May The Open Source Be With You

(image from the fabulous xkcd)

Righty ho. I’ve been tardy at blogging of late, well blogging here anyway as I do also blog for work here. But I came across this very interesting study via Women Who Tech about the numbers of women who use Open Source software. OK, when I say interesting you’re going to have to bear with me…

I was first exposed to OS (and by that I mean enforced) by a dear friend, Patrick Harvie MSP. He would go on and on and on and on and on about it and I would smile and nod (because I was brought up correctly) while actually thinking about what I was going to drink that night. It went a bit far when he tried to get me to watch a DVD of Eben Moglen.

Then I started my Masters in global healthcare financing and got more and more into pharmaceutical financing and intellectual property rights. I had a eureka moment – this was what Patrick was droning on and on and on and on and on about, now I get it, now I care!

To be honest, software doesn’t float my boat. But the principles are incredibly important and they are important for women. Which brings me back to this study which explores the reasons why a tiny 1.5% of F/LOSS community members are female and many of these reasons are as equally applicable to other scientific/skeptical arenas as to OS. Some reasons summarised here:

  • Women are actively (if unconsciously) excluded rather than passively disinterested. The exclusion happens among people who often do not mean to appear, and who do not interpret their own actions, as hostile to women.

  • F/LOSS communities actively perpetuate a ‘hacker’ ethic, which situates itself outside the ‘mainstream’ sociality, but equates women with that mainstream seen in a contrast to the ‘technical’ realm ascribed to men. Women are treated as either alien Other or (in online contexts) are assumed to be male and thus made invisible.
  • F/LOSS rewards the producing code rather than the producing software. It thereby puts most emphasis on a particular skill set devaluing other activities such as interface design or documentation which women often engage in.
  • F/LOSS production and infrastructure is designed and built assuming contributors have a long history with computers, but women tend to engage later in their lives with computers. In order to join women have a larger amount of catching up work to do, which they must do in an environment that almost exclusively values independent discovery.
  • Inflammatory talk and aggressive posturing (‘flaming’) is accepted within many F/LOSS projects as a key means of developing reputation. This is often off-putting for newcomers and less experienced contributors who are not yet familiar with the community, its norms, or its real hierarchy and is therefore particularly pronounced in the case of women.

These reasons such as exclusion through an imposed hierarchy of skills, advancement through aggressive posturing and equating dynamism against a mainstream that is identified as feminine are all eerily familiar to most spheres of life, be it work, politics or the family.

I’ve spoken to many many male bloggers who are really interested (or pretend to be) when I talk about a feminist analysis of science and mainstream media reporting but then say “Yeah, as a bloke I don’t really do or understand gender.” This is the same as people saying they don’t really have an accent. It is not just women’s responsibility to engage with science and scientific reporting (which in fact they are doing and have done in increasing numbers for decades). Men have to acknowledge the extent to which they are excluding women, however unconsciously this is claimed to be.

This isn’t just women harping on about wanting to be involved in your little subculture, it will actually benefit the F/LOSS community, lead to a richer understanding of the power dynamics involved in media reporting and foster greater creativity and energy. And who knows, you might even get laid more often.

2 Responses to “May The Open Source Be With You”

  • Martin Says:

    Thanks for a very interesting post.

    I often frequent the forums at Ben Goldacre’s site, and I think there can be a sort of self-sustaining process whereby the atmosphere is so testosterone-fuelled that you sometimes find youself unconsciously slipping into a more aggressive, male caricature.

    I’m sure it’s often unintentional, but I can see how those environments become hostile or uncomfortable for women. Or sometimes bizarrely patronizing – for example, I vigorously criticized Rebecca Skloot for an aron ScienceBlogs a while back, only to have guys suggest that I shouldn’t have a go at her because “she’s hot.”

    In short I guess that it seems that whatever the prevailing attitude is towards women, it’s still very much “us and them”.

    In terms of writing, I want to reach the biggest audience I possibly can, and the reason is partly because I like watching the little numbers on the hit counter getting bigger, but mostly because I’m passionate about my message, and I won’t be happy until every man and woman of voting age responds to every half-baked government plan with the cry “evidence, or STFU!”

    To do that, I have to figure out how to reach the audience. I write now for a couple of other sites, and for each of them it’s taken time to adapt to the audience. That’s actually a harder skill than a lot of people realise in my opinion – adapting your writing to different audiences. And the response is still largely from men.

    I’m conscious as well that I screw up from time to time. There are areas of gender that I’m sure I’m very ignorant about, and I’m aware of that, but actually fixing it in my own writing can be tricky at times. There’s only so much I can see, looking at my writing with my own eyes.

    I’m not talking about casual sexism so much here, but more subtle things, like the way I structure an argument, or open a piece, or the language I use. It’d be interesting to see if there’s any research for example on whether posts structured different ways appeal more to different demographics.

    Anyway, I’m rambling on terribly, so I’ll pause for now. Great post :)


  • Bill Bell Says:

    Dear Ms Dentata,

    I dunno. I doubt that the average woman could feel any more out of place than I do at a typical facility set up to create F/LOSS, or similar venues for that matter? Of course there are usually some people present who are pleasant to work with but almost always there are also enough that are socially inept to make me wonder why anyone would ever volunteer.

    If women simply want to participate in OS what keeps them from defining projects and then recruiting from their own ranks to staff those projects?

    OK, you can hit me now.


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