R-Ladies: Coding sans prejudice

Recently, we (that is Page and Christina) successfully launched the Parisian installation of R-Ladies Global. It’s a meetup group and at the same time a non-profit coding club for all R proficiency levels, whether you’re a new or aspiring R user, or an experienced R programmer interested in mentoring, networking, and maybe picking up some new skills. We are a community designed to encourage, support and ultimately drive the development of our own R skills through a range of events, including meetups where members tackle hands-on tutorials and exercises to learn specific functionalities, informal gatherings, talks about latest trends, and debates. Our goal is to promote access to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) careers and tools for women (trans and cis) and gender-variant people. Men are welcome, too, by the way. We just need a member to bring them to the next meetup. In other words, we try to be a harassment-free zone. Sadly, that’s easier to do when men are screened beforehand.

And since it already has come up, let us clarify: No, we’re not discriminating against men, we’re just trying to create balance, as will be obvious when visiting other programming meetups, where men constitute between 70 and 90% of the audience. 

Being one of the few women is already weird in itself (if you never had the experience of being in the minority, try it if you can! It’s eye opening and some of us live it every.single.day!). Add to that the frequent remarks like “Did you understand this talk?” or “Who dragged you here?” and you quickly have a constant pressure as a non-male attendee to justify your existence. That’s actually something Christina realized after the first R-Ladies meeting: There was no point where she had to question our right to be there, independent of each participant’s level of R skill. Page previously blogged about this phenomenon.

There is often also a pressure in “normal” events (i.e. largely male) to be a representative for our gender. As a result it’s easy to be afraid of asking something stupid, or making an incorrect observation, for fear that by doing so we would be letting down all women coders everywhere. As a result, we would sometimes avoid speaking up at all, be it in meetings to ask for a clarification, or to make an observation. This xkcd comic comes to mind.

how_it_works

However, in a women centered group, we can drop those feelings of representing all of womankind. It provides a freedom (and thus a chance to both learn and share knowledge) that is often lacking in other (=male-dominated) groups.

In general, the constant pressures (trying to represent all women, justifying why we are even there and that yes, we do know what we’re talking about, along with many more…) are like a background noise that is somewhat annoying but rarely if ever consciously perceived. Only when these pressures fall away it becomes possible to really appreciate their impact on our daily lives and the continued drain of our energy. That’s what those -isms and microaggressions do, and it’s important to talk about this and act against them in all possible ways. Creating zones that take away some of these pressures is just one tiny piece of the puzzle, and by no means a solution. However, we hope that with R-Ladies we can create one of those zones and provide a starting point for more general changes.

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