Theresa Enghardt

Theresa Enghardt is a computer science researcher and PhD student at the Technische Universität Berlin. In addition to her computer science research technical computer science research, she helped organize the Queer Feminist Geeks Village at the 2015 Chaos Communication Camp.

My interview with Theresa took place over a series of e-mail exchanges in November of 2015.

Cathleen: How do you define Hacking?

Theresa: Hacking, for me, means using technology in a way that the company that built it didn’t intend it to be used, subverting people or organizations that are in a position of power. It can also mean creating your own technology, not-for-profit but for other reasons like curiosity or fun.

Technology can be software or hardware, but I define it more broadly; it may include tools for crafting, for processing food, or even “social tools” like techniques to manage groups.

Have you experienced a gender gap/gender discrimination in hacker or other tech spaces you’ve participated in?

Most tech spaces I’ve participated in were overwhelmingly white and male, and majority cis and straight. People who fit most or all of these categories often assume that when technology is “free” and “open,” this implies that it is also accessible to everyone. They often refuse to recognize or address differences in accessibility to less privileged groups, dismissing the issues as irrelevant or making fun of them. Most gender discrimination I experienced personally were microaggressions, such as assumptions about competency — strangers made me prove that I understood the nerdy joke on my shirt or friends explained things to me that they knew I was more qualified to explain. I felt an enormous pressure to participate in the masculine competition of “who is the most competent,”  in which women are generally at a disadvantage. However, I still participated, since as long as I acted “like one of the guys” I felt like I belonged in the space. I’ve met many women who try to fit in by conforming to this masculine standard, and who didn’t see a gender problem anymore and/or were actively anti-feminist and participating in sexist discriminatory practices. On the other hand, as an outspoken feminist, I feel like some people in these spaces are uncomfortable with me, which makes it harder to fit in.

In your experience, do the prototypical dynamics associated with online hacking/hacktivist communities substantiate themselves in physical hackerspaces/conferences?

Many dynamics, like assuming expertise based on perceived gender and giving a bigger platform to white men, definitely do. In my experience though, white male hacker’s attitudes regarding women and feminism were often worse online; when they participated in person at a conference they were more likely to be civil.

What role do you think anonymity can play in either silencing or strengthening marginalized voices in online communities?

I think anonymity can help protect individual marginalized people when speaking out online, or individuals who speak out in the name of members of their own marginalized group. However, groups without any identity marker, like Anonymous, are automatically assumed to be white, male, cis and straight, so I imagine this to be rather silencing to marginalized groups within the collective. Furthermore, marginalized people might feel like they are a minority, and without a statement of identity, I think they are unlikely to find each other. So I think anonymous collectives are only helpful for marginalized voices if they have a collective label.

When discussing feminism in hacker culture, how does one ensure they are recognizing differing identities and systems of oppression (ex. ability, race) and not simply championing a universal non-male identity/experience?

Paying attention to our different perspectives, giving different people a platform, amplifying each other’s voices, educating ourselves and each other. One should also actively invite people into the space and take care that new people are included and comfortable, especially if they’re part of more/other marginalized groups than the majority in the space. They should not just be asked to come and participate in the space as it is, but also to contribute to shaping it.

The agenda for the Queer Feminist Geeks village at the 2014 CCCamp looks amazing: cuddle parties, queer education, and self-defense. How did this village come to be?

For several years, there has been a “Queer Feminist Geeks” meetup at the Chaos Communication Congress, with high participation and enthusiasm to see so many queer and/or feminist people there. With some luck, we got a really nice tent to set up a comfortable space, and then more people arrived and filled it with life, contributing workshops about topics that they cared about. Sometimes we sat in a round introducing ourselves and what topics are important to us, and then someone ended up announcing a workshop on one of these topics. There was also a “skill share” poster, where people could announce what they have to share or want to learn. I had the impression that all of this contributed to an atmosphere of mutual sharing and learning which was more inclusive and diverse than many other hacking spaces.

The Queer Feminist Geeks wiki page contains a comprehensive statement describing the organization and ethos of the village. Did you implement a code of conduct/community guidelines within the space during the event? If so, how were they enforced?

Yes, we had a Code of Conduct, which was published on our wiki page and physically on paper within the space. It consisted of some general statements, for instance about mutual respect, consent, and not making assumptions, and some very clear rules about unacceptable behavior, such as offensive verbal comments, harassment, and microaggressions. We told visitors about our Code of Conduct, and also had “Anti-Harassment Fairies” who people could talk to in case of incidents.

What do you think are the benefits of open vs. closed (ex. women-only) hacker communities for ensuring inclusivity?

I think that by excluding certain people based on identity, e.g. excluding cis male participants, one can fairly easily achieve different group dynamics, which may rule out some common problems — like women worrying about asking questions due to fear of being judged by men. This may allow some participants to have positive experiences with hacking and build their confidence. I think people in a minority are often empowered by being around others that are like them and without the members of the majority, they don’t have to explain themselves for once. On the other hand, an open community has the advantage that people do not have to “come out” about their identity in order to participate, such as some genderqueer people who were assigned male at birth, who may not dare to participate in spaces that exclude cis men. Some members of marginalized groups may also feel more comfortable in mixed groups due to habit or due to not wanting their identity “made an issue.” So ultimately, I think it’s a good thing to have both kinds of communities, open and closed ones.