Women find new ways to hack it in Silicon Valley
A FEW MONTHS before my daughter’s appearance in the world, we went along to a birthing centre in the middle of Silicon Valley to see how it could help. It reflected, I think, the Valley’s general attitude to young families at the time. It was in a converted cubicle farm, with a few ferns thrown where there would usually be water coolers. The carpet, fluorescent lighting, and even some of the posters on the wall seemed eerily familiar to a standard 9-10pm code monkey’s office.
At one stage, it was pointed out to me by another visitor that the next door was guarded by a halon fire suppressant system, generally used by the military and telecommunications, largely discouraged due to its damage to the ozone layer, and probably not what you want flooding your maternity pool at an inopportune moment.
Times haven’t really changed. Families are still something that Silicon Valley start-up employees fit around their work, rather than the other way around.
The affluent upper middle-class here, like most of America, has a lifestyle that lets them cushion both parents’ lives with a world of nannies and daycare. But for most employees, either the mother or the father has to take a few years out of the workplace. And in Silicon Valley, that doesn’t just mean the effective independence of having your own paycheck – it means being excluded from the primary social environment that many of the tech towns up and down the San Francisco Bay muster.
Of course, this happens primarily to women. And of course, because this is the Valley, some of the most interesting social solutions to the problem are being approached – by women – as an engineering problem. I’ve just spent a couple of hours in my local hackerspace talking to the founders of Hacker Moms, a co-operative of local parents who have pooled their resources and their skills to set up a hackerspace for themselves.
Hackerspaces, to pull back for a moment, are part workshop, part geek hang out, part reference library, part classroom. They are not uniquely a Silicon Valley creation; there are hundreds around the world, and many of the pioneers started in Europe but they’re a form of organisation that the Valley has leaped upon.
In the cramped spaces of the San Francisco Bay area, there are at least five hackerspaces, and probably several more that fit the description, but aren’t for the public. The largest has hundreds of members, pooling $80 (€64) monthly fees to expend on the sort of capital items that the single nerd might dream of owning. Computer-operated milling machines, 3D printers, electronics labs, industrial sewing machines and high-end oscilloscopes – they’re everything that a curious techie might imagine in their ideal science club.