Feminist Spaces in Crisis

bookshopLast week, I found out that the Parisian feminist library has been saved. Which is excellent news and I am overjoyed for them. But thinking about it still makes me sad, because of the context of it all: feminist spaces all over the world are diminishing and those that are still around are under threat from more than just gentrification.

It’s as though the whole society has slowly and somewhat unwittingly turned against us. When the London Feminist Library was in space crisis it got an offer from the South Bank University to house its collection. I’m sure the intentions were good, but it would have been just another London Women’s Library story – from accessibility to academia. LSE’s promises to keep the Library open to all have faded with time and the resource has gradually turned into just another ‘special collection’ of an academic library.

I believe it does not all happen out of ill will. The Feminist Library had a lot of kind offers to house its collections – including from the Marx Memorial Library, Union Chapel and Newington Green Unitarian Chapel – most of them unsuitable for the size of the Library and its purpose, but all well meaning. The last particularly put smiles on the Library team’s faces as it’s also know as ‘the birthplace of feminism’ – until it turned out they could only offer us a little bit of exhibition space…

But the Feminist Library is so much more than just a pile of books. It’s an activist space, a community centre and a safe space for feminists to talk about the issues that often can still make us very uncomfortable to raise in the outside world. And so it particularly hurts to think that people see it as just a collection of books when one realises just how rare spaces like that are. There are only 3 autonomous feminist libraries in the UK – the Nottingham Women’s Centre one, the Women’s Library in Glasgow and the Feminist one in London. The remaining ones are all now a part of larger, academic, institutions, with varying levels of accessibility limitations that go with it.  

And what really struck me as part of the save the Feminist Library campaign is that even some feminists were suggesting that we should try and move into a university. Even the feminist designers team, now responsible for creating the new space for the Feminist Library in Peckham, thought that was a good idea at one point. It seems to me that it would be a great loss to lose the only remaining independent feminist library in London to a university. Regardless of how friendly and welcoming the university seems, it would still mean a loss of independence.

Feminist libraries, and spaces in general, are neither ‘special interest’ nor simply libraries, and so should not be closed off to the public as an academic resource, as if feminism is now just a piece of history, no longer relevant to us presently. FGM is still very much an issue, as is child marriage, rape, not to mention the pay gap or the glass ceiling. Feminism has made great strides already but still has a long way to go. Nobody can tell me that feminism is a thing of the past.

“The woman question is answered. It is now understood that women can do anything that men can do (…) The future is female, we are told. Feminism has served its purpose and should now eff off (…) Though parliament is unconcerned about women’s issues, universities appear obsessed by them (…) As far as the intellectual establishment is concerned there is still a profound and ramified women question, which has still to be correctly asked, let alone answered.”

Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman

Greer wrote these words 20 years ago, but the mentality rings just as true now. Feminism has been relegated into the academia, and there seems to be a tendency to try and brush all feminist spaces into the academic world too.

But I believe that as long as we don’t have universally accessible feminist education, issues like that will keep being perpetuated. Academia is not for everyone. There is a massive gap between academic thinking and language, and the rest of us, including not just activists and the wider community. Academic language can be massively inaccessible and detached from the outside world. So we need more autonomous, open to all feminist spaces, not fewer!

Photo courtesy of Feminist Library Bookshop

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‘I would like to call myself a feminist but…’

I have heard ‘I am not a feminist but…’ so many times in my life, I have stopped counting a long time ago. It almost sounds like a mantra from some women, as if they’re trying to convince themselves. I think it basically boils down to women misunderstanding what feminism means, because of all the stereotyping still commonly permeating our culture. Women grow up hearing jokes about hairy feminists all the time, and they resolve not to be pegged as something that they’ve only ever heard as the butt of somebody’s joke. In most cases they wouldn’t have even ‘wasted’ time to look up the actual definition of feminism before coming to that conclusion (more often than not subconsciously).

