Open Codex HISTORICAL entry

2012 Sep 25 | Gender in F/LOSS

Dawn Nafus has published an excellent paper entitled “Patches Don’t Have Gender”: What is not Open in Open Source Software. When I read it, I did so with some trepidation as I feared it might render my draft Free as in Sexist redundant. However, while we make a similar argument, we do go about it in different and complementary ways.

Despite the title, which is quoting a man on the supposed neutrality of code, Nafus’ argument is better reflected in the subtitle: “what is not open in open source software.” In short:

In Free as in Sexist? I make a similar argument: that geekiness, openness, and freedom – things I otherwise laud – are at the heart of the imbalance. That is, some geek identities can be narrow and unappealing, open communities are especially susceptible to difficult people who are especially alienating to women, and the ideas of freedom and openness can be used to dismiss concerns and rationalize the gender gap as a matter of preference and choice.

Interestingly, Christina Dunbar-Hester and Gabriella Coleman have posted a rebuttal of Nafus’ piece entitled Engendering Change? Gender Advocacy in Open Source. (Nafus makes use of Coleman’s work on liberalism in hacker culture.) Dunbar-Hester and Coleman argue that:

However, while I have enormous respect (and gratitude) towards Biella, I do not find their response convincing. While I agree that recent advocacy and discourse is heartening (e.g., too of my favorites are GeekFeminism and AdaCamp) this is an (important) beginning rather than proof that substantive progress has been made. Furthermore, as I argue, it only takes a few “bad apples” among a barrel of sympathetic allies to render the environment toxic. Finally, I think the point on gender hacking is techno-utopian. Indeed, both Nafus and I note Eric Raymond’s early musing as an example of this; he made the questionable claim that hacker culture is more gender balanced because of participants’ geeky enthusiasms:

after all, if one’s imagination readily grants full human rights to future AI programs, robots, dolphins, and extraterrestrial aliens, mere color and gender can’t seem very important any more. [Raymond1991jf]

Instead, I – and I think Nafus – share the disappointment of Lisa Nakamura who realized, in the late 90s even, that all the talk about gender irrelevance or fluidity in cyberspace came to naught. While one might have found some ungendered or queered performances online, one was more likely to find white men playing as Mr. Sulu or as a libidinous geisha [Nakamura1998rci].

None-the-less, I find all of this to be important and fascinating and thank Nafus, Dunbar-Hester, and Coleman for the engaging reading.

2012 Jul 02 | Keeping up? Fun or work?

In Nafus’ piece on Patches Don’t Have Gender there is a statement that initially puzzled me. Nafus writes:

New programming languages similarly proliferate at a rate that confounds everyone involved…. We experienced exactly this problem in learning to participate in the F/LOSS community in Paris. What at first was a trade-off between learning the native language of the field and getting on with the ethnography subsequently turned out to be a never-ending spiral of new technical forms of which community members were themselves challenged to keep on top. [Nafus2010pdh, p. G77]

Keeping up is certainly a challenge, and I have encountered evidence this may contribute to burnout and infocide. However, I think for a lot of computer geeks, knowing and playing with the latest and greatest technology is also enjoyable; if it is a spiral, it is a fun spiral. (Especially, if in one’s job entails staid technology.) Christina Dunbar-Hester, in Geeks, Meta-Geeks, and Gender Trouble: Activism, Identity, and the Low-Power FM Radio, recognizes this issue when she writes:

sometimes during downtime between ‘productive’ activities, the geeks were simply playing (as in the example of Simon listening to the data transmission while needed files were downloading). Since Geek Group was a leisure activity, regular participants were likely to be people who found the radio tinkering enjoyable, as opposed to finding it hard, unfamiliar work. Novices may feel intimidated by being unable to fully contribute to not only work but also play; some technical expertise or vocabulary could be equally required to make or get the geeks’ jokes as to diagnose a broken transmitter. [Dunbar-Hester2008gms, p. 220]

Very interesting! And I think this may explain some resistance to attempts to broaden participation by some men: geeking is not supposed to be something one works at or must be encouraged to do; it is fun and seemingly innate. (Of course, this intuition is often made in the context of not being discouraged – even if implicitly – from pursuing the geek path.)

