September 1, 2009

Hello Ladies (aka learning from the lady geeks)

Category: Academic,Debian,Geek,Gender,Politics — Biella @ 6:48 am


Whenever I attend Debconf, the first day is always a bit disorienting due to the confluence of jet lag with the sea of male programmers swarming at the venue. I am not sure I should be admitting this but one of the first things that pops to mind is the very cheesy one hit wonder whose video is filled with many bikini clad men, Its raining men.

So for a few hours, maybe a day, I sometimes feel out of place but this this first wave of discomfort usually gives way to comfort. This is not only because I connect with friends but because Debconf as well as many other hacker events—and this sits in marked contrast to professional academic conferences—are remarkably accepting of diversity and difference, at least that has been my personal experience. Most notably, people could care less about how you look, disabilities are consistently accommodated, and some things, like gender changing, which would raise serious eyebrows for instance in most academic conferences, is accepted with next to no gossip.

I raise this because this is how I personally have experienced the world of Free Software: overwhelming male but overwhelming accepting of difference as well. So even while I think it is key to confront the problems of discrimination in this world, it is not a simple story, for again, it is an environment that is also accommodates difference and quirkiness to some notable degree.

The question of gender in F/OSS is complicated one and here I am not going to ruminate on sources of gender bias except to say that I am sure there are some in operation (as there are in most domains)–some of which are internal to Free Software and other’s external to Free Software. But what I have been struck by, especially over the course of the summer, is the explosion of sites, blogs, and debates that have confronted gender in Free Software. It has been nothing short of astounding and a really positive turn.

The most notable example is this AWEEEEEEEEEEESOME pair: a wiki and a blog that confront gender head on. These are notable because the wiki, for example, catalogs all sorts of controversial events, comments on them, leaving a very visible trace of debate, one that is necessary to change the gender make-up and dynamic within Free Software project.

Along with these, the FSF is finally hosting a min-summit, which is great (less great is that participation seems invite only but perhaps they have some good reasons for doing so). And today I just learned of this diversity page coming out the Python project.

These are perfect examples of the recursive public in action raised in Chris Kelty’s work. And I have long been impressed with the dialogue that has followed from some controversial events in the world of Free Software, including those related to gender and this summer seems to be a watershed of sorts and I look forward to their developments over time.

Indeed and this may be controversial as well, but I think my academic field—of media, law, and culture –has something to learn from these gender politics for there are some very real, though probably unintentional forms of discrimination that are not under that much active discussion.

The most glaring problem is the underwhelming presence of female scholars during conferences (and as we know, conferences are exceedingly important for one’s professional development and career). What I find most striking about this trend is the number of female scholars is significant. That is, when it comes to scholars and this seems different from the world of tech, there is a sizable community of women scholars and activists so when there is a 5% female participation , as for example, with this event, one has to wonder why is it raining men at these conferences?

It also seems that while the debate exists, it is not as vibrant as with what is going on right now in F/OSS. Take for example, this recent mailing list post which unapologetically highlighted the lack of female presence in the up and coming Free Culture event at the Berkman Center.

While the post generated a handful of thoughtful responses, including this supremely classic, biting, and quite clever response from Georgetown professor Julie Cohen, the debate did not linger on (however short, the posts and discussion were quite fruitful).

What to do? Frankly, blame and finger pointing are pretty counterproductive, mostly because the “discrimination” is quite unintentional and I believe change can be brought about via more constructive paths. More important is we need to make the issue visible, identify some possible sources, and then create projects that can remedy the problem. Along with Elizabeth Stark, who has also been keen to note and change the gender problems, I am currently whipping together a wiki with a list of female scholars, leaders, and technologists as a resource for folks organizing conferences. We already have a base list (with a remarkably long list of folks) and will hopefully in the course of the next month throwing it up on the wiki. I don’t think it will ever be as cool as the Geek Feminism Wiki but it will hopefully do some good!


  1. Reading this post, I suddenly managed to put my finger on the difficult-to-explain aversion to the various “women in FOSS” (or more generally “diversity in FOSS”) efforts, and I wonder if this observation might help with some of those efforts.

