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8 min

Let’s discuss: challenges and opportunities women face in ‘open’ spaces — part 1 — the problems

Paper hanging on the wall.
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Published on
November 2, 2018

As women in open government, open data and civic tech, many Open Heroines work and study in ‘open’ spaces. Our sectors should be at the cutting edge for gender equality and welcoming spaces for women and non-binary people, since they have the word ‘open’ in their name. We all work towards more collaboration, transparency and a better world. But just how open are ‘open’ spaces? Do we practice what we preach?

Heroine Ana Brandusescu who researches the intersection of people, data, tech and power wondered just that. MozFest, a celebration of the open web, was an opportunity to understand the challenges and opportunities women and non-binary people face in open spaces. In our session we asked:

  1. What challenges do we face?
  2. What are ways to overcome these challenges?
  3. What are our solutions in the short and long run?

On the day Ana, Mor Rubinstein, Hera Hussain, and Edafe Onerhime were joined by 25 women, non-binary people and allies who shared their perspectives. In our session, we realised that we should include greater diversity in our report as our attendees included non-binary people. In Part 1 of this post below, we discuss the challenges women and non-binary people face in ‘open’ spaces. In the upcoming Part 2, we suggest practical steps to help you better support women and non-binary people.

What challenges do we face?

There are many challenges women and non-binary people face in ‘open’ spaces that aren’t unique, but prevalent in the wider workplace. Both in and out of tech spaces, we face challenges in leadership, in allyship, in applying gender perspectives, in working with men, in online spaces, and in the way our work is valued (or isn’t).

Women’s challenges in the workplace

There was an outpouring of shared experiences that will be familiar to many women: exclusion, patronising behaviour, isolation, and imposter syndrome.

Purple writing on white background.

It starts with not being taken seriously, being demeaned or patronised. We heard: “I’m not taken seriously”, “As the only social enterprise [and female-led company] in the room, it’s hard to be taken seriously”, “People can be patronising” and “People call me really young”.

This may lead to uncertainty: “Is this happening because of gender?” and exclusion; we shared “I’m not included” and “I don’t feel included”. And when we try to fix the situation? Well, feeling like “Fish in water — diverse in a non-diverse environment” and thinking we “Sound like a broken record about highlighting diversity” doesn’t help.

Women and non-binary people also face “Imposter Syndrome” and feel pressured into “Sounding qualified”, “Making sure to speak at a conference to set legitimacy”, as well as “Self-censoring because we are anticipating people’s responses like eye rolls”. This is “Respectability politics”. We asked: “How to speak up?

Women and leadership

Leadership — the ability to influence the direction and values of organisations — has a huge impact on the actions and choices made by colleagues. This includes how welcoming, diverse and inclusive workplace environments are to women and non-binary people — and why diversity and empathy in leadership is so important.

Purple writing on white background.

When it comes to leadership, ‘open’ spaces still have work to do to support women who find they are “Struggling to enter leadership“. Serendipitously, the Wikimedia Foundation came up. We shared concerns about the “Wikipedia gender gap in leadership and contributors”. For those unfamiliar with Wikipedia, the free, collaboratively edited encyclopedia is described by the non-profit hosting organisation, the Wikimedia Foundation, as “the sum of all knowledge”. What happens when this knowledge is led and curated predominantly by a homogenous group?

Applying gender perspectives

Gender, however you identify, can shape needs and interests. Organisations like the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) understand the impact of gender on their work and began applying gender perspectives from 2001. Similarly, organisations operating in ‘Open’ spaces should be aware of the impact gender has on status, power, needs and interests.

Purple writing on white background.

At MozFest we shared that “Asking the right questions” and “Making space for everything different is hard”, especially when we try to “Get underrepresented communities to participate”. Part of this may be because for some organisations, measuring the “Value of inclusive space is difficult”.

A lack of diversity can hamper efforts, after all it is tricky when organisations are “Bringing up conversations about diversity without diversity” — or to quote Derek Sivers and David Foster Wallace, “Fish don’t know they’re in water”. So we’re finding that “Goals aren’t adequate” and inherently limiting; setting goals for “‘Above average’ when the average is dismal”, or saying “We can’t think about women of colour when we don’t have women”.

Who writes a policy can also impact a lack of gender perspective when “The policy is not inclusive because it’s written by a white man”. We shared that “Often people don’t want to speak about introspection.” Instead, people want to work, and introspection is considered as a waste of time. Trying to “Get out of our comfort zone” is also hard. We also accept that it is “Hard not to be condescending about people not knowing” how to tackle diversity issues, build inclusion, or make their organisations more representative. This left us with questions like “How do you measure co-creation?” and “How to create more inclusion within my organisation (when women contribute less and men contribute more)?

Being an ally

Being a better ally is a work in progress. There are many obstacles to overcome, and ones that may never be able to overcome. But it’s important to at least try. Figuring out how to turn silent supporters to active supporters is one such challenge.

White background with writing in it.

We also heard reflective moments: “I want to make sure I am an ally, that I’m holding the space and not occupying it, especially with LGBTQ+ communities.” We heard that “not all women are allies.” Some women in positions of power don’t voice support publicly. Other times, women in senior positions don’t always support the work of other women, or support silently instead of sharing their thoughts or ideas about feminism in the workplace publicly. This behaviour could echo the struggle they had to get into leadership positions. Or women think that feminism is nonsense. In the same vein, women in leadership don’t always support women, especially younger women, and non-binary people. Furthermore, how do we dismantle white feminism?

Women working with men

White male fragility in general is prevalent in working cultures, in and out of open spaces. “Power dynamics with all white males teams” are very real and often are the norm on data teams. “How can men address sexism, racism, misogyny in locker room / men only environments” and “How do you discuss white male fragility with white males?”

Purple writing on white background.

There is also white / male fragility dichotomy that prevails, where even when working with white women is a challenge. Which leads to the hesitation echoed in the room: “I don’t know whether to open my community to men…”

Women in online spaces

We touched on inclusiveness in online spaces, we shared: “It’s hard to be inclusive online.” and that “Creating space for voices in digital space is not easy.” — these are important perspectives to acknowledge and explore. In Model View Culture (a magazine about technology, culture and diversity), Nehal El-Hadi writes about New Vulnerabilities: Women of Color, Privacy, And The False Dualism Of Online and Offline. The article explores how women of colour interact in online and offline spaces, including carving out spaces, connecting, and building tribes. How inclusive are online spaces and what can we and others do to make them welcoming?

The value of women’s work

‘Invisible labour’ or the unpaid work women do around the world amounts to three out of every four hours and is 24% underpaid globally in comparison to men’s work. In our session we shared the pressure in ‘open’ spaces to do “Free labour” with “Women asked more often to work for free”. Additionally, we are aware of the “Pay gap” that undervalues the paid work we do. Our conclusion? “Openness <> inclusive”.

Purple writing on white background.

We are deeply grateful to the women, non-binary people, and allies who came to our MozFest session and shared their experiences and perspectives. Next week, we follow up with part 2 where we share the strategies and positive actions we and our allies can take to make ‘open’ spaces more diverse, inclusive and welcoming.

Are you a woman or non-binary person in open data, open government or civic technology? We invite you to join our 4000-strong Open Heroines community. Ping or DM us on Twitter @OpenHeroines or send us an email at


Thank you to everyone who contributed to making this article a reality:

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