Conceptualising Gender Issues in Free/Libre Open Source Software Communities

Below is the notes for my 15-minute talk presented at the FLOSSIE2012 conference in London on 25 May 2012. 

I also led a mapping party at FLOSSIE 2012 – many thanks to those participating in the mapping party for making it fun.

Conceptualising Gender Issues in Free/Libre Open Source Software Communities

25 May 2012

I trust that it is not difficult for everyone in this room to imagine how unbalanced the FLOSS world has been. It has been more than a decade since I started my fieldwork in FLOSS communities looking at how hacker cultures are interpreted and performed in various different ways, but the distribution of males and females in the scene has hardly changed. These days when I travel for FLOSS-related events, I still encounter this kind of setting – This photo (see below) was taken at the PyCon UK 2011 conference in Birmingham. As you can see in this photo, 95% of the participants (speakers and delegates) were males. The deliberately chosen female keynote speakers at the PyCon only highlighted the disproportion, and gave a rather grotesquely unreal feeling.

The image pretty much summarises and mirrors the landscape of the current FLOSS “social world” (a term deliberately chosen, instead of the often loosely defined “community”, in order to refer to the complex networks of actors, artefacts, practices, rules/regulations/policies, narratives, ideologies, systems and institutions). Although RMS has now declared that his former personal ad is for amusement only, the content unfortunately still reflects the thought of many (straight) men in the FLOSS world. Many of you would also have read the reports from the two EU FLOSS surveys (one in 2001 and the other FLOSSPOLS in 2005). They say that only about 2% of the women were involved in the FLOSS development. If we leave some problematic methodological issue with these surveys for now, the message these two studies are delivering is so clear that it inevitably invites actions and critique on the gender issues in late modern societies.

In the past years, many FLOSS communities have taken actions to encourage women to participate in their projects, including KDE, Debian, Ubuntu, Mozilla, /ETC, just to name a few. Some of these are single-sex, and some (majority of them, actually) are mixed-sex. Companies such as Google have also been providing scholarships for women (The Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship). And, there has been a lot more discussion and coverage in the media about the lack of women in the FLOSS world. While these flowering actions and activities are encouraging (it shows that people do care), I think it’s particularly timely to stop and look back, reflect what has been happening, triangulate all arguments emerging from the communities so far, and link them with feminist theories so as to rethink, renew, reposition, refocus the issues around women in FLOSS.

As pioneering feminist and sociologists of science and technology have pointed out, gender, race and class are often absent in the figure of scientific or technological development. Judy Wajcman‘s book Technofeminism, bearing some resemblance to Donna Haraway’s idea of cyberfeminism, paints a picture showing “the directions in contemporary feminist theorizing with respect to technology and prescribe where femninist theorists or theorizing activities should head to” (Suchman, 2006). Wajcman’s ‘Technofeminism’, on the one hand, recognises Haraway’s inclination to the empowering potential of technologies for women (in a semiotic way), but on the other hand, emphasises ‘the material realities of technology production’ and the socio-material relationships.

Inspired by Wajcman, I’d like to propose a review of eminent feminist theories which I reckon will