But last weekend I was doing some outreach on behalf of the Feminist Library and I heard something new: ‘I would like to call myself a feminist but…’ and it really struck me. I have never heard a woman say something like that before.

One might be forgiven for thinking that it’s basically one and the same. Yes, the bottom line is that in both of those cases the women have been put off feminism by bogus claims they heard made about it over and over again, by people who are not feminists themselves, and most often than not have no clue what it really means. But as much as in the former case, a conversation about what feminism ACTUALLY means often times ends in a fairly quick and painless realisation that the woman is a feminist after all (it was basically all a big misunderstanding); in the latter, there is no convincing anyone – not easily anyway. The woman who made the proclamation on Sat was well aware of what feminism is and has made a conscious decision not to call herself a feminist. Yes, she cited all the same stereotypes that women in the first group normally would, but she knew all too well that the charges were fake. She just knew she couldn’t take the stigma of it all.

‘Feminism has a branding problem’ is a mansplaining solution to the problem, which I have also heard more than my share of times… Sure, I say, try telling that to Beyoncé! If branding was the issue, she would have solved this problem by now. Since high profile stars like Beyoncé have decided to rebrand feminism, not much has changed, in fact… The main outcome of it all has been a mass of accusations against people like Beyoncé that they are coopting feminism for their own needs. Which, considering everything said above, must be one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard – why would anyone coopt something that had such a bad name to boost their own (already successful) brand?! I believe the fact that Beyoncé’s attempts at rebranding the dirty ‘f’ word have backfired is further evidence of the deeper, underlying issues, and of the fact that we cannot think of feminism as a brand!

Feminism is not a brand! It is a movement, a belief in the full humanity of women, a way of living that defies stereotypes, expectations and excuses that society has used for centuries to make women’s lives harder. And what we need is not a new brand, or a new marketing campaign to make feminism more palatable to the average person. We need to roll out proper feminist education, in schools, universities, and beyond, from the earliest ages, which would include women in history and the present fully. It can’t be just a dedicated selective college module, or a single lesson on Suffragettes at A-levels. It has to be comprehensive, bringing women back into history, sciences and politics – at all levels.

As a feminist, I love women’s history. I find it incredibly inspiring and empowering to learn about women who’ve done it all before, in much tougher circumstances in most cases. Makes me feel like I can really do anything. But it often times also makes me sad, as I wonder how much stronger and more self-confident I would have been had I grown up knowing their stories from an earlier age. And I believe that the same applies to women and girls around the world.

And to the woman I met on Saturday I would like to say if she ever reads this: don’t be afraid, join your local feminist group and see how it feels. You might feel like you can’t possibly claim feminism for yourself when you’re surrounded by people who don’t know what it means and yet have the audacity to make incessant jokes about it, but trust me, you will not feel like that once you have found your sisterhood. Perhaps it’s time to change your friends. Or at least get some new, feminist ones, and educate your old ones 😉 Hope to see you around!

The Angels & Witches HERstory

It has been long overdue. I have been so busy trying to find a solution to the space problem that I have lost track of what this blog was set up for in the first place: to document the story of Angels & Witches. And so the other day, when I was having a conversation with a new friend about the project, I realised that there was nowhere on the blog that I could point them to that would give them the best idea of how the project was born – its own herstory. Obviously, there are bits and pieces all over this blog, but thought that perhaps it was about time to make a more coherent whole out of it all!

The path has been twisted, with unexpected turns all along the way, but all the while Angels & Witches has stayed true to its roots.

It all started in the fall of 2015. Corporate life has never really been on my dream list and never felt quite like my place, but around that time it has started turning into a bit of a nightmare. One day, the new bosses of the company that acquired my previous employer 6 months earlier, came in and decided that it would be a good idea if my whole team was to compete against each other for our own jobs! That was the beginning of the end of my time in the corporate world, and a start of something completely different – Angels & Witches! Although, at the time, I was yet to realise that.

That night, I went home to tell my mother about what happened and her response turned the dreadful day into the best thing that ever happened to me. ‘Quit! And let’s do something together!’ – she said, simply, as if this was the moment she’d been waiting for all along.

