Why Systers?

By Dr. Anita Borg (1949-2003), Founder, Systers Online Community

A version of this article appeared in the Computing Research News in 1993. It was written in response to an earlier article in CRN which claimed that Systers did more harm than good. I believe its arguments are as relevant today as they were four years ago.

The existence of exclusively female forums is controversial and legitimately so. Exclusive forums such as male-only or white-only or Christian-only clubs have been used to exclude other groups from information and power sharing. As the founder of Systers, a large female-only mailing list, I have frequently been called upon to justify the exclusion of men and to explain why Systers is not discriminatory in the above sense. This article attempts such an explanation. I hope to generate discussion, but more importantly, to generate understanding and cooperation.

Increasing the number of women in computer science and making the environments in which women work more conducive to their continued participation in the field requires the active involvement of both women and men. In particular, there must be ongoing and productive communication throughout the field concerning the unique problems that women face when they enter the field and as they progress and advance. The fact that women are a small minority in the field results in two impediments to this communication. First, women work almost exclusively with men and so have few opportunities to create and then participate in a “community of women in computer science”. Second, men work almost exclusively with men and have limited opportunities to communicate with more than a few professional women. Open electronic forums can improve communication by introducing us to a larger community, but do nothing to reduce the disparity in numbers. On the other hand, exclusively female forums, such as Systers, are a particularly effective way to connect women in our field with each other. They also ultimately contribute to improved communication between women and men.

Let me first describe what Systers is and what it is not. Systers is a private, unmoderated but strongly guided, mailing list [now also a web-based forum] with a documented set of rules for participation. The membership of the list includes female computer professionals in the commercial, academic and government worlds as well as female graduate and undergraduate computer science and computer engineering students. Systers currently has over 1500 members in 17 countries. [In 1997 we are 2500 in 25 countries] We are a global community of individuals who are otherwise physically isolated from each other.

Systers is a civilized and cooperative forum in which “flaming” is rare and personal attacks are actively discouraged. We ask that Systers mail not be forwarded nor its contents used outside the list without the permission of the contributors to a message. There is no rule of secrecy in Systers. This rule simply empowers our members and protects our privacy by giving each of us control over the breadth of distribution of our comments. It is based on a common courtesy that, if applied more generally, would make the net a more hospitable place for substantive group problem solving.

Systers is not analogous to a private all-male club. It is different because women in computer science are a small minority of the community. It is different because Systers is not interested in secrecy or in keeping useful information from the rest of the community. In fact, useful messages are regularly made public after checking with the contributors. The likelihood that an under-empowered minority will keep inaccessible information from the large empowered majority with every means of communication available to it is small indeed. I have not addressed whether a forum such as Systers would be necessary in an ideal and egalitarian world or even in a world similar to our own but with many more women in computing. When we get there, we can make that decision. The following paragraphs enumerate the reasons for keeping Systers a female-only forum. None of these benefits accrue to women in other existing open forums.

Women need a place to find each other. As a geographically dispersed and frequently individually isolated minority within computer science, women rarely have the opportunity to interact in person with other women in CS on any subject. Women (and men) have many opportunities to interact with men. Until Systers came into existence, the notion of a global “community of women in computer science” did not exist.

Women need female role models and mentors. A primary function of women-only interaction is mentoring. Exposing women to the full range of significant interactions among women, without the perception of help or input from men, serves to bolster self esteem and independence. This includes exposure to women discussing purely technical issues among themselves. Our experience shows that this makes women more rather than less able to interact professionally with men. Women need a place to discuss our issues. Many open forums whose focus is women’s issues suffer from a common problem. Discussions are frequently dominated by disagreements between men and women about what the issues are rather than how to deal with them. This is not a problem with all men, but is a problem with almost all such open forums. Women more often share common ground that allows us to get beyond defining issues and on to constructing solutions. Women need to discover our own voice. Discussion among women is different from that of women together with men. Men, even when in a minority and even when well-meaning, have a different style of interaction. They often dominate discussions. Even when they don’t, the style of a mixed conversation tends to be in the style of male-dominated discussions. As women understand more clearly what those differences are and what professional discourse is like on our own, we will be better able to bring our voice to open forums.

I recently received two messages that illustrate how Systers helps women participate more effectively and more professionally with men.

A researcher from an industrial lab stated, “When I first joined the list a few years ago, I was skeptical about the need for a list specifically devoted to issues facing women working in computer science. But since then, I have become much more aware of the differences in the ways men and women interact, and many of the experiences and views shared by others on this list have helped me to better understand how to function effectively in a male-dominated research environment.”

A university professor described a change in her students. “The availability of the list to our women graduate students here at [the university] has had a remarkable affect on our students. The women are becoming more self confident and more aggressive in their dealings with our male dominated faculty, many of whom still regard women as out of place in the program.”

Systers is definitely not the only forum in which concerned women participate. It is only a starting place and place of respite in our journey to equality. It is essential that we continue to actively communicate and participate with men, that we not become isolated from professional men, and that we bring our issues to the fore at every appropriate opportunity. Since most of us work exclusively or nearly exclusively with men, it is actually impossible for us to become isolated from men even if we wish to be. Since men make up the vast majority of the field, it would be foolish to believe that real change could take place without them.

To include men in Systers would take away a vital source of mutual support from women. On the other hand, the need for serious discussion in an open forum exists. It behooves whoever runs such a forum to realize that women who have experienced civilized, productive communication on Systers will be for the most part uninterested in participating in a wide open free-for-all. The commonly applied list-management principle “if you can’t take the heat, get off of the list” will not work. It has been tried and has failed. The forum will need a strong leader/moderator, committed to the encouragement of productive discussion and willing to stop unproductive argument. I do this for Systers. While I do not have the desire nor the energy to run another forum, I am surely not the only person capable of it and offer my help and experience to anyone who is will to take on the task.

It is not the reluctance of women nor our participation in forums like Systers that limits communication and joint problem solving with men. It is the sexism in our society, our field and our consciousness that limits us all. If men work together with women in an open forum and are seriously interested in hearing what women have to say, rather than in telling us what we need, then such a forum could be a fruitful and productive sibling for Systers.