In 2012, Ellen Lapham, Carol Muller, and Kathy Richardson set out to memorialize the spirit of inspiration that their close friend Anita Borg brought to their lives. The original project, a community blog known as Anita’s Quilt, showcased the array of people whose lives Anita influenced and energized. This year, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Systers—the online community that Anita Borg founded to support women in tech—by republishing some of our favorite Anita’s Quilt stories.
A version of this post was originally published on September 6, 2012.
From 2000 to 2012, I served as Systers Keeper, the lead cat-herder for Systers, the oldest online community for technical women, founded by Anita Borg in 1987. I joined Systers in 1990 after hearing from women friends about the compelling discussions going on there. I wasn’t sure it would be welcoming of me, as someone doing research in human-computer interaction (HCI). I had bachelor’s degree in computer science and math, but I’d gone on to get a doctorate in psychology as a way to understand the human side of computing. I was about as far from the systems origins of Systers as I could be. But Anita accepted me into the group.
When Anita introduced the Mecca system to enable smaller conversations within the group (sorted by a particular geography, conference attendees, mothers, or even basketball fans), I was impressed by what a feat of engineering it was, but also taken aback about how hard it was to use. If you wanted to target a subgroup, you essentially had to write an SQL query: Systems did need HCI after all!
A few years later, when Anita started the Institute for Women and Computing, I offered to help define the next-generation Systers platform. This led to my company, Sun Microsystems, loaning me to the Institute quarter-time for three years to help define and build such a system.
While this was going on, I stayed very active with Systers as a way to understand what the members really needed in a communication platform. At the time, the Institute was a very small organization and even volunteers were involved in helping define its future. When Anita took ill, I slid into serving as a “Systers Keeper without Portfolio” to keep the group from going rudderless. But eventually it became clear that Anita was not going to be able to take back the reins and I formally became Systers Keeper. It was not supposed to be a long term role for me; I couldn’t imagine how I would fit these responsibilities into my busy life. But it brought me so much joy, so much pride, that the hours I spent working on and with Systers were some of the best hours of my week.
I’ve heard from individual Systers about how the group kept them from dropping out of grad school, helped them deal with harassment, gave them the confidence to take on a new role or leave a toxic advisor, or supported them combining work and motherhood. I also hear about women doing wonderful things to help other women and girls get involved with technology. I’m told these stories—some of which play out on the list itself, while others evolve from private discussions—all the time. They make me incredibly proud to be of service to this amazing group of women.
People ask me what lessons I have learned from Systers over the years. I will share two. First, it takes a village of technical women to raise a technical woman. Support makes a huge difference in how they perceive themselves, how they persevere, and how likely they are to advance in their field. If you are a technical woman, please join Systers; I’m confident it will make a difference in your life. And, second, if you want something done, find a busy woman and convince her to do it.
There are so many things we can do to engage and support girls and women on their path to becoming accomplished technical woman; the most compelling things are typically done by a small group of committed people. You’re probably too busy to run Systers, just like I was. But if you start something that you are passionate about, you will find the time to do it, and you will make a difference.
Do you have a story of persistence that honors Anita’s legacy? Share it with us for a chance to be featured here.