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:

  • There is no shortage of F/LOSS incidents in which women are sexualized, the target of hurtful and offensive talk, or are compelled to school men or serve as exemplars.
  • Liberal feminism and F/LOSS take equality to mean minimizing gender differences and seeing technology as a neutral tool.

    • However, the supposed gender-blindness of technology is a myth that is “unwilling to acknowledge the materially obvious ways in which the participation had been socially shaped” (p. 676). For instance, while the criteria of success for commercial and “stable” code might be efficacy and performance; F/LOSS and higher-status development typically entails argument and advocacy (i.e., pushyocracy).
    • This myth, which many people (men and women) might aspire to is problematic: “To have to argue that gender is both something utterly artificial and meaningless and yet very real puts these advocates in an interpretive bind regarding what is and is not real. This is a central, vexing bind critical to F/LOSS production” (p. 675).
  • While leaders might recognize the imbalance in women’s participation (at 2%) they reject any possible course of action. One such man at a conference balked at such suggestions: “This was not because he believed our suggestions were likely to be ineffective; his obvious discomfort revealed that women’s absence posed fewer problems than the method to change it” (p. 674).

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:

  • gender in F/LOSS is more complex than Nafus portrays.
  • this is evidenced by women friendly/advocacy projects within F/LOSS, and the many men who supported those projects. For instance, Debian Women had much support and the the imbalance was recognized as a bug even in their bug tracking system.
  • there is an increasing level of discourse about gender and sexism in F/LOSS.
  • in this space some see gender as being like any other technology that is hackable, and allows us to ask questions as to why the way things are, and something to hack on [Dunbar-HesterColeman2012ecg, p. 3].

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.

Ported/Archived Responses

Biella Coleman on 2012-07-02

Hey Joe,

Thanks for moving the conversation forward.

I don’t think we said substantive progress has been made. Our very first sentence (I think) states otherwise: [The numbers of women in the field of computer science are dismal and even worse in the arena of FLOSS; a widely-cited study showed that only 1.5% of FLOSS practitioners were women (as compared with 28% in proprietary software)].

But we do find it key to address the proliferation of initiatives that go back to 2005. This is not to disagree with the premise that there is a problem. We simply disagree that gender is “off topic” as a discursive issue. It is ON TOPIC and has been addressed in wikis, lists, in conferences. If you knew nothing about open source and read that piece, you would never even know this important historical fact.

And despite a healthy dose of discourse, we still think and say there is still a problem so we need to look at other dynamics as well. The problem goes way way deeper than open source as well. That is, even if open source became the least toxic place in the universe and there will still be a problem, which is more disturbing. It concerns things like the fact that many open source developers started working on computers at the age of 5, 6, 7, 8 and woman start much later. It has to do also with the difficulties of holding full time jobs and parenting (hobbies on top of it are a total luxury) and it has to do with internal dynamics in FLOSS.

We are not trying to paint a rosy picture nor be FLOSS apologists and we are quite explicit about it but we trying to bring to the table the two elements–massive initiative that have taken place and the politics of sexuality–that are are rarely put on the table.

Christina Dunbar-Hester on 2012-07-02

Hi Joe,

Chiming in, thanks much for your comments.  I wanted to clarify that our main goal in bringing up the issues around “hacking on gender” is not to say that because this is a priority for (some) participants, it is necessarily a simple proposition or one we take at face value. (In fact, much of my other research centers on the recurring problems of activist technical communities who, in projecting emancipatory politics onto technology, are surprised and dismayed when they import entrenched historical patterns of exclusion surrounding technology along with the technology itself.)  So I completely agree with you that to say “we can just hack away the gender problem” is techno-utopian. 

What we are instead trying to point out is that empirically, there is a salient contingent of people in hacker and FLOSS communities doing non-binary gender (and not just online); without intending to re-inflate a “post-gender”, utterly fluid and utopian notion of identity that has been critiqued so well by Nakamura among others, this is something that a researcher of gender in these spaces has to acknowledge.  At the same time, we wanted to point out the issue of heteronormativity and remind researchers that we have theoretical tools that enable us to not exclusively reinscribe masculinity onto men and femininity onto women (which doesn’t mean we should be ignoring the work of hegemonic masculinities and femininities in sites we study).  As Nafus writes in her response to our paper, we should attend to “what heteronormativity does for F/LOSS, alongside documenting the ways in which marginalized sexualities gain space”.

Joseph Reagle on 2012-07-02

Biella and Christina, thank you for the comments clarifying your position. (And Christine, I just posted another blog item mentioning your paper on Geeks.)

Comments !