Women Techies Build a Room of Their Own


By Alexandra Garretón

By the end of the year, creative women will have a place in the Mission District where they can comfortably code, collaborate, do carpentry – or anything else they’re passionate about – without scrutiny.

Double Union, the neighborhood’s newest hacker and makerspace, is expected to officially open its doors in December and join a handful of creative community workshops in the country defined by gender.

“If you work in a male dominated field its easy to end up with all male or mostly male friends,” said Heather Rivers, 27, a new member of the all-female organization. “It’s very nice to meet like-minded women friends – people who are interested in collaborating and expanding ideas and materials and buildings things together.”

Rivers is one of 15 women who have already signed on and paid dues to use the collective space for creative work. Like other hacker and makerspaces, Double Union is a community-operated place for people to get together, share tools, pool resources, and collaborate on ideas.

“Part of what we are doing here is fairly radical – we’re not making a space for men to hang out. We want to make a space that is specifically for women,” said Liz Henry, 45, one of Double Union’s founders.

Inspired by similar efforts in other cities, including Seattle, Portland and Oakland, meetings to make the Mission’s first hackerspace began in June.  Roughly a dozen women have been in and out of talks all summer working out the logistics, members said.

Hanging from the high ceilings in the new hackerspace on Valencia between Four Barrel Coffee and Zeitgeist there will be pulleys that raise potted plants up to a skylight, there is a reading library with comfy seats, rows of tables to set up laptops and projects, and a wall dedicated to rotating art installations.

Members will have their own teacups, high-speed wifi and the freedom to use any of the available equipment including sewing machines and circular saws. Part of the space has been designed for industrial projects, but the furniture was consciously chosen to be lightweight so “everything can be reconfigured without a lot of muscle,” said Henry.

So far Double Union has kept membership numbers low on purpose since they’re not officially open yet. Until then interested parties must be invited by a member to a ‘semi-open’ house. New visitors are asked to sign the anti-harassment policy before entering the space. When they’re ready to grow, Henry expects their numbers will quickly swell to 80 or 100.

Amelia Greenhall, 27, another founder, is encouraged by the enthusiasm they’ve already received for the project. “People are interested in something they’ve always wanted, but didn’t think it existed,” she said. Without advertising, all 150 tickets for Double Union’s event on October 30th sold out in less than 72 hours. Since their space isn’t ready yet, New Relic in SOMA is sponsoring it.

Henry has been part of the tech community for more than 20 years. She credits the Internet for helping techy women find each other. She said the online conversation is gathering steam and empowering women in tech.

“As our numbers are growing in the field, I think it’s hitting a kind of tipping point.” Henry wouldn’t be surprised if many more feminist hacker and makerspaces pop up across the country in 2014.

Double Union members speak positively of other hackerspace experiences – but feel their needs, as women in tech, are not fully being met.

“We are adult professional women in the field and we want to do something that supports our goals,” said Henry. She is looking forward to “not having to fight against sexism in this protected space.”

Henry works for Mozilla, fixing issues with the Firefox web browser. She has a disability that makes it hard for her to get around. In and out of wheelchairs for the last two decades, she’s working to monitor and log data about the battery lives of mobility scooters and other electric wheelchairs.

“My ultimate goal would be to design open source hardware for electric scooters,” Henry said, “so people with disabilities can actually specify what we need.” She also intends to teach an electronics class at Double Union and to use her drawing skills to make a hackerspace coloring book.

Greenhall has a degree in electrical engineering. She is excited to be in a space where work and creativity don’t also come with conversations about gender, or being told “it’s cute you like to code.”

She’s currently working to link bike lights to a person’s heartbeat. Drivers then will have a human connection to the two-wheeled riders they share the road with. Double Union will provide her with the opportunity to work on hardware in a female-dominated environment for the first time.

When not elbow-deep in carpentry, Rivers is a senior software engineer, and the only woman, at a four-person start-up called Mode Analytics. “We’re actually 25 percent female, which is pretty good!” she said laughing.

Rivers can’t wait to take her construction projects out of the living room of her one-bedroom Mission apartment and into a place designed for electric sanders, paint and wood chips.

Although she’s made use of other Mission creative spaces – and enjoyed them – Double Union is the first Rivers has become a member of. “This is the intersection of so many things that I love,” she said.

Older, more established hackerspaces nearby have been welcoming and supportive of Double Union’s effort to cater to the tech feminists.

“There has been zero negative commentary or push back that I’ve been aware of or heard of,” said Henry. “It’s actually quite nice. I think a lot of the guys in the area are willing to see what happens and be good allies.”

Henry thinks creating a different kind of space for women might invite more of them into tech.  “Rather than having women reject hacker culture,” she said, “we can build a stronger population by providing a hub for those who may have felt uncomfortable or unwelcome in another space.”

For Rivers, being a part of Double Union is not a rejection of co-ed spaces. “I think different people have different preferences. If there were a similar co-ed space, I might be a member of both,” she said. “We need to strive to level the playing field for everyone.”

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