From that day, nothing has quite been the same. I did go back to the office the next day – to hand in my resignation. My bosses were not pleased to say the least. My manager say in his chair, speechless, for about a minute after I dropped the news. The whole horrid process they invented was for the purpose of finding the ‘weakest link’ in the team. I was not it, as it turned out. My job was never really at risk. But that was beside the point for me at that stage. The whole process was for me the final straw I needed to realise that corporate life was not for me at all. And the world of possibilities that opened in front of me the day before, could no longer be shut.

I had never felt so happy. I didn’t know EXACTLY what I wanted to do just yet. The whole idea of setting up my own business was completely new to me. But the feeling of having freed myself from the corporate chains was amazing, and the realisation that there was an open path of opportunity ahead turned me into a completely different person. I’d never felt freedom and drive like that before.

It’s like a whole new dimension of life opened up right in front of me. I had never thought about running my own business up to that point. Feminism was something I did in my free time. For free. All the time. But it did not really occur to me that it could be something that I could do full-time – I never thought about it that way. I mean who would pay me for that, right?!

The thought of opening a business of my own was foreign to me until then. Let alone a feminist one! It seemed an unspoken ‘truth’ that feminism was something that had to be done in one’s spare time, as there was no money in it. It wasn’t until I started thinking about the idea of starting up a business that gradually it occurred to me that it HAD to be a feminist one. And how the hell are we supposed to ever get gender equality if all feminist work is to be free?!

Initially we simply started talking about a café or a teashop, with a yoga/natural therapy space in the back. The feminist part came to me a bit later. It was a bit of a revelation. I started going round more and more cafés, and talking to friends about the idea – doing research for my business – and I realised that all the cafés that I loved had something truly unique about them. And there was nothing I was more passionate about than feminism. What could be more unique coming from me than a combination of coffee and feminism – two of my favourite things? And all of a sudden, once I had that realisation, it seemed like the only reasonable choice for me! It HAD to be a feminist café!

And from there, all things started falling into place. I had a million ideas: it would be everything from feminist music to… feminist books and I was getting new inspiration for the kinds of events that could be run there nearly everyday!

My mom and I have been into experimenting with cooking since I became vegetarian, and so the choice of food never really seemed like a question. Apart from one: vegetarian or vegan? To start with, I was leaning more towards the former, but it quickly became apparent that it not being fully vegan might keep some feminists away. And so vegan it is. And that just turned out to be further excuse to experiment with our cooking!

And now we finally come to the name inspiration question – which is probably the most intriguing question to most people I’ve spoken to about the café. Why Angels & Witches? To be completely honest, it was a compromise of sorts. ‘Of sorts’ because when I did think about it, it actually seemed kind of perfect!

My mother was always more into the idea of angels than me – guardians, good spirits, all kinds of ‘positive’ influences of the spiritual world, which has always been close to her heart. Me, on the other hand, I had just gone through a bit of an obsessional phase with Gerda Lerner, who’s the feminist who introduced women’s history into Academia in the US. Which does bring us to the witches part. Just give me a minute, ok? A short Gerda Lerner introduction is much needed here.

According to Lerner, women’s history is not a 100, but more like 700 years old. And this was the theory that sparked my interest in witches. Is it possible that witches were the first feminists, and that their covens were the first women’s groups? Witches were not solely women, you might say. Yes, but throughout history there have always been some men who did not quite get patriarchy and supported women in our struggle.

Further, according to Lerner’s theory of where patriarchy stems from, the division between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women is one of the key pillars of the system of patriarchal oppression, and women pitted against each other in constant battle for societal approval – one of the biggest impediments to women’s liberation.

