December 20, 2008

What to make of the other half?

Category: Uncategorized — Biella @ 6:42 pm

Many people ask me why there are such few female hackers. While I think this is an important/interesting question (that is also extraordinarily hard to answer), there is another one which has captivated me for much longer, which is the followingL why are there such few females represented in the academic/activist world of free software/free culture, etc.? It seems like every turn I take, there are books galore, talks galore, essays galore being written by men with females sprinkled on top, like some confectionery after thought.

Take for example Joi Ito’s recent photograph collection, Free Souls (women are represented in the beautiful array of photographs) but in the essays which reflect on freedom/free culture/the souls of freedom, there is (I think, correct me if I am wrong), not a single female voice, despite the fact that there were clearly females authors/activists that could have potentially contributed.


1. Lawrence Lessig
Foreword by Lawrence Lessig
2. Christopher Adams
Share this book
3. Joi Ito
Just another free soul
4. Howard Rheingold
Participative Pedagogy for a Literacy of Literacies
5. Lawrence Liang
Free as in Soul: The Anti-image Politics of Copyright
6. Cory Doctorow
You Can’t Own Knowledge
7. Yochai Benkler
Complexity and Humanity
8. Isaac Mao
Sharism: A Mind Revolution
9. Marko Ahtisaari
Intelligent Travel

Now, am I overreacting here; or is this reason for worry?


  1. Well, I’m not a feminism (sex war)fan, though I need it to really be the man I want/ought to be! And thus, I will not be anxious about there is so less women hacking. If that was so important you’d sure hear them

    Do the ones who are involved in GNU/Linux development complain?

    Comment by |/|BaH — December 20, 2008 @ 7:53 pm

  2. Don’t think the book was really about developers…. I don’t think there is reason to ‘worry’ there may be some space for concern, but then there always is when one talks about gender and representation in relation to information technology and business.

    Comment by jeremy — December 21, 2008 @ 5:12 am

  3. I realize it is not about developers. I just used the question of developers as an entryway as that is the question I get all the time.

    It is about free culture more broadly, which is why I find it even more surprising that there are not some female voices (if nothing else, the free culture community is more gender balanced than the free software one).

    I think my reaction is so strong due to my disciplinary roots, which seem far far more gender balanced than that of law and tech. From Mead in the past to Jean Comaroff and Emily Martin in the present, the big names in Anthropology have always included women. I am finding that in the world of law and tech, it is a very different story. There are a few exceptions for sure (Susan Crawford, Julie Cohen etc) but for some reason they are few and far between and are not as prevalent as the male scholars. I just find this interesting because it seems to me something worth discussion, not to spread the blame but to find a solution!

    Comment by Biella — December 21, 2008 @ 5:46 am

  4. I’ve been trying to look into how we got here… First of all, it definitely wasn’t intentional. The process involved a number of suggestions going to the editor and a fairly neutral view on whether it made sense for the context of the book. There was a slight bias towards people who had images in the book.

    The editor tells me that there is also a bias of approximately 4:1 in favor of men in the photographs in the book.

    The response rate of people who sent in one line “What is a Freesouls?” statements is equal for men and women and I guess the response for “would you write an essay?” would have probably been about the same.

    Typically, when I organize a conference, I compensate for the “systemic bias” against women and against non-Americans, but I guess we didn’t really have a compensation mechanism in the process/workflow for getting this book down. I apologize for that and we’ll consider it when/if we do another book.

    It is noteworthy/bad/interesting that no one noticed it until you pointed it out. Thanks.

    Comment by Joi Ito — December 21, 2008 @ 8:00 am

  5. Joi, thanks for the background information and your input.

    Before hitting publish late last night, I had to pause a moment because I was concerned of sounding like a whiner. But I think there is a real lack/problem in this area of advocacy and academic writing, especially when we compare it to other areas of academia. I just finished going through hundreds of applications/files for a job search that is going on in my department and the final list of candidates were equally distributed between men and women and we did not actively go out of our way to make sure there were enough women (in fact, the scholarship and awards from the female media scholars might have even edged out those coming out of the male pool!).

    But one reason I decided to publish is because with some discussion and self-awareness, I think this imbalance can actually be resolved. And indeed, I think that some sort of counter-bias mechanism is warranted for publications. Only when more women are in print–which after all is our currency–will they be taken more seriously and be asked to publish, give talks, etc. etc. But as you noted, there is nothing intentional going on here. It is happening below the radar of awareness so I am sure once we make this issue visible and take some steps, the disparity will (mostly, I hope) vanish.

    Comment by Biella — December 21, 2008 @ 10:39 am

  6. Thanks very much for publishing this post. I agree with you entirely. Joi is a good friend and I know he’s not sexist and the result was unintentional. But I agree that self-awareness and discussion are important when organizing books or conferences or faculties because in our selection process we are ultimately saying to the world: “these are the people we think are important and worth listening to.”