    As you said, the FOSS world has an “overwhelming accepting of difference”. This primarily comes from fundamentally only caring about the words someone says or the contributions they make, rather than any superficial facet. I certainly hold that view.

    I think that some of the aversion I’ve seen to the various “women in FOSS”/”diversity in FOSS” movements comes from the same place: not believing that we should think about those kinds of facets of people, and not wanting to start doing so now when we’ve *not* done so thus far, even if for good reasons.

    I’d love to see a movement that tried to keep this fundamental issue in mind: rather than focusing on a particular kind of perceived bias, consider that the vast majority of hackers have a fundamental *non*-bias, and thus focus on two things:
    1) Dealing with the few cases of true bias that do come up, by LARTing the idiots that have such bias, and
    2) Dealing more generally with the various issues of hostility, unfriendly atmosphere, and so on, that we really should never have put up with in the first place.

    I suspect such an effort would get a far better reception. At a minimum, it would help if some of the existing movements would acknowledge the existing hacker trait of non-bias, and work with it, rather than triggering the reflex hackers have of maintaining that non-bias.

    Does that make any sense?

    Comment by Anonymous — September 1, 2009 @ 7:53 am

  2. I am a senior instructor at a career college. Got my BA in Anthro, and a MS in IT. I co-authored a textbook on hacking tools and security practices, and have studied the (largely imaginary) concept of security since 78. I feel like we got to the same destination by different routes since you did your Anthro PhD on the culture of hacking.
    The original cause of the disparity of gender in Open Source may go all the way back to the differences in childhood training of boys and girls. Statistically girls are better in maths than the boys are, at least until the 7th grade or so (or so I have read). Suddenly women are less interested or less supported in math and science and the similarly suddenly men are more interested or better supported. I think the hormone overloads at that time of life for everybody lead to several years where everybody is confused. The more supported cultural roles are so immensely ubiquitous that hardly anybody breaks out in a whole new way. The hegemony allows only a certain set of ‘allowed choices’ for anybody.
    The disparity may also have a socioeconomic base. Higher-income, middle-class families echo the values of education more strongly than do less-advantaged families. Plainly this is an area where taboos keep the study down.
    I agree that the gender bias in open source being unconscious and unintended by the practitioners. Maybe our action as activists to effect change in the gender balance would be more effective if we address the training of young parents, so their babies have a worldview of acceptance and ‘exploration approval’ instead of the deep suspicion of the unknown that keeps so many people in their proscribed paths.
    My students are trying to develop career paths and FOSS development doesn’t appear to them to be a fruitful path toward this goal at first blush. Total revamp of an adult’s base assumptions may be so improbable that it cannot be addressed at all. I don’t know what conversion experience might set more women on the path where FOSS contribution makes sense, even as a hobby.

    Comment by Wolf Halton — September 1, 2009 @ 8:11 am

  3. Thanks for the link love :) The GF wiki sure could use some discussion/links/etc on the proportion of women at academic conferences in geek-related fields! Would you be interested in adding some of the stuff from this post to the wiki?

    Comment by Kirrily Robert — September 1, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

  4. Thanks for the post. I’m writing about the digital liberties movement (a term I’m using to bring together FOSS/creative commons/online civil liberties/etc), and have shied away from writing about gender so far because I felt a bit overwhelmed and didn’t know where to start. This post gave me a bit of a kick-start :)

    Comment by sky — September 1, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

  5. Hi everyone,

    Thanks for the posts. I want to first comment on the anon quote which I found very provocative (in a good way) and out into play with Wolf’s comments.

    First I think your point that the cases of explicit bias is often the result of a loud mouth dingbat is definitely the case. That is, there has been a lot more support and mentoring but the loudmouths who spout shit, get a lot of the attention at least in the case of Debian (Caveat: Different projects can have very different organizational and social logics so I don’t know if they work the same–and I am sure some are more or less welcoming and that might be a fascinating study).