Hence, ‘Angels & Witches’ – the coming together of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ in what is, to my mind, a truer reflection of what we all are: complex human beings. The simplification of women as either or has served to divide women and uphold patriarchal structures throughout centuries. It still rings true of some contemporary societal scenarios. Thanks to our feminist foremothers, some of those stereotypes have already been shattered. We’ve started to see women as more multi-dimensional human beings, as more human, at last… But the struggle is far from over. Angels & Witches aims to support it by creating a space to further bust harmful preconceptions.

Towards a feminist definition of success

brooke-lark-194253.jpgThe other day, I’ve had a really odd phone conversation with a recruiter. He was trying to convince me that I should quit my job – that I just got 6 days earlier, because it wasn’t a responsible job to have, career-wise. Fair enough, you might say, he’s a recruiter, that’s his job. But it might seem just a little bit more odd to you if I told you that the job that we were talking about was sort of a feminist dream job. No, not to his mind, apparently. But to my mind a million times better than what he was offering. I’ve never really been a massive fan of the 9-5 but, since I’m a feminist, and after I’ve had my first feminist job, I started looking at all office work as a bit of a waste of time, to be honest.

I mean, I get it, we all need to work in one form or another, and that’s why I turned to the recruitment agency in the first place – they were offering a well paid job, and at a company that didn’t particularly resemble a soulless corporate giant. I guess it could definitely be worse. But having had a taste of what a feminist job looks like, I just couldn’t imagine doing anything but.

The company trying to recruit me was a professional market research company – an area that I have been in most of my professional life and so it seemed obvious, to his mind at least, that it was the job I SHOULD have been dreaming of – a ‘proper’ career development steps, whatever that means. But I just cannot. I cannot imagine – let alone dream of – spending 40 hours each week on work that mostly just makes me miserable, because all I can think of 39/40 of those hours, most weeks, is what amazing things I would be able to do if I spent all this time doing feminist work.

I cannot help it – I am a feminist and once I had a taste of a feminist job, I didn’t feel like going back to my old life of a boring 9-5, in an office full of people that I had nothing in common with, apart from the dislike of said 9-5.

Yes, my feminist job doesn’t pay much. Fact. It is not a full-time job, and therefore it only allows me to pay my rent and basic expenses. Fact. No, it is not a perfect job – it does have its ups and downs, just like any other jobs. Fact. But the ups, in this case, include being able to save a feminist space for future generations of girls and women. And so the downs quickly fade away, if you think about the incredible impact you’re making. I don’t know many ‘proper’ career paths that give a similar sense satisfaction.

What is also true about it is that it allows me to do this tiny little thing every day that not many ‘proper’ jobs do – help bring a world that is better for women just one step closer. Even if it might only be a small step. It allows me to do what I love, what I’m really passionate about, and it gives me the flexibility to also pursue my other interests at the same time. Not many people can say that about their jobs. I consider myself lucky. Most people I know from my last office job barely had time for anything apart from work, family and shopping. That was it for them.

I can’t live like that. And I shouldn’t have to apologise for it. And yet, because we live in capitalist patriarchy, I have this guy, a stranger I must add, on the other end of the phone making me feel like I’m crazy for not wanting a ‘proper’ job, a boring 9-5 that would make me mind-numb within a short few months, if not weeks, instead of a job that I’m passionate about that also gives me the freedom I need to pursue my other dreams at the same time, like the café and my writing.

But what is really bizarre about this whole story is not where this guy was coming from in the first place – this idea that I would be better off with a career-wise job – but just how hell-bent he was on convincing me that my dreams and convictions shouldn’t really ‘cloud’ my judgement when it came to career choice… The thing is, I don’t feel clouded at all. My vision has never been so clear. I want a job that gives me a deep sense of satisfaction, rather than a lot of money and prestige in the business world. I have no desire to become a CEO of a corporation. I want to be able to do something that I love, while keeping my independence and options open.

I was forced to look for work again, as the search for a space for the feminist café took longer than expected. But should that mean that I have to get back to my old life that was not me, that made me feel like I was wasting a large proportion of my life on earth doing non-feminist work, and getting progressively more and more frustrated? I don’t think so. Not if I can avoid it!

