Sometimes it’s tough to be both a professional and a person.

Virginia Woolf suggested every woman needed a room of her own to write. To do our best work, perhaps we need our own space.  Yeats said it was a choice between

…perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark

Last week was an interesting one in terms of the resurgence of feminist debate.  March 8th was International Women’s Day, a day of celebration for women’s achievements, yet containing the implicit assertion that the remaining 364 days belong to men.

I support the celebration of great achievements regardless of gender, and can’t help but feel that by setting separate awards, days and so on, we perpetuate the notion that women’s accomplishments can’t be ranked alongside those of their male counterparts.  How constructive is it to maintain the sense of women needing special or at least different treatment?

I have no argument with, for example, women and men entering separate sporting events; it’s obvious our physical capabilities are different (last I heard, there were no male entrants in the ‘giving birth’ sweepstakes).  But when it comes to the cerebral, I fail to see why women are obliged to compete in the intellectual equivalent of the Paralympics.

Unlike many of my peers, I’ve been proud to call myself the apparently now dirty word ‘feminist’ for as long as I’ve been aware of the concept.  I believe absolutely in feminism, as defined by the purity and clarity of thought of early feminists like Wollstonecraft, and uncluttered by the political infighting and schisms of later wave feminism. The most workable definition I can provide is:

the recognition that men and women do not receive fair or equal treatment as a result of their gender, and the desire to change that situation

Anyone wishing to quibble with the first clause need only refer to recent figures proving that salaries still differ hugely between women and their male counterparts.  Anyone wishing to quibble with the second is probably not someone I’m going to waste my time engaging with or trying to convert.

I’m a passionate supporter and member of Girl Geeks for the simple reason that women involved with technology are still in the minority. Anecdotally and from personal experience I know it can be tough to flourish and be recognised in an environment where you’re the odd (wo)man out.  But what’s really important to me is that both women and men are welcome at GGD functions and invited to contribute regardless of gender.

There’s something really wonderful about being in a group of like-minded women, and I’ve certainly found that such an environment can be more supportive than a mixed gender equivalent.  But that’s all the more reason not to cloister ourselves away, but to bring these ostensibly ‘female’ skills to bear on every environment, every interaction, to the point that sharing, listening respectfully and encouraging the more inhibited to contribute will simply be a part of everyone’s “how to be human” toolkit.

That’s why I can’t be fully supportive of Social Media Women, although I remain a huge fan of its creators, fabulous women all.  Hang out and talk shop with whomsoever you please, but I baulk at the association, through both my gender and profession, with an formalised organisation that actively discriminates, positively or not.

Digital Citizens (which I help to organise) held its first event last week – I’m obviously biased, but I think it went pretty well (and we scored a FourSquare Swarm badge – quite the high point for me..)

I wasn’t keeping score, but I think the number of participants and contributors was roughly equal in gender terms, and I certainly felt I could express my point of view and be heard doing so.

Rebekah Horne of MySpace said recently that

for women to succeed in this industry, they need to work fifteen times harder than their male counterparts.

If we want this situation to end within our lifetimes, the answer is to cease to recognise gender as a factor in our work and social lives.

Leave it at home; in your bedroom, your shower, your dungeon or wherever you like, but it doesn’t belong here.

15 thoughts on “A Room of One’s Own: do women need separate spaces to flourish?

  1. Pingback: Women don’t need special treatment - mUmBRELLA

  2. I do my best work alone. I like long distance relationships. I hate the “what are we going to do for dinner tonight” question. I like space. My best friend’s response to me was “is an entire ocean enough space for you Mia?” Sometimes not …

    If I were a man my space would be a given … but regardless as a person creating, space is oxygen. I love my relationship. I love it more when I make time for it to respect the romance and not just settle for the domestic.

    I am working on a project that celebrates women … I don’t mind finding reason to talk about the goddesses. But it’s not playgroup. It is for grownups … mother’s have many hats … don’t write us off.

    I do agree that we need to collaborate but contribute in our strength back to the community as a whole.

    A room of my own is an absolute for me. Hell I got to write this without “what are you doing now?”

    Thank you for your post Cath. You have a beautiful mind.

  3. Cath, I hear what you are saying however can you honestly say that we don’t need to shout from the rooftops that we need, desire,deserve our own space,room – virtual or not. The unwritten rules or expectations that come with the boys club that either does or does not exist still certainly generally doesn’t support women in social media – intentionally or not – I think its naieve to think that there is no discrimiation – is it fair no probably not but does it exist – I think so- I think its great that you don’t however I think more power to those women in social media that want to stand out and be “exclusive”. Are we a differnt breed of course we are, women are the foundation of society and I think any celebration of our differences is warranted. Jus sayin …

  4. A very thoughtful post.

    I agree with you on a number of these issues. I think Wollstonecraft and co’s view of feminism is the only way forward and in this sense I too would consider myself a feminist. I also firmly believe that the kinds of ‘supportive spaces’ you refer to play an important part in a number of people’s lives and provide opportunities for sharing that are vital for getting the quieter amongst us to embrace the world with their fabulous ideas.

    I think the problem I find with minority based groups is that they stress difference as a start point, rather than emphasising the greatness of neutral, universal skills. I think this merely gives credence to the issue (be it gender or otherwise), far from ceasing to recognise it.

