25 Years of Systers

by Robin Jeffries

As part of the Systers 25th anniversary celebration, Anita’s Quilt is launching with stories from the Systers community on their contributions to women in computing. Systers was started as an outgrowth of a meeting of SOSP (Symposium on Operating Systems Principles), where thirteen women — Stella Atkins, Anita Borg, Miche Baker-Harvey, Carla Ellis, Joan Francioni, Susan Gerhart, Anita Jones, Rivka Ladin, Barbara Liskov, Sherri Menees Nichols, Susan Owicki, Liuba Shrira and Karen Sollins — met and decided to continue their conversations online. Anita Borg came up with the name ‘Systers’ and volunteered to host the mailing list and become “Her Systers Keeper”.

Systers grew because women said to their women colleagues “there is this amazing conversation going on at Systers about X. Since Systers from the very beginning operated as a ‘safe space’ where women could talk about anything on their mind (so long as it related to women and computing) without fear that the information would escape the bounds of the group, members couldn’t forward interesting material; that meant that women hearing about the list asked to join, so that they could be part of these amazing conversations. Systers expanded from its original focus on women in systems (the name is a portmanteau of ‘systems’ and ‘systers’) and then more broadly on women in academia and research organizations and eventually to women in all walks of computing, including system administration, applications programming, human-computer interaction, technical writing, and technical project management. We even have a few biologists, patent lawyers and journalists who started out as computer scientists, but still find systers relevant to their lives.

Anita was Her Systers’ Keeper for the first 13 years of Systers’ existence. When she was taken ill, I had been working with her on the next generation of technology to support the group, and I slid into the role of Keeper, to prevent the group from going rudderless. At that time Systers was about 2000 women from 34 different countries. The group has changed in many ways since then, not the least of which is almost doubling in size to 3600 systers in 2012. We have a number of specialized spinoff groups for researchers, academics, latinas, lgbt women, black women, women entrepreneurs, Turkish women, and others. We have our own open source community and participate in Google Summer of Code. We recently did a series of meetups, so that systers in different geographic areas could meet their neighbors. But what hasn’t changed is the sense of community that has always existed in this group.

Systers bring to the list problems they are having with their boss, their advisor, their work peer, a guy in their lab. Sometimes it’s blatant discrimination, sometimes they think they are being treated unwell because they are a woman and the group helps them see that it’s something else entirely — maybe something perfectly ordinary. Sometimes it’s not that they are being treated badly, but that they don’t know how to approach a situation: how to ask for a raise or for a better assignment, how to ask a prof to write a letter of recommendation, or how to deal with what seems to be an electronic stalker. These are situations that often seem “obvious” to their male peers (or in the last case, completely outside their experience), but they require women to step outside their gendered training to “act like a guy would”.

Systers get a wide range of responses, ranging from “I feel the same way”, to concrete practical advice, to “pick up your socks and stop wingeing”. Recently a woman asked about whether she had sold herself short in negotiating a salary for a new job. Before starting her new job, she got a second offer which was significantly higher in salary, and which made her feel she had not held out long enough before accepting the first offer. The advice she got ranged from “take the second offer”, to how to go back to the first company and ask for more, to systers who told her that it was completely inappropriate for her to be “whining” about wanting more money and she should take the lower salary and get on with her life.

While the public conversation that goes on over systers (the messages sent to the entire list) is amazing, that’s just the tip of the iceberg — women send individual messages with personal stories of “I was in a similar situation and here’s what I did/wish I had done”. The vast majority of systers never post to the list, but they tell me that stories similar to their situation come by regularly, and they can learn just from watching the other conversations go on.

Systers is also a great place for righteous indignation and action plans for making a bad situation better. For example, recently, when sqoot and geeklist succeeded in behaving as though scantily clad women (in one case serving beer) were “just a normal part of business” in a technical world, some of the outraged letters, blog posts, etc. that led to apologies and more came from systers. In the last few years, there have been multiple examples of men using erotic (and in some cases outright pornographic) visuals as part of a technical presentation. Women inside and outside systers shared their indignation (but I have to believe that the weight of 3000+ systers had some impact), and conference groups like O’Reilly now have rules for what’s acceptable in presentation slides.

After Anita died, Systers had long conversations of how to honor her memory. We decided to start a set of small awards, given regularly, that would help women get into a technical career, advance in their careers, or assist girls and women in their neighborhood to become women in computing. The awards would come with the obligation to “pass on” the benefit the awardee felt she had received to another (potential) technical woman, hence the Anita Borg Systers’ Pass-it-on Awards. These are completely funded by systers, and have been given to women around the world. Most of the women given these awards have joined systers, helping us to learn first hand about their ongoing challenges and successes.

Just recently Systers has started a blog, where summaries of some of the most interesting discussions are posted. The summaries include quotes from many of the women who gave their advice and opinions on the topic, so they are a great way to hear the words of this community. In addition to the more in depth conversations, the blog is used to publicize web resources that systers share with one another. The links may be about Grace Murray Hopper or a winning all-girl robotics team or how Harvey Mudd College quadrupled the fraction of women among its computer science majors. They are all part of celebrating systers’ history and successes, and making women aware of the challenges technical women still face, as well as the progress being made.

Anita’s strong personality built systers into what it still is — a supportive group, united by a common interest in wanting “more people like me” in computing. From the very beginning the rules of “no flames” and “no me-too posts” have kept the conversation civil and the traffic highly relevant and contentful. The growth and inevitable turnover in members means that only a tiny fraction of the current membership was there in Anita’s days, but these and other values are so entrenched in the group they continue to guide behavior.

The 25th anniversary of Systers is a great opportunity to thank Anita for her work in setting the foundation of the community and to imagine where it will be in another 25 years. Will we have regular video chats? Will we have a way of recognizing which of the women at a technical conference are systers? (maybe our phones will ping?) Or will there be so many women in the computing field that the young women can’t quite understand the purpose of this archaic idea of a list “just for technical women”. (Anita would probably be happiest about the last possibility.)

One thought on “25 Years of Systers

  1. Robin J and Kathy R says:

    In case you were wondering: who were the original Systers?

    Anita Jones (who was one of the original systers) has tracked down what we believe is the full list of the original systers. The list is here:

    http://anitaborg.org/initiatives/systers/founding-systers/

    Two of them –Anita Jones and Miche Baker-Harvey — will be at Grace Hopper this year and should be at our systers celebration. Among the others is Barbara Liskov,
    the 2nd woman to win the ACM Turing Award. It’s very interesting to see
    where they were then (the number of places doing systems work was small; the number that had women in their group was even smaller), and where they are now. A few have moved into other fields, but overall it’s a pretty distinguished group.

    They met at SOSP — the Symposium on Operating Systems Principles, which still exists. The “organizing meeting” was in the women’s bathroom and they all sat together at lunch, I think, causing a mild stir among the male attendees (it was a small conference, and I think the attendees all had lunch together). Just imaging 20 tables of men in gray, and one table of happy women dressed in color.

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