We need a new definition of success. One that does not start in the business world and finish at FTSE 100. One that stretches beyond what is simply good for the economy, and includes that which is good for people. One that includes feminist visions of society, work and success.

 

Photo credit Brooke Lark

The Margaret Thatcher Effect – On Masculinity, Value and Coffee

As I passed by another brand new hip coffee shop in South London the other day, a frightening realisation struck me. Just as much as women’s ‘roles’ or rather what has traditionally been recognised as such, tend to be devalued, those assumed to be masculine for some reason have more value attached to them, both in terms of perceived importance, as well as in remuneration. But the frightening part of it all is that the same is still true. Additionally, there is still a noticeable adverse knock-on effect of a change in perceived masculinity or femininity of roles, on women’s pay.

Let’s take the coffee shop business as an example. While café work is traditionally perceived as low-skill and low paid, a new variety of, predominantly bearded, expert baristas has more recently started taking over London, and other parts of the world it seems, as I witnessed on my trip to Poland last year. This new breed of, again, predominantly male, coffee making specialist, is fast becoming a profession of sorts, with a whole range of hot spots around the city, hip magazines, coffee tasting apps, specialist training and equipment, and eye-watering prices to match the craze.

Out of interest, I had to check whether my theory about diminishing wages in female dominated professions was also going to prove true in reverse, about the changing nature of the coffee business, since the bearded men have started taking over it, and I looked up remuneration bands for baristas. Indeed, what I found, although I don’t claim to have done extensive, scientific research into this, confirmed my expectations. While barista roles in your standard café, which usually employs young women, don’t tend to pay much more than a minimum wage, those in small, specialist, high-end coffee shops, which tend to charge a premium for their product and… employ bearded baristas, have a pay premium of about 20 per cent.

The question that keeps ringing in my head this afternoon is whether the same thing would have been true if women were to lead this new trend of the cool coffee making expert. Now, although I really don’t know for sure, I suspect it would not. I couldn’t find any academic papers on the topic… Perhaps it’s time for me to re-join the academia and do some proper digging into the dark side of the new coffee business trend..? I did find this quote, that still seems fitting, in a 20 year old Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman, book though:

“Gynocentric feminism defines women’s oppression as the devaluation and repression of women’s experience by a masculine culture that exalts violence and individualism”

Iris Marion Young, Throwing Like a Girl

Don’t get me wrong, I do love good coffee myself, with a passion in fact, as you can probably figure out from the theme of this blog. But I don’t seem to fit into this brave new world of hipster coffee makers, not as well as the bearded man who usually serves my coffee these days anyway… Considering that I don’t have the capacity to grow a beard, I suspect I might never…

It might seem like my theory is a bit far-fetched, but actually, if you look back a few years, and remember the days when cooking was perceived to be a female domain, there were scarcely any male chefs prancing around on the TV, talking about a piece of meat on the grill as if it was the best thing under the sun… And now? Nearly all of the most renowned chefs in the world seem to be men, and if you wish to get into one of their fancy restaurants to treat your loved ones to the priciest dinner you’ve ever had, you better be prepared to book twelve months in advance…

But the question of value of the masculine and the feminine struck me for another reason that day. As I was passing by the hip coffee shop that afternoon, I was on my way back home from a charity sector training event. The trainees were predominantly female. For about 10 women in the room, there was one man. And this wasn’t the first event of the type that I went to – and they all tend to have a similar gender ratio. I do ask myself the ‘why’ question in most situations like these, but something different was on my mind that time. What struck me then was the question of value. We all know that charity jobs don’t tend to be the best paid ones out there, as non-profits have to ensure that the biggest chunk of their income goes towards the cause that they support, and so those that work in the sector tend to look for more of a balance between remuneration and job satisfaction, rather than simply just a fat paycheque. But what really struck me was just how big the gender imbalance in the sector was. And then I saw the bearded men behind the café bar… and it hit me.

