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7 min

Let’s discuss: challenges and opportunities women face in ‘open’ spaces — part 2 — the solutions

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November 12, 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.

In Let’s discuss: challenges and opportunities women face in ‘open’ spaces — part 1, we shared our experiences and perspectives of the challenges women face in ‘open’ spaces. Here, in part two, we suggest practical steps to help our allies better support women.

How to overcome challenges women face in ‘open’ spaces

In our advocacy for women in open spaces, we know one of the challenges can be deciding where to start. In our MozFest session, the challenges we surfaced ranged from lack of support to lack of diversity. We also brought together a range of solutions. By sharing actions everyone, not just women can take, we aim to inspire you to be better allies and reinvigorate women advocating for gender equality, diversity and inclusion.

Hold space for women

Our allies with power and privilege can help by holding space for women and non-binary people. What do we mean by ‘holding space’? Supporting women and non-binary people without stepping in or taking over.

As allies:

  1. When invited, join women’s groups at mixed or crossover events. This is a great way to include men and build allies without diluting the need for women-focused spaces.
  2. Make everyone aware of their power and privilege by providing power and privilege training, for example privilege walks.
  3. Acknowledge that being an ally means you may not always know the right terminology or understand the situations being faced by women and non-binary people. Be willing to put the work in to create a space to listen, share and learn to be a better ally.

Make online engagement inclusive

Like academia, ‘open’ spaces encourage people to be active online as a way of networking, finding and sharing research, resources and opportunities. Jaigris Hodson and George Veletsianos found that “people may be targeted for a range of reasons, but women, in particular, are harassed partly because they happen to be women who dare to be public online” (Social media as a weapon to harass women academics). This was surfaced in our MozFest session, where we asked: How inclusive are online spaces and what can we and others do to make them welcoming for all?

Our allies can make online spaces welcoming by:

  1. Having a code of conduct and feedback guidelines: Making everyone aware of and consistently enforcing them can reduce the behaviours that make online engagement difficult.
  2. Calling in and calling out: Calling in as a compassionate and patient way to encourage change in people exhibiting problematic behaviour as well as calling out the people and systems that prevent women from engaging fully online.
  3. Taking key points about lack of diversity and turning them into narratives to promote understanding, for example, create / play games that tackle social issues.

Men can be good allies

Men can identify male allies and nudge them into action. For example, by asking them to do some of the ‘invisible labour’ or unpaid work that normally falls to women and non-binary people. Men can also be active allies rather than silent allies. There can be gaps between what allies profess and what they practice, for example, calling out sexism by friends, hero-like and senior figures.

As allies, you can encourage your organisation to go further:

  1. Encourage diversity: promote work created by women and non-binary people.
  2. Acknowledge and audit co-creation contributions and feedback: in comments and work documents.
  3. Support and enforce code of conducts: ensure women and non-binary people are included in the process of developing them.
  4. Detoxify online spaces: Be prepared to step in and help defuse toxic public conversations women experience online.
  5. Plan for the long term: Start now to encourage diverse participation and leadership positions for women and non-binary people.

Men can learn from gaslighting experiences that other men encounter to understand how most women feel. Understanding and reflecting on first-person experiences can help allies build empathy through, for example, to:

  1. Work with other men to understand how to be a good ally.
  2. Encourage men who are silent allies to be active allies.
  3. Speak up and support women and non-binary people on pertinent issues without being prompted, especially in men-only meetings and spaces that lack diversity of people and “diversity of thought”.

Women can be good allies

Allyship doesn’t just benefit women. We can be good allies too. We understand that not everyone knows about gender or recognises that gender is not binary.

As women, we can:

  1. Find the most accessible person that works on these issues.

2. Support visibility of people who identify as non-binary.

3. Create or contribute to a “How to be an ally playbook” with concrete calls to actions, including “How-to” actions, case studies, and examples.

4. Ensure they understand what intersectionality is and why it’s important: Yes, it’s gender, race, age, but it’s also power.

Women can support each other

In our MozFest session, we heard how some women in positions of power don’t voice support publicly, don’t always support the work of other women, or support silently instead of sharing their thoughts or ideas about feminism in the workplace.

As women, we can:

  1. Buddy up: Have supportive women who encourage you to continue despite the odds.
  2. Put a stop on self-censorship: Get someone to encourage you to stop censoring yourself.
  3. Join Open Heroines: Ping or DM us on Twitter @OpenHeroines or send us an email to
  4. Promote the work of other women and non-binary people from our communities.
  5. Share and shine: Shine Theory is simple — “I don’t shine if you don’t shine.” — coined by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, applying shine theory is a great way for powerful women to share their power.

Quantify and qualify voluntary ‘work’

When it comes to time and energy, people have limited amounts of both, so quantify how much time you volunteer to ‘work’ — that includes communities you support and engage with, speaking engagements, helping out at events and more. Don’t reduce work to just the efforts you get paid for.

As women, we can make sure we recognise how much ‘work’ we do:

  1. Find out the number of hours a commitment requires.
  2. Understand the consequences of volunteering, speaking or otherwise engaging.
  3. Find out the benefits, including any recognition and reward.
  4. Know who is responsible for what — from deliveries to legal duties.

As women and non-binary people, let’s carefully consider if an engagement should be voluntary. If we are asked to speak at a paid-for event, ask for compensation as a speaker. This normalises paying for our time and will benefit others speaking at events in the future.

Make mentoring meaningful

Mentoring, done well, is a powerful way to coach women and non-binary people. Mentoring can help build successful careers and support you making your mark. It can also work wonders for the mentor.

According to Professor Ayelet Fishbach of The University of Chicago, Booth School of Business, “mentoring relationships provide a unique context for mentors to discuss and normalise their concerns, to share ideas for managing anxieties, and to find more meaning in their work” (“Mentoring for mental health: a mixed-method study of the benefits of formal mentoring programmes in the English police force”)

As women and non-binary people new to or nervous about mentoring, we can start small with:

  1. Chats over tea/coffee.
  2. Breakfast meetups or knowledge sharing meetups.

Our alles can integrate “do no harm” principles for mentorship schemes:

  1. Ensure mentorship schemes are accessible to women and non-binary people.
  2. Develop and enforce a code of conduct.


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

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