    But there are wider roadblocks/biases at work as Wolf has rightfully pointed out and I guess the question becomes is it the role of Free Software projects to take up the slack?

    I think part of the answer is: well if some folks feel it to be a problem, well yes, if they take the initiative to start things like Debian-women, for example. And I see the Feminism Geek wiki along similar lines. A group of female geeks who identify as such took the initiative to start a project that could help in some regards and in this way they follow the DIY, project oriented, get things done spirit that is part and parcel of FLOSS philosophy and practice.

    That said, I think your point that there are broader, non-identity specific initiatives to consider is a great point. The Python diversity page linked above is perhaps some incipient example of this as it does not identify one form of bias but is a general primer that includes material not just on gender, abelism, but addresses general questions of politeness, attitude and such. These are as important as they may work to shut out people of all colors, stripes, and kind.

    In the end–and this is perhaps another post–there are some real strengths and real limits to identity based politics. One of the strengths is that it has potential to mobilize around a specific set of experiences, such as being a female/women etc, which is a reality. There are gender specific social roles and expectations whether we like it or not :-)

    On the other hand, identity based politics can also overly reify these roles so that categories become frozen and at times and worse, exclusionary roles/identities. There is a pretty robust literature that has explored some of the limits and possibilities that follow from an identity based politics and I think they can be applied to the case at hand.

    In the end, I support the geek feminism wiki and do so fully all the while recognizing there are some limits in so far as there might be more inclusive strategies. That said, for me, that does not delete the worthiness and current necessity of the project: it just might mean that in future times, it can grow into something else from feedback and debate.

    Comment by Biella — September 1, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

  6. @Biella: I want to explicitly point out that I consider the work done by projects like Debian Women, the Python diversity page, and the geek feminism wiki a *good* thing. I just wanted to suggest one reason why many hackers tend to view them with a bit of skepticism: because it triggers the same instinct in them that explicit bias in the other direction does.

    I think these issues need addressing. I just think that when addressing them in the hacker culture you need to keep in mind the bias against having any bias. :)

    Comment by Anonymous — September 1, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

  7. Kirrily: It would be great to link to it or reproduce it in full. I will be in touch! Sky: glad it gave some perspective. I would love to write about this in more depth someday.

    Anon: indeed, the cultural bias again bias needs to be addressed :-) and again when framed as you did above and with the props to these projects, it is really helpful way to start the conversation


    Comment by Biella — September 1, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

  8. @anonymous For sure, I appreciate where you are coming from, but just as FOSS folks grok that many eyes make all bugs shallow, its really important that these eyes actually represent different perspectives.

    If software is the infrastructure of the 21st century, then we really need all perspectives on deck helping to vision, shape, and co-construct the scaffolding of our collective reality. We can’t naively maintain that our work is “just” code, or a “just” a craft. It’s architecture, in its traditional sense – with all of the ideological and political baggage that comes along with that.

    As the disability rights folks like to say, “Nothing about us, without us” – and software is all about us.

    Comment by Jonah — September 1, 2009 @ 8:27 pm

  9. is there any data on what ‘places’/'locations’ these mistreatments/bias incidents takes place(eg. irc, blogs, $language conference, hack-a-thons, organizational meeting, key signing, etc.) and the type(eg. demeaning treatment, being ignored, seeing sexualized images, hearing derogatory comments, technical skill questioned, death threats)?

    Comment by Kevin Mark — September 3, 2009 @ 1:16 am

  10. It’s funny, before this post I wouldn’t have believed that you are a woman (nor a man for what matters)… :-)

    Anyway, I agree with you that it’s a topic on which there is something to do. However, I also agree that this is a general issue in the society in general about the role that we pre-suppose for each gender, but also skin color, etc..

    I also believe that positive actions, though necessary, are a delicate task. I once tried to explain my feelings of this topic, though I think I somehow failed..

    What I forgot to say in this post is that any positive action should, to my opinion, be based on experimental parameters instead of pre-made characteristics and regularly audited in order to apapt to the new experimental parameters, and in particular not create the reverse discrimination.

    Comment by toots — September 5, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

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