I am Her Systers’ Keeper, the lead cat herder for Systers, the oldest (this is our 25th anniversary) and probably the largest (did I mention there were 3600 of us?) online community for technical women, founded by Anita Borg in 1987 . I joined Systers in 1990, after hearing from my women friends about the compelling discussions going on there. I wasn’t sure it would be welcoming of me, as someone doing research in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI); I had BS in Computer Science and Math, but I’d gone on to get a PhD in Psychology, as a way to understand the “human” side of computing. I was about as far from the “systems” origins of Systers as could be. But Anita accepted me into the group.
When Anita introduced the Mecca system she had created for systers to use (its primary goal was to enable smaller conversations within the group — for systers in a particular geography, going to a specific conference, mothers or even basketball fans), I was impressed by what a feat of engineering it was, but also a bit taken aback about how hard it was to use (if you wanted to target a subgroup, you essentially had to write an SQL query). Systems did need HCI, after all. A few years later, when Anita started the Anita Borg Institute, I made the “foolish” offer to help define the next generation Systers platform. This led to me getting loaned by my company, Sun Microsystems, to the Institute ¼ time for three years to help define and build such a system.
While this was going on, I was very active with Systers, as a way to understand what the members really needed in a communication platform, and with the Institute, as it was a very small organization and even volunteers were involved in helping define its future. When Anita was taken ill, I slid into serving as “Systers-keeper without portfolio” to keep the group from going rudderless. But eventually it became clear that Anita was not going to be able to “take back the reins” and I formally became Her Systers’ Keeper 12 years ago. It was not supposed to be a long term role for me; I couldn’t imagine how I would fit this into my busy life. But it has brought me so much joy, so much pride, that the hours I spend working on and with Systers are some of the best hours of my week.
I’ve heard from individual systers about how the group has kept them from dropping out of grad school, has helped them deal with harassment from a male colleague (both sexual and professional), how it gave them the confidence to take on a new role or leave a toxic advisor, or to figure out how to combine work and motherhood in a way that makes them feel that they are doing a competent job of both. I also hear about women doing wonderful things to help other women and girls get involved with technology. These stories, some of which play out on the list proper, and some come from private discussions started from a plea to the list, get told to me all the time, and make me incredibly proud to be of service to this amazing group of women.
People ask me what lessons I have learned from systers over the years. I will share two: 1) It takes a village of technical women to raise a technical woman — women are looking for support and it makes a huge difference in how they perceive themselves, how they persevere, and seriously, how likely they are to advance in their field. If you are a technical woman, please join Systers. I’m confident it will make a difference in your life. 2) If you want something done, find a busy woman and convince her to do it. There are so many things we can do to engage and support girls and women on their path to becoming accomplished technical woman; the most compelling things are typically done by a small group of committed people. You too are probably too busy to run Systers, as I was (and am), but if you start something that you are passionate about, you will find the time to do it, and you will make a difference.