The Ada Initiative leaves a mixed record behind it

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Aug 04, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

I was one of the first to write about the Ada Initiative. I was also (as Anonymous Donor #1) -- the first to donate to it, and the first to resign from its advisory board. I've passed through personal distaste and disillusion to indifference, but, having written about The Ada Initiative's start, I feel an obligation to write about its end, and the legacies it leaves behind.

The Ada Initiative was founded as a response to a sexual assault on Noirin Plunkett. Appropriately, the announcement of its end comes a day after Plunkett's memorial service. But you could have predicted what was about to happen for a couple of months.

Long-time advisers resigned, and were keeping feminist solidarity by not explaining why. A new executive director also resigned, and no effort was made to replace her. The popular AdaCamps were canceled. Little was being heard from Mary Gardiner, one of the founders. Meanwhile, Valerie Aurora, the other director, was consulting a career counsellor.

During all these events, the Ada Initiative itself was largely inactive. Although only four months ago, the Ada Initiative appeared to be thriving, the combination of events was suggestive long before the official announcement.

Top-down feminism
So what happened? I am not on speaking terms with anyone involved with The Ada Initiative -- criticism being anathema to them -- but I can make some guesses based on observation. In theory, nothing would have prevented The Ada Initiative from continuing, and the early responses to the news suggest no shortage of people who would help it survive. However, the Ada Initiative was never likely to outlive the interest of its founders.

From my first contact with the founders, my impression was that The Ada Initiative was based upon personal ambition centered around activism. Nothing is innately wrong with that combination -- in fact, in some respects I find it admirable -- but in this case it was accompanied by a need to control, and a reluctance to delegate or compromise.

Looking back, I suggest that this reluctance seriously hindered The Ada Initiative's growth. It led to a reluctance to accept most corporate funding, and made relatively simple projects like an unconference more complicated by the insistence on vetting attendees. Directors, advisers, and contractors appear to have been chosen from selected friends of the founders. Look through the Ada Initiative's blogs, especially in the early days, and you can hardly miss the tendency to tell people how to organize their lives and how to think.

This tendency is even spelled out on the web page of Double Union, a feminist hacker space co-founded by Aurora and whose members include many involved with The Ada Initiative. The group spells out the orthodoxies expected of members, and makes clear that even devil's advocacy is not permitted -- apparently on the grounds that it could be a refuge for trolls.

The tendency might be annoying in itself. However, its worst consequences were public relation disasters.  For example, kernel hacker Ted T'so was condemned for ill-informed comments about rape statistics made a couple of years previously, leading to him being described as a "rape apologist" by an Ada Initiative supporter. Similarly, Aurora advocated the distribution of "creeper cards" in response to sexist actions and comments, until they were laughed out of existence, after which reporting on the cards became more neutral on the Ada Initiative's site. Such instances seriously damaged the group's reputation, losing the good will of  potential supporters.

However, the most notorious of these disasters was forcing the cancellation of Violet Blue's talk at BSides San Francisco in 2013. Whether the cancellation was part of a publicity stunt or an honest mistake, The Ada Initiative's unconvincing self-defense was enough to ensure  that it would never be taken seriously in the security industry ever again. With one rash action, the goodwill generated by over a year of work in the industry was lost. In fact, at the next Defcon, the organization was a running joke

Given the attitudes that generated such problems, the internal conflicts of the last few months may have been viewed by the founders as a betrayal of trust. Rebuilding the organization would have meant risking similar problems with delegation. Under such circumstances, what else was left except to close down? Lingering to create legacy organizations would have been a prolonged transfer of control, while continuing the group's activities unaided would be a step backwards to The Ada Initiative's earliest days. Either would be a reminder of failure that would sit poorly with the ambition that was never far away.

The Legacy, Pro and Con
These actions and inactions mean that the Ada Initiative leaves a mixed record. The group's publicity disasters might have harmed the cause of feminism as much as its activities helped.

For that matter, how should anyone judge its main activities: encouraging anti-harassment policies for conferences, holding AdaCamps for women, and teaching workshops for allies and overcoming impostor syndrome? They seem disturbingly minor for the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on them, especially when all the other issues facing women in the workplace are considered.

We cannot even be sure that anti-harassment policies are anything more than security theater, reassuring without adding to anyone's safety. Like similar policies of the 1990s, they may soon be forgotten.

As for impostor syndrome, it is not even a recognized psychiatric condition, and The Ada Initiative's teachings seem to be more about self-esteem than about developing competence. It suggests, for example, seeking reassurance from friends when a more concrete approach might stress how women might demonstrate their ability to both themselves and their colleagues.

Yet against these concerns must be set the fact that, one way or the other, The Ada Initiative raised the consciousness (to use a term from feminism's second wave) of hundreds of women and men. It has  helped reveal the systemic sexism in the tech industry, and that awareness, once required, cannot be lost short of amnesia or senility.  The best result of The Ada Initiative's demise would be the rise of dozens of groups to take its place, creating the mass movement that its founders dreamed about but were incapable of building themselves.

I have been expecting the end of The Ada Initiative for some weeks now, but being right gives me no satisfaction. Despite disagreements, I have always preferred The Ada Initiative to its misogynist opponents. But mostly, the news leaves me with a sense of disappointment, of opportunities lost that should have been seized, and the hope that something might still be salvaged after so many false steps.

Note: This article has been modified in response to comments in order to make its points clearer.

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