    It is my belief that Rebekah Horne is very right, but I don’t think the answer to getting the best and strongest women in the right places is to create and foster groups that service the lowest common denominator – that of difference. Its time to start talking about women because they are intelligent, hard working (15 times or otherwise), focused and appropriate, or better yet, to simply start talking about good people. This kind of talk in the right environments is the only way to start to make a visible cultural shift in the opinions of the majority.

    I think the main issue is not about shouting out as to how women are treated but rather changing the rationale by which people are judged. Rather than creating rooms of our own, why aren’t we starting to knock down the walls?

  5. Three things:

    1) Mia and Terri, thank you so much for your comments.
    2) I was crudely co-opting Woolf to talk about divided space, but think I may have failed to express myself properly. I do think everyone needs a room of their own – but as individuals, not on the basis of their gender. I don’t believe in celebrating difference for its own sake (diversity, yes, difference, no); I believe in celebrating brilliance.
    3) I really dislike being called Cath.

  6. I agree with Rebekah Horne’s observation “for women to succeed in this industry, they need to work fifteen times harder than their male counterparts,” however that’s because women have only 1/15 of the ability of men.

    Ya know how you got all those hormones n shit flowing through you making you all irrational and emotional? That’s not blokes’ fault.

    Harden up and show us ya tits!

  7. From a community perspective it’s worth noting that as any social network gets large enough it “forks” – breaks down in to swarms, more manageable and meaningful numbers. Women and minority groups are just part of that “forking” into more relevant groups that share “value”.

    Consider for a moment if both groups had come together? And then doubled in size next time and the time after?

    Incidentally the history of Mambo/Joomla shows forking in open source developement and it’s one reason why World of Warcraft is successful – the fracture lines of Alliance vs Horde, Guilds, PickUpGroups are built in subgroup technologies.

    Incidentally I heard that a number of women, myself included, were trashed by a couple of bullies at digicit. While I don’t care if it’s gender based or not (though I suspect it is), I can absolutely understand why women would want to stay away from that poison. We go where we share value systems…

  8. Women don’t need their own space, its okay to share, as long as there is a sanitary disposal bin.

  9. Hey Laurel,

    I’m not sure where you here the rumours that the Social Media Women group were trashed at #DigiCitz however I heard nor saw no such thing.

    And if you are willing to publicly call out our event like that then you should at least have the common courtesy to name and shame these bullies especially when you have basically labelled our event ‘poisonous’.

  10. The “cerebral equivalent of the paralympics” bit has been a bit of a debate in the chess world on and off. The introduction of the Women’s World Chess Championship in the 1920s was seen as feminist and progressive at the time. But it tends to imply that women could not possibly compete intellectually in the “real” World Chess Championship. The introduction of the title Woman Grandmaster in 1977, which has significantly lower qualifications than the regular Grandmaster title does, doesn’t improve the perception either.

  11. Mia Jane wrote:
    “I do my best work alone. I like long distance relationships. I hate the “what are we going to do for dinner tonight” question. I like space. My best friend’s response to me was “is an entire ocean enough space for you Mia?” Sometimes not … ”

    We have a lot in common 🙂 Unfortunately for society in general and you in particular, the sentence “If I were a man my space would be a given” is still true. In my case, its a virtual space, but the point is still valid.

    I don’t believe that comparing what men and women accomplish should make allowance for the unequal conditions (in general) in which that work is done. After all we are after ‘results’ (whatever we define those to be – a painting, a poem, a computer program, a completed house, etc)).

    HOWEVER, it does need to be recognised that innate talents come in all shapes and sizes (and BTW genders). In a formal sense, I’m wasting resources to employ someone of gender x, who is a 90% fit to the job requirements, versus someone of gender Y who is a 95% fit. One issue is that a lot of us (male AND female) have become so used to the world as it is that sub consciously we write the job description for a male dominated world anyway (and that’s not counting those who STILL do that on purpose).

    I would go so far as to say that corporations that discriminate in any form (except in favor of excellence) are failing their stake holders – in the case of corporations, this would include shareholders.

    (and in Australia, this could impact your Superannuation, so you get THAT both ways, but thats another story)

    Sorry for wasting space with a bit of a disjointed ramble (done quickly during a late lunch!!), with (probably) not much point. Just saying there IS still a problem with gender discrimination – overtly or not – and that some of us guys recognise it as well.

  12. I think that Rebekah Horne’s comment about women having to work 15 times harder than men to succeed in corporate life is the very reason why there should be spaces for women to get together to share their experiences and discuss issues that are specifically relevant to them. Obviously there is also room for these discussions in any group.

    I’m interested that this grouping has caused so much consternation and is seen as being so divisive, when I see it as a positive, empowering thing for women.

    Why is it any different to womens business networks or other similar groupings?

    While women still get paid less than men for the same work, then gender is still an issue and not talking about it is not going to change things. But asking questions about it and working with both women and men for change might.

  13. Sorry to quote a bloke in response, but Mark Twain seems appropriate: “It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”

    BTW interested in how something like Girl Geek Dinners fits into the model then?

  14. Pingback: Even social media experts make mistakes! « Digital Citizens

  15. Pingback: Even social media experts make mistakes! | Atomik Soapbox

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