    Comment by Rebecca MacKinnon — December 21, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

  7. As the editor I thought that I should republish here the written contributions that women did make to Joi’s book. This section of quotations is not available on the book’s website yet, but I am including it here to further this important discussion. All passages below are licensed CC-by each respective author:

    A Freesoul knows that the reasonable can be partaken, or shared (metechein). Every product of the reason is sharable, and when we know it is sharable, we know it is reasonable. From antiquity, philosophers have said that the human spirit partakes of something, and that there should be something common in the midst of human spirit, not as fiction but as reality. The more deeply a freesoul can perceive how much it shares with the other, the more such a soul can share its possessions willingly, thus freely. A Freesoul knows the sharable to be the basis of reason, and knows that spontaneous sharing is therefore the goal of human knowledge, beauty and freedom. —KIZU “Britty” Naoko

    A Freesoul was crystallized in the words of Kevin Kelly some years ago: The internet is a gift; it was built by love. Freesouls get a lot of enjoyment out of their days, because they know they’re involved in something terrific, and their lives and their work are indistinguishable. —Susan Crawford

    A Freesoul thirsts to drink from yet untasted streams, and to walk that land beyond the hills. She is at home across the wide world, alone in a crowd, and well-accompanied when alone. She rides with Tennyson’s line: “all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades for ever and for ever when I move.” —Hunter Lovins

    A Freesoul is untethered from human dramas and in step with the universe, mindful and compassionate yet at peace. —danah boyd

    A Freesoul understands how art, technology and life have already morphed to 1 digital single-task, updated nonstop, rhizomatically. There is no more multitasking, ’cause analogue & digital particles are already woven together. Now we need to concentrate on “the whole.” Let’s accept the overwhelming new world! —Elisa Rose

    A Freesoul searches the world to find a way to share their thoughts, dreams and audacious ideas—believing always that the world is full of possibility and that crazy things can happen if you can just keep imagining them. A Freesoul audaciously believes that people want to be free. —Heather Ford

    A Freesoul is the adventurer who appreciates living as an opportunity to learn and grow. Like the tree on the ocean cliffs sculpted by the storms, a Freesoul embraces adversity and knows that transformation makes one unique and beautiful. A Freesoul reaches for honesty like the tree grows toward the sun and is rooted in loving oneself as much as being loved by others. —Alysa Selene

    A Freesoul believes that the right to share is fundamental to the culture, progress and well-being of modern society. —Diane Cabell

    A Freesoul is a joyous soul. —Lisa Goldman

    A Freesoul does not mind being published, ripped, mixed and republished—as they seem to understand—that’s the way the Internet works. —Desiree Miloshevic

    A Freesoul thrives where there is choice. —Peggy Liu

    A Freesoul knows that a moment can be as important as a lifetime and that the moment is the lifetime. —Brigitte Lampert

    Freesoul is a being that unwittingly abandons inhibition to embrace the surrounding environment and embark on a journey of creative exploration as one’s self. —Anna Berthold

    A Freesoul can live in these cash- obsessed times without being compelled to put price-tags on everything they do and consider to be of value. —Carrie van Heyst

    A Freesoul is understands that potential is boundless. Mallika Dutt

    Comment by Christopher — December 21, 2008 @ 10:43 pm

  8. Academic celebrity, especially in the IP field, does seem to be populated more by men (mostly Anglophone) than women. The same might be said to be true for the field of media reform scholarship and advocacy in the U.S. where IP issues still play a minor role. Generally, men are more visible public intellectuals and advocates. There are many reasons for this that I think need to be taken up publicly. The media justice area of advocacy/scholarship, however, is an exception and something worth examining more closely as a model. I would encourage folks to take a look at some of those projects (ex., and this one as well:

    Comment by Becky — December 22, 2008 @ 4:38 am

  9. Furthering the question of a topical bias via a coincidence, I had noted that among the 8 authors of the Digital Youth Project, including Joi’s sister Mizuko, 7 are apparently female. Beyond “youth,” my own interest in pro-socialty seems more aligned with interpersonal and cultural approaches, and female scholars, rather than poli/econ. (Though, not surprisingly, my favorite author on “collective action” is Elinor Ostrom.) Someone pointed out a gender disparity in a PhD seminar on the “Behavioral Perspectives” of “Information Systems Research,” two female profs, 3 female students, and me.

    Comment by Joseph Reagle — December 22, 2008 @ 7:43 am

  10. Thanks Becky. I love those projects and took the Op Ed course. I cannot recommend it enough!

    Thanks Joe: I had not realized that about the Digital Youth Project but I have yet to take a close look at the report. On the whole I would not have minded if a collection of essays was predominantly men, I just have seen a pattern here and know there are women being overlooked so I thought I would mention something!

    Comment by Biella — December 22, 2008 @ 9:43 am

  11. Thanks for pointing this out, Biella, and for doing unapologetically but gently. It would have been nice to see women more represented in this book, and thanks to comments from people like you (as well as the willingness of Joi Ito and Lawrence Lessig to accept constructive criticism) women will most likely be more visible in the next edition.

    Comment by Tracy Mendham — December 23, 2008 @ 5:06 am

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