Then, a couple of days ago, after all that happened, I went to a women in tech event, and the focus throughout was on how to encourage more females into the industry, with a big emphasis on promoting women into senior and CEO roles. What seemed to be completely missing was the reasons why women might not want to go into the industry in the first place. We still have a massive problem with sexism very early on in the educational system, with girls being discouraged, even if they show an interest in technical subjects. Not to mention the persistent sex discrimination problem in the industry. The emphasis was on how women must be more assertive in asking for promotions and money… But the question that was completely missing from the conversation for me is – do women really want be CEO’s? Is the fat paycheque really worth having to be forced to behave more ‘like a man’?

A couple of months earlier, I went to another women in tech event, one that opened my eyes to a whole world of possibilities. Until that day, I didn’t know that I was a techy woman myself! I didn’t know that I could design an app without knowing how to code! I didn’t know about hackathons that, by encouraging women to work in gender-balanced or female-only teams, allowed them to outperform the men, finding new ways to work.

That day, I discovered a new way of looking at the tech world that was almost mystical to me all my life. And so, perhaps it is time we stopped blaming women for problems that are down to discrimination so deeply seated that even senior women within the industry cannot see it themselves?

Where women go, the value of work done seems to drop, if we look at it in monetary terms, and the reverse seems to happen when men step in. Women also tend to choose work in the non-profit sector more often than men. While the number of women in tech careers does actually drop by almost a half, due to discrimination, by the time those who’ve qualified reach 30,  despite bulky remuneration packages. And still, economists seem to think that only when enough women have reached the top in the FTSE100 companies, will we have reached equality… Yet, at the same time, senior men (AND women) in tech seem to be stereotyping against junior women, advising them to be more assertive, rather than looking into the deep seated reasons that push them away from STEM careers. Something has got to give.

Perhaps it is time we redefined the concepts of value and success altogether? Perhaps it is time that we, at long last, started thinking about parenthood as something of high value to society that should be shared equally, so that women have real choices they can make, rather than having to choose between career and kids. Perhaps it is time that we started seeing that there is a world of work of value of there in the non-profit sector that does not float on the stock market, and taking it into account when we look at how far women have come? Perhaps then, we will stop, however unconscious it may be, thinking that having our coffee prepared by someone with distinctive facial hair makes it somehow better…

When inspiration strikes

Double inspiration today! Oh, happy days! After the enormous clouds of the past few days, inspiration lovingly came to me, with a double helping, today. Result? Hope restored.

It is one of those very much underappreciated life giving forces, inspiration. At least that’s how I see it. I was feeling very low yesterday, with the UK election results leaving me dazed, and the country largely confused, it seems, under a cloud of uncertainty, with the added threat of the woman-hating DUP getting into bed with the Tories just to allow them to have a slim majority.

But now that the inspiration struck, I am starting to see some sunshine through the parting clouds. In their desperation to form a government, the Tories might be willing to compromise on some hard-won human rights of women and gay marriage, but it will likely only result in diminishing their already dwindling support in the long run. If that’s how they want to play it, selling out on women’s rights just to gain majority, they will have to be prepared to reap what they sow. Women’s rights are not bargaining chips! I am just a tiny bit surprised that Theresa May cannot see it, considering that she is a woman herself. So much for the theory that having a female Prime Minister is a good thing for women by default, that people have been trying to feed me since she’s taken on the role! Theresa May is no feminist, she said it rather clearly herself. Now we have proof that cannot really be denied.

But this post is not about politics, I digress as it’s taken so much of my energy and mental space in the last few days. And then a welcome strike of inspiration this morning brightened up my day! Thankfully, dark days can have that positive aspect to them. Sunshine comes out eventually and it can even seem to be shining more brightly than before, after a few long days of heavy clouds!

I take inspiration wherever I can get some. And sometimes it can come from unexpected places, so I enjoy going on a little inspiration ‘hunt’ every once in a while. A few weeks ago, I went to a screening of a film on women in tech. And as much as the documentary, Balancing Tech, does expose just how dire the state of the industry still is for UK women, it has also inspired me to take unexpected action, precisely for that reason!

