Systers: The Electronic Community for Women in Computing
Almost 20 years ago, in 1987, seven women met at SOSP (Symposium on Operating Systems Principles). As the only women at the conference they all felt like outsiders, so they banded together to be less isolated. At a dinner meeting, they discovered that they had many experiences in common. Anita Borg, one of those original seven, offered to host a mailing list for the group to continue their interactions. The name chosen for the group was “systers,” a wordplay on sisters and systems. As the systers list approaches its twentieth anniversary, it seems timely to reflect on its history and its current goals.
Word spread quickly about the interesting discussions held on systers, and other women asked to join. The community grew rapidly, reaching more than 2,000 members by the mid ‘90s, despite the fact that the only publicity was by word of mouth from one woman in computing to another. Systers has evolved its own culture in response to a variety of issues that came up in the early years.
There was an explicit decision to exclude men from the community (http://athena.systers.org/about.html), based on experience with other lists where the voices of men, even well-intentioned men, tend to drown out the voices of women. There was, and continues to be, a strong focus on politeness and respect (phrased as “no flaming allowed”) in contrast to the tone that was common on most other mailing lists at the time (this was in the heyday of USENET bulletin boards where numerous angry responses to a posting were not uncommon).
The most important rule to this day is that information shared on systers stays within systers, unless there is an explicit agreement from the writer that her words can be shared. As a result of that rule, systers is viewed as a safe place to share very personal stories.
As the community grew, it suffered from its own success. The volume of discussion was too much for many, especially for early members who had moved into senior positions and didn’t have the time for the casual chitchat that the newer members found valuable. As a way to keep the volume under control, the community has evolved some strict rules for what is “on topic.” Discussions must relate to both women and technology, not to either alone. There is also a culture of “collect and summarize,” and long-term systers have kept, and still refer to, those summaries. The one on what to wear to a job interview is a classic, as is a very different one about dealing with menopausal symptoms on the job.
Anita, who was a researcher at DEC WRL, launched a research project to create a system (called Mecca) that would enable a much wider range of discussion topics, where individual systers could opt in and out as they liked. The system was also designed to make it easier to contact particular subgroups (those living in a particular area; those going to a specific conference) so the entire group wouldn’t be disturbed for these more targeted inquiries. Mecca grew into a very powerful system that was used by systers for many years. It never lived up to its full potential, however, because of the syntactic challenges it required for simple tasks like targeting a message toward a particular group.
At various times, systers have mobilized to fight something the group considers anti-women. One case was the Barbie doll that said, “Math is soooo hard”; another was a Sony ad that showed some piece of Sony electronics stuffed into the waistband of a bikini worn by an attractive model (you could only see her lower torso and upper legs). While in neither case did the company admit that the letter-writing and phone-call campaign influenced their decision to withdraw the product or ad, both were withdrawn.
As the moderator (Her Systers’ Keeper) for systers, Anita was sought out as a spokeswoman on issues related to women in computing, as she was the visible face of the community and a dynamic speaker as well. In 1997, Anita left DEC/Compaq to found the Institute for Women and Technology (now the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, http://anitaborg.org) to devote herself full time to making sure that women are “full partners in driving the creation of the new technology that will define their lives.” I had been a member of systers for some time, and was well aware that Mecca, while technically very sophisticated, wasn’t easy to use.
Anita planned to have the Institute build a better systers’ system, and I volunteered to help design the user interface. Anita, always a very persuasive woman, managed to convince me and Sun Microsystems, my employer at the time, that I should be in charge of the project. This eventually resulted in a new system (primarily implemented by Ellen Spertus, a faculty member at Mills College and long-time systers member) and my assuming the role of Systers’ Keeper as Anita became more swept up, first in her new role as the Institute’s president and later as her health failed.
Systers now has about 2,300 members from 40 to 50 countries. As ever, the topics covered by the list are wide-ranging and interesting. For example, as I write this, recent discussion topics have included: 1) how to cope with relationship issues when you get the job of your dreams and your partner is placed in the role of “accompanying spouse”; 2) how to get tech support to treat you like a knowledgeable human being (and how much does this have to do with being female); and 3) what’s it like being an older woman who moved into technology as a second career. The list isn’t especially high volume, by design. While the Internet as a whole has become a more polite place since its early days, members mention that systers, in particular, has a friendliness that you don’t find in other electronic groups. When a member posts an item concerning a personal problem, she typically gets a lot of individual email from others who have been in similar situations and who have helpful advice.
In recent years, The Anita Borg Institute has spun off some specialized lists related to systers: 1) researcHers is for women in research careers (both academic and industry); 2) systers-entrepreneurs is for women involved in or contemplating an entrepreneurial career; and 3) there are some lists targeted specifically at women just finishing or recently graduated from Ph.D. programs. More information about researcHers can be found at www.systers.org/researchers; about systers-entrepreneurs at www.systers.org/mailman/listinfo/entrepreneurs; and about the lists for approaching and new Ph.D.s at www.systers.org/phd-grads/.
Systers is open to all women with a background in computing (either in school or in the workplace) who agree to the rules of the community. Please join us by going to: www.systers.org and selecting the Join link.
Robin Jeffries is currently a UI designer and user researcher at Google, and serves as Her Systers’ Keeper.