2012 Jun 27 | Is the Internet convincing women not to study computer science?

I recently encountered Beth Andres-Beck’s (2012) interesting note asking is reading the Internet convincing women not to study computer science? I find her affirmative conclusion compelling as she shows:

  1. an increasing gap in interest in C.S. between men and women post-Internet (1996) in the U.S.;
  2. a negative correlation within other countries once the Internet is introduced;
  3. a negative correlation across countries: countries with pervasive access tend to have suppressed CS interest by women.

The one exception is “the group of Mediterranean nations that show a positive correlation.” Andres-Beck surmises these differences are cultural, to which I am sympathetic. As I write in Free as in Sexist: The Gender Gap in the Free Culture Movement

Related figures do indicate that these imbalances are significantly affected by social context. (It is more than a simple choice by individuals.) For example, among Wikipedians who gender-identify in their profile, women are 12% of the Wikipedians on the German encyclopedia but 23% of those at the Russian one (Reagle 2011). Also, 40 years ago there were few women in computing. Eventually women began to enter the field with their share of computer-related positions peaking in the 1980s – but declining since (NCWIT 2007). Contemporaneously, culture and environment can be significant determinants of women’s participation in computing. One can see this in the micro-cultures of a particular college or programming methodology as well as in cultures where computing is seen as a good career path rather than a masculine or personality-driven type activity (e.g., Palestine, Qatar, and Malaysia) (Blum et al. 2008; Lagesen 2008).

Andres-Beck, Beth. 2012. “Is Reading the Internet Convincing Women Not to Study Computer Science?.”

Blum, Lenore, Carol Frieze, Orit Hazzan, and M. Bernadine Dias. 2008. A Cultural Perspective on Gender Diversity in Computing. Proceeding of the 2008 Conference on Current Issues in Computing and Philosophy. Amsterdam: IOS Press.

Lagesen, Vivian Anette. 2008. A Cyberfeminist Utopia?: Perceptions of Gender and Computer Science Among Malaysian Women Computer Science Students and Faculty. Vol. 33. Sage Publications.

NCWIT. 2007. “NCWIT Scorecard 2007: A Report on the Status of Women in Information Technology.”

Reagle, Joseph. 2011. “Comparative ‘Gender Gaps.’”

2012 Jun 06 | Female Internet pioneers: A history yet to be done

Legal scholars have a saying that hard cases (i.e., unusual/confused) make bad law (i.e., legal decisions). The recent lead in a story about sexual harassment in IT venture capital is probably a poor case for me to write something sensible. But the claim that “men invented the Internet” prompted an interesting discussion on the AIR list that is worth pointing out. Among the many excellent posts:

  1. Deen Freelon notes the lead really has nothing to do with the story.
  2. Burcu Bakioglu, Charlie Breindahl, Jeremy Hunsinger and Meelis Ojasild note the idea of invention is a simplification of complex and interrelated events.
  3. Steven Lovaas notes “the” Internet is actually a network of networks.
  4. Tara Conley notes a number of (now) famous women who contributed to information technology.

While these are valid and interesting points, I confess I find them unsatisfying. If we stick with the commonsensical understanding of the lead, without recourse to unpacking “invention,” expanding what we mean by the Internet, or invoking Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace, what can we conclude? What if we purposefully looked for women pioneers of the Internet and found that only 10%, or 1%, or even 0% of them are women? I would claim this is more a reflection of society than the worth of women. (Though, I admit, this is not the inference most people draw, and is not as potent tactically in mainstream discourse.) In any case, who were some of the notable female contributors to the Internet?