The film screening was hosted by the London office of IBM, which is not my normal kind of hangout, and I couldn’t even remember where I got the invite from! And so I found myself, in a bit of a random fashion, in a room full of extremely well-dressed techy women, wondering if I was in the right place. Just for a few minutes though, until the event started. The documentary turned out to be quite informative, especially considering that it is only a short 20 minutes.

But more to the point, the panelists were exquisite! The lineup was hugely diverse, although admittedly all women, with plenty of knowledge and extraordinary experiences to talk about. I couldn’t quite make up my mind as to which question to ask, but I actually got the opportunity to raise two! And the panel really loved my first point, as they spent at least 5 or so minutes addressing it, giving me so many useful tips that they took up about two pages in my notepad! In fact, I was so fired up by the event’s insights that I had to email the Feminist Library team right away, that night. And we’re already planning a new programme of events at the Library, helping women and girls get trained up on useful techy skills!

I couldn’t help but do something! I mean, did you know that, in the UK, less than 16% of tech graduates and 17% of jobs in the industry are done by women?! And that, by 2020, there will be an expected 1 million+ new jobs in the tech industry, and yet the formal educational system is still producing a shortage of around 20,000 skilled workers for the sector every year! The educational establishment can’t keep up with the growth of the tech sector, and yet it still discriminates against women going into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths)!

It seems like an absolute no-brainer to me! If the industry is facing a massive, and widening, skills gap, and it still suffers from an incredible shortage of women, it is about time it has cleaned up its act! And yet, some stereotypes are harder to break than one might think, it appears. It would seem that, considering it is the 21st century, women would not be facing much discrimination getting into IT. Yet, the event also highlighted the many old fashioned attitudes professional tech women still battle with, even at very high level of experience and achievement.

And so, I figured, what better place to train up women in tech skills than the Feminist Library! Producing skills is one thing, but women going into such a male-dominated industry, need to be also ‘battle’ ready. People often say that women in certain professions need to have a ‘thick skin’ in order to survive, which basically means grin and bear it. No! We do not need to face discrimination and pretend like nothing is happening, with big smiles on our faces, but to the contrary – we must challenge stereotypical behaviour, if we’re going to help the industry become more of a welcoming place for women to be at a better rate than it has been so far! Don’t get me wrong, men need to clean up their act too! And the industry needs to try harder too. But it takes a feminist attitude to challenge stereotypes, and effectively make the industry a better place for women as quickly as possible.

And I do realise that the approach does have its flaws. That it might not work for everyone. I don’t think women should be forced into positions that they don’t feel comfortable in. One friend, who works in tech herself, said to me that she is not sure she would want to encourage her daughter to work in an industry that is so male-dominated, as she would fear her child facing harassment. But as much as it pains me to hear that, I don’t think that’s the heart of the issue. The industry is less likely to change its sexist nature if the shortage of women in it persists. And I would never encourage women to do something that they are not comfortable with. It’s more about showing them what is truly possible, at last really breaking the stereotype that women are just not good at math. And then letting them choose – once they truly know all their options.

Plus, it’s not just the environment of the industry that would change with more women in it, but also, quite likely, the nature of its products! With more women in app development, for example, the likelihood is that the technology produced would become more geared towards women’s needs, helping them solve their other problems!

I almost went without mentioning this, but I think perhaps wrongly so, considering that I don’t think that it is a widely known fact that although the gender pay gap is still evident in the tech industry, it is generally smaller than in other areas, and the baseline salaries are much larger for both men and women, at all levels. I can’t help but wonder whether my early career choices might have been different had I known that about 10 years ago. I’m not saying that it’s too late. In fact, I don’t believe that at all, but it is quite possible that my bank balance would have been much healthier now, had I know that then.

