Montreal women in tech – a much longer history than The Gazette suggests

Saturday’s Montreal Gazette has an interesting story about women in Montreal’s tech community.

But while I’m thrilled to see a focus on the hard work of Montreal Girl Geeks organizers Liesl Barrell and Sandy Sidhu and an acknowledgement of the important role women are taking in Montreal’s tech scene, I feel taken aback by one of the article’s assertions:

A decade ago, it was unfathomable for such an organization to exist; now, women are flocking to Montreal Girl Geeks for events and resources, thanks in large part to its high level of engagement on social media. One needn’t look any further for an answer to the oft-asked question, “Where are all the women in tech?”

  • Studio XX, a bilingual feminist artist-run centre for technological exploration, was founded in 1996. I remember having trouble getting a spot in their HTML classes and attending a crowded celebration for Art’s Birthday. They’re still very much alive and active.
  • I was a part of Webgrrls Montreal when Joya Balfour officially founded it in 1997. I remember going to Webgrrls meetings in 1995 and 1996. The room booked for Webgrrls meetings was always packed.
  • Adele McAlear co-founded DigitalEve, a non-profit group for women in new media and digital technology, in 1999. I don’t know much about DigitalEve but I understand it’s been popular and successful.

Those are just a few of the organizations that I know about firsthand or have heard about. I moved away from Montreal for nearly six years and came back in 1995, so my reference points come from what I know. But I’m willing to bet there have been other many organizations supporting women in tech, even before 1996. It’s frustrating to see the efforts women have made to improve the situation for other women go unnoticed.

As well, in recent years Montreal women have launched Montreal All-Girl Hack Night and a Ladies Learning Code chapter here. Those are just two groups.


One thought on “Montreal women in tech – a much longer history than The Gazette suggests

  1. I saw the article and was tempted to write the Gazette. There were women around back then, and there were the various groups. It was still a time when the internet seemed “revolutionary”, so I know I was posting about various groups that were trying to get people online. It took a bit of searching, but I posted in early 1998 to the local newsgroup about “Cybergrrl meets the Webgrrls”, when Aliza Sherman was coming to speak at Chapters, and the already existing local cybergrrls planned to attend as a group.

    The Montreal Freenet only lasted 4 months in 1996, but the system administrator was a woman, Nancy and I can’t remember her last name. That failed for social reasons, not technical. And back then it was common to see posts by a system administrator at ConU, I can’t remember her name. Unless they were all men posing as women, we had a decent number of women participating in mtl.general, considering it was still early.

    However, I remember the first time many people locally heard of this new internet thing, I guess it was early 1994. A woman’s group at one of the universities had discovered porn on the internet, and decided “something must be done”. It was a horrible contrast, they didn’t see the ease in getting the word out, they only saw something they didn’t like, and decided there should be rules. I think that attitude was common for many in political circles, which meant they didn’t help to define the internet, they stayed off it until commerce had taken over. And I wonder how it affected readers, did they see the potential, or think “what a horrible place”.

    And the reality was, many groups came to the internet early (many ISPs were giving away accounts to non-profit groups) but they weren’t participants. They thought it was write only, rather than a place for interaction. I looked at all the websites hosted by the Montreal Freenet in August of 1996, and most of them were mere markers, the groups unaware that dramatic change had occurred. They had no purpose for their webpages, because they weren’t really on the internet. They thought in terms of a newsletter, or mailing lists, rather than interacting, and with the world. That is still in effect to some extent. Many groups at best carved out their own little space on the internet, where members could interact, rather than hoping to interact with the greater world.

    I didn’t go to iNet ’96, but I remember people coming out of the Shatner Building at McGill, looking at the Fringe Festival’s Beer Tent in the parking lot there, and wondering what was going on. But there were plenty of papers given at that event about getting people online, and it was a time when there was a real shift to “local”. Just a few years before, there was never enough density of people in any given location for there to be much local, which is why Usenet grew up along common interests, rather than common geography. But as local density built up, “community” became an issue, at least for a while. Sadly, commerce won, and the masses came after that, completely unaware of what was going on just twenty years ago, unaware of the time when the internet was like a parallel “underground” to the rest of the world, now it’s a handmaiden to old media. And so much traffic is just what people would have done over the phone in the old days.

    I remember Byte magazine at the beginning, and there was a deliberate use of “he and she”, an inclusiveness that was either from the authors, or the editors. But it was a time when there really were no women interested in computers. Nobody needed to lust after women in ads, the computers were the objects of lust. Then some years later, as things broadened out, that’s when the ads with the women draped over the computers showed up. When there were no women, that reflected a counterculture sensibility, as women started to become involved, it had become mainstream, and the mainstream sexism came in. That too is a reality now. 20 years ago, women might have gotten too much attention when online, but at the same time there was still a level of respect. As everything went mainstream, mainstream ideas came into play. Everyone wants to be a “hacker”, but not everyone can be an experience based learner. But now it’s easy to take on the label/identity (as it’s now easy to take on any identity on the internet), so every male thinks he’s a “hacker” by putting a template together to make a “program”. And that includes juvenile programs, when in the past, it would mean doing something actually worthy. The entry level has lowered, but ‘m not sure that’s a good thing.


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