Virginia Strazisar

Sadly, around 10% is a common figure when it comes to women in some IT-related endeavors. (Of the 9 women listed, 56% (5/9) have Wikipedia pages atleast!) In any case, unfortunately, the contributions, perspectives, and history of these women have simply not been captured yet – to the best of my knowledge of course.

2011 Sep 02 | Gender Bias in Wikipedia and Britannica

The International Journal of Communication has published Lauren Rhue's and my paper on "Gender Bias in Wikipedia and Britannica". The method of crawling the sites, the large size of the comparison, and the guessing of genders were interesting technical challenges that once addressed permitted us to write:

Abstract: Is there a bias in the against women's representation in Wikipedia biographies? Thousands of biographical subjects, from six sources, are compared against the English-language Wikipedia and the online Encyclopædia Britannica with respect to coverage, gender representation, and article length. We conclude that Wikipedia provides better coverage and longer articles, that Wikipedia typically has more articles on women than Britannica in absolute terms, but Wikipedia articles on women are more likely to be missing than articles on men relative to Britannica. For both reference works, article length did not consistently differ by gender.

I think this work is a complement to the Lam, Uduwage, Dong, et. al (2011) paper that will be presented at WikiSym: "WP:Clubhouse? An exploration of Wikipedia's Gender Imbalance." Whereas we look at content across sources, their paper is able to draw connections between the gender of contributors and their contributions. One area of overlap is that in "WP:Clubhouse" there is evidence of a gender gap in article length except in the domains of Nobel Prize winners and recipients of the Academy award, that is in biographies. In this regard -- with respect to biographies of notable people -- we agree and write in the conclusion that "if a subject is deemed notable enough to warrant inclusion in Wikipedia and Britannica, then the subjects, regardless of gender, may be treated similarly by the contributors."

Complete HTML tables from the analysis as well as the data used in the analysis are available online.

2006 Dec 07 | Gendered Spaces

The announcement of a "WikiChix" list for female only discussion has prompted a huge thread on WikiEN-l. As previously seen in discussion about an administrator only IRC channel or email list, proposals for separate spaces are particular troubling to communities with liberal egalitarian ideals. Formally excluding anyone from the larger community prompts questions of: is this fair?, is this discriminatory?, shouldn't we ensure the common space is accessible rather than spinning off groups? Of course, the free speech ideals of the community would not permit the restriction of speech in the common space in any case and there will always those that would want to test any boundaries. (I'm fond of the norm of Do not disrupt Wikipedia to illustrate a point for this reason.) In my response to the thread I wrote:

... In my informal observation of similar communities, I haven't perceived a decrease in female presence after the provisioning of a female space. A counter hypothesis is that: women who have a more supportive space to fall back upon will become more comfortable in speaking in the common spaces.

In any case, the presumption of equality and the objection to separate spaces -- as this thread evidences -- is quite interesting, and happens again, and again, and again! :) Wilson (2003) notes such discussions orbit a *presumption* of equality.

In order to defend their views of a just world and equality, three strategies have been adopted by the participants in the study:

1. The situation is changing (and men seem to believe this)

2. Men and women are seen as equal but different -- women do not enjoy competing as much. This would be supported by the data from both the questionnaires and interviews where women were using computers less, have less confidence in their abilities, and are more attracted to the arts.

3. There is a misperception that computing and technology is for males.

(Wilson 2003:138)

The interesting consequence is that even if there is gender bias no action on the part of females is taken because (1) those females who believe there are equal opportunities will see no reason for action; (2) those who believe there is a misperception or that women feel less confident will be tolerant of encouragement for women, but they are also content see the status quo maintained; and (3) the women who believe in their equal abilities do not want to be singled out for special treatment and may therefore "count themselves out and express ambivalence" (p. 138).

In the end, the WikiChix list was moved from being hosted by Wikimedia, which might carry the presumption of endorsing exclusive discrimination, to a non-Wikipedia host.

Open Communities, Media, Source, and Standards

by Joseph Reagle