Last but not least, the event helped me break some of the tech-related stereotypes stuck in my own head! I used to be one of those women who always say ‘I’m not very techy’ – despite evidence to the contrary! In the short few weeks since, I have gone on to start working on implementing a new database for the Feminist Library, developing the tech training programme, as well as to embark on a programming course to enable me to run trainings like that! Not techy? Well, I am never going to look at my own skills in quite the same way again, that’s for sure!

How does all this relate to the café blog, you might wonder? Apart from the initial bit about the life giving force of inspiration, that is an incredibly useful thing to remember when setting up a business, the Balancing Tech experience has given me some new ideas for new ways to develop the Angels & Witches project. I’m still doing my research into this, so not going to say much more on it now, but do watch this space for more info coming soon!

 

Soft launching again and again, until a space of our own is found…

I have been getting really good at living with frustration since the journey of A&W started. Finding a space for a café in London is quite a challenge, especially if it’s your first business, and you don’t have the kind of disposable budget that Starbucks and Costa do! Especially if the business is a feminist café…

But thanks to that, I have discovered that prolonged frustration can be a good motivating factor! Particularly, if you’re determined enough that something IS going to happen!

Obviously, something’s got to give, sometimes. And so I gave up on the idea that I would have my SPACE for the feminist café within 3 months – as was initially the plan in my head. It’ll probably take longer, in fact, it already has. Much longer.

But that is not reason to give up. Nobody said it was going to be easy. In fact, just the opposite! I just didn’t want to hear it at the beginning…

Despite my initial insistence on sticking to, what seemed to be at the time, THE plan, I also had to eventually admit that it would be smart to soft launch the café idea, before everybody gives up on me, thinking that I had given up! I haven’t! It’s just taken longer than I anticipated…

And so soft-launch it was. Despite my prolonged mental effort against the idea. And, in fact, it was fun! We first started in Brick Lane’s Backyard market at the beginning of this year. Now it’s on to something a bit more local – we’re going to be at the Leytonstone market @ St John’s on the third Saturday in June. With some fresh ideas. Come and say hi if you want to know more about the new secret Angels & Witches ingredient!

As it turns out, sometimes doing something like that – a thing that your brain has been negatively geared towards for a very long time – before actually doing it – can be quite a good thing! Educational for sure. I have learned a lot when testing my idea in front of people. Who would have thought, right?!

Having the stall in Brick Lane was an amazing feedback opportunity. I got quite excited about people’s reactions to my stall. People were positively intrigued by all the different aspects of it – the logo, the motto and the veg muffins! I actually thought, by the end of the first day, that I should have had a hidden camera with me – the expressions on people’s faces when they saw the beet muffin were priceless! Although I doubt that would have been completely in line with my ethical café stance… Nevertheless, it was useful to have that experience. And it warmed my heart to see people smile brightly at the sight of my stall!

Now on the next stage. Leytonstone market should be quite interesting too. And in a different way, because it is much less trendy than Brick Lane, and much more local. Let’s hope that the reactions are just as positive. Fingers crossed!

I do have to admit that the space problem still bothers me, since I am yet to find a solution! Especially since I’ve been involved in the Feminist Library project and the Reclaim Holloway one too, and I know just how precious those feminist spaces are, and how rare… Still – even more reason to keep on pressing on with the idea!

As difficult as it has been to pin down anything resembling a reasonable price, in terms of a space for the café in London, I have not given up hope, and I keep on trying new, inventive ways of getting around the issue. in fact, a space – proper feminist café space – might be closer within my reach than I think these days, after so many failed attempts. After all, aren’t we always just one good idea away from succeeding in whatever it is that we’re trying to do?! Although the jury is still out on this one right at this moment.

I am currently getting more and more pulled in into the world of architecture, which is new and exciting to me. Feminist architecture, obviously!

When I first found out about the concept of live community architecture from this feminist architects collective, I was ecstatic! Perfect, I thought! Finally something that’s going to solve this massive missing building issue for me! I am yet to find out a route into the architectural world that will help me answer the question of whether that is actually the case.

But at least, at last, hope has been restored!