“Free as in Sexist?”: Sexism in the Free Culture Movement

The introduction to my draft on free culture and sexism:

In the summer of 2010, David Finsher and Aaron Sorkin’s film about the beginnings of Facebook (“The Social Network”) attracted much discussion about the portrayal of women in geeky projects. Tracy Clark-Flory, writing for Salon.com, wrote the film prompts the question of why “women in one of the greatest Web innovations” were “one-dimensional characters playing gold-diggers, drunken floozies and that ‘bitch’ who got away?” (Clark-Flory2010fpo). Similarly, Rebecca Davis O’Brien, writing for The Daily Beast, noted that while one might argue the film merely represents “the gender divisions and inequalities at Harvard,” it recapitulates those divisions by portraying women through the eyes of the male antiheroes, that is, as “doting groupies, vengeful sluts, or dumpy, feminist killjoys.” (OBrien2010sns)

This popular discussion about female participation and representation paralleled recent discourse by participants in the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement. Skud, a blogger at Geek Feminism, noted that 2009 was “shaping up to be a watershed year for women in open source. We have seen numerous high profile incidents where men have made remarks in conference presentations which have dismissed, marginalised, or upset women.” (Skud2009olm) In late 2010, the conversation moved beyond offensive presentations to active discrimination, harassment, and assault among conference participants (Shirley2011ht, Aurora2010inj).

What seems most startling in light of decades of work on bias in technology-related fields is how an imbalance in participation not only persists, but is exacerbated in communities founded upon the liberal values of freedom and openness. Furthermore, this effect is present in projects like Wikipedia, which need not be overly technical (the focus of earlier literature) but share the liberal values and geeky esprit of the software communities.

Hence, I argue there is a free culture effect that arises from the culture, dynamics, and values of these communities and that contributes to the gender gap. First, free culture can be unappealing to those unable or unwilling to hew to the stereotypical features of the online geek (i.e., an identity associated with an intense and narrow interest and argumentative style). Also, the openness of such communities means that a minority of high-conflict members (including, for example, a sincere misogynist or an insincere troll) can have a disproportionate affect on the tone and dynamics of the community. Finally, the ideology and rhetoric of freedom and openness can then be used to (a) suppress concerns by labeling them as draconian or “censorship” and to (b) rationalize low female participation as simply a matter of women’s personal preference and choice.

Hence, while a founding aphorism of the free software movement was “free as in freedom” to distinguish between that which is free (gratis, as in someone buying you a beer) and freedom (libre, as is in few or no restrictions), this freedom might also contribute to an imbalance in female participation.

Comments !