference, reviewing a Summer of Code student's slide deck before the big presentation, or posting a particularly insightful piece of advice to a mailing list. It's not a compliment I accept without reservation. It brands me as feminine in a masculine world, it implies difference where the optimal outcome is equality and, by extension, sameness.

Certainly, this designation means that people see me as someone who will solve problems effectively on the fly, provide reassurance and support, and impart accumulated wisdom and help when needed. Given that these are all things I strive to do, it's satisfying that I'm perceived this way. On the other hand, at its core the reality of that compliment can be wholly unrewarding; a woman is a mother by virtue of her having children, a powerful role, to be certain, but one by nature subservient to the desires and needs of others. While the role I play has a service-oriented capacity to it – and I personally feel a great responsibility to be of service to the various individuals and communities with whom I interact – it can, at times, feel as though my accomplishments are regarded as having no intrinsic value, that my actions have merit only insofar as they are a vehicle for helping others accomplish their goals.

All that being said, it's very clear to me that the intention of the technical community is not to slight my contributions or the contributions of any woman. If anything, men tend to be passionate advocates for helping women have a broader involvement in the technical conversation and the shaping of our respective futures. I find myself spending time with individuals from many open source projects with wildly divergent aims and methodologies, but without exception the healthiest ones are those who place a high value on contribution of any kind, not just in the creation of code. Among these folks, I find my efforts are accorded the highest of respect and I am treated as an equal, if not as a goddess, for the simple things I do each day: bringing people together, providing structure and organization, understanding pragmatic but often overlooked details, communicating effectively with people from diverse backgrounds and helping them to work most effectively with one another. Some may call that mothering. I'd call it social engineering.


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