GirlCrew to gather at the Web Summit

31 Oct 2014

Elva Carri (second from left) and GirlCrew members enjoy a day of rock-climbing. Photo courtesy of Elva Carri

GirlCrew, an online and offline community for women, has organised a pop-up group for the upcoming Web Summit, offering a welcoming space for females at a traditionally male-dominated event.

Next week, the Web Summit in the RDS – and satellite events around the city of Dublin as well as other parts of the country – expects to play host to 20,000 visitors from around the world.

While an event of such a massive scale has vast potential for networking, sometimes attendees will just want to chill out and grab a coffee with a friendly face. At a busy event at which one person is only likely know a fragment of the vast swathe of attendees, and those few friends and acquaintances aren’t necessarily going to be free for a coffee or lunch at the same time, arranging casual meet-ups can be tricky.

What’s more, the traditionally male-dominated tech industry has struggled to create safe and welcoming spaces for women, particularly at events and conferences. In an effort to adjust its male-heavy attendance, the Web Summit set aside €250,000 worth of free tickets for female developers, designers and founders and committed to adding more women to its speakers list.

Elva Carri, founder, GirlCrew
Elva Carri, the woman behind GirlCrew

But one independent group is hoping to go that extra step to connect and support the women of the Web Summit with WowCrew, a Facebook group for anyone interested, whether attending the main event or associated fringe events.

Taking over Tinder

WowCrew is a temporary off-shoot of GirlCrew, a dedicated Facebook group for women.

GirlCrew started in March this year when Elva Carri, a Tinder user, decided to use the app for a purpose other than finding a date. She switched her settings to appear as a male seeking women so that she could connect with women in her local area and replaced her profile picture with an image explaining that she was just looking for some female company for a night out.

“I wanted to just go out and my friends didn’t feel like it that night,” she explained.

“But I matched with so many girls I couldn’t even reply to them all. So I set up a Facebook group and just copied and pasted the link to about 100 matches and it’s just grown since then!”

Within a few hours, Carri got her night out with a bevy of new friends and GirlCrew was born.

Since that fateful night, GirlCrew members have gathered for nights out, gigs, brunches, holidays in the sun, bubble soccer, hillwalking, afternoon coffee, surfing in Bundoran, pool tournaments and even just chats after a hard (or good) day. They have even welcomed male friends to the odd meet-up.

“You name it, the group has probably done it. And there are groups in various cities in Ireland now and also London and New York,” said Carri.

The group also stays connected online and its members have even been involved in some online hijinx, such as replacing all of their Tinder profile pictures with headshots of Mary Robinson and confusing users across the country.

GirlCrew's Mary Robinson prank on Tinder
A GirlCrew member’s profile switched to the iconic Mary Robinson. Photo via Imgur

“We went with Mary Robinson on the basis that she’s an inspiring, strong woman and that it would up the ante of conversations with guys for the day,” said Carri.

“We expected it to be funny. We did not expect it to get quite as much attention as it did!”

Why the Web Summit pop-up?

For Carri, GirlCrew Dublin was something that immediately felt supportive.

“It wasn’t just about fun,” she said.

“Girls have supported each other through all sorts of things, and helped each other find jobs and houses. I think as it’s female-only and a ‘closed’ group, people feel safe enough there to ask things they might not ask in an entirely public space online. And friendships have formed through all of that as much as from the activities,” she explained.

The pop-up WowCrew will help women attending the Web Summit to pre-arrange meet-ups as well as facilitating more serendipitous encounters by giving them a space to simply ask, ‘Is anyone free for a coffee?’

Carri not only sees this as a handy way to make connections, she also believes it can be GirlCrew’s contribution to changing the gender ratio at the Web Summit.

“The Web Summit has been making efforts to get more female speakers and attendees, but the idea of going to it on your own might hold you back,” she said.

“If you already have a crew, who you can chat and meet up with before you even walk in the doors, it’s a bit of a confidence boost. It’s less intimidating, perhaps, and you have a ‘safe space’ to go to if you need something.”

Addressing the elephant-sized gender gap in the room

There are many documented reasons for Carri believing a safe space for women at a tech event is needed, and it was one particular story about a woman who had been sexually assaulted at a conference that struck her. However, it’s hard to define which incident she could be referring to having seen a litany of such accusations on this timeline from the Geek Feminism Wiki.

“While I’m 100pc sure those incidents are less common than the positive experiences, I would hate for a woman to feel disempowered or hurt in any aspect of her life, including in her career,” she said.

Carri acknowledges that there are no quick fixes or easy answers to the endemic problem of gender inequality.

“It’s easy to say I think all men need to listen to and respect women in the same way they do men, but inequality is a deep and broad issue. Changing attendance ratios at male-dominated events or in male-dominated industries is going to come as much from changing advertising’s portrayal of women, to changing how teachers relate to male and female students in playschool,” she said.

GirlCrew at Giant's Causeway

GirlCrew members visit the Giant’s Causeway. Photo courtesy of Elva Carri

However, Carri said, a simple first step is giving women a voice, a microphone, or a platform – and for women to accept this opportunity.

“We have to be ready when they ask for our opinion or ask us to speak – or just yell it out if they haven’t asked,” she said.

Carri also issued the Web Summit’s commitment to adding more female speakers to the bill with a challenge.

“Rather than ‘making efforts’ to have more female speakers, something like the Web Summit needs to make a defiant move like deciding it is going to be 50:50 and not compromising on that. There are enough amazing women in these areas to do it,” she said.

Welcoming women from around the world

If anything, the question of whether a group such as WowCrew is needed is answered in its popularity. Over 150 members have now joined – including the self-proclaimed Michael Bay of business and founder of MakeLoveNotPorn Cindy Gallop – and 30 or so have signed up to a pre-Summit meet-up on Monday evening.

“The great thing is there are women joining from all over the globe, so everyone’s there helping each other figure out last-minute accommodation, or transport from the airport, or where to go running in the mornings, as well as sharing why they’re going and what they work at, telling each other about their amazing start-ups that they’ve founded, and asking for advice on who to see and how to best take advantage of everything the Web Summit offers,” said Carri.

GirlCrew at the races

Photo courtesy of Elva Carri

While women-only spaces are not a gender-equal solution, their existence is still necessary to many women.

“I don’t want to exclude men or create an imbalance in the wrong direction, and I would love to create something equally supportive for men, but there’s something in this that’s special and that I haven’t experienced anywhere else online,” said Carri.

“I’ve experienced it in real life with friends, my sisters, my mum, girls I’ve met in the ladies room and countless other situations. Girls know how to love and support and care for each other but also how to cheer each other and congratulate each other on wins in the coolest way. I’ve seen girls be so honest and open in the groups that I wonder if we just don’t feel comfortable sharing all our queries or worries in front of men,” she mused.

Men could do with similar support

The next steps for Carri and GirlCrew are about spreading the word, promoting the London and New York branches and seeing more groups established in other cities. Carri has also noted the limitations of operating solely on Facebook and sees opportunities to build an app or a platform on the horizon.

“I have a list of what it would need if any developers out there would like to team up!” she said.

GirlCrew keeps her busy alongside having a full-time job, but passion drives Carri forward. Who knows, she may even establish BoyCrew if she gets the time.

“I enjoy musing about how something like this would work for men. It feels sort of odd to have started something that is so fun and lovely but is for women-only. I love it, but I actually get a bit upset when I think about all the men who could so with something similar,” she said.

“Maybe someone else will figure that out and I can just high five them for it!”

GirlCrew surfing

Photo courtesy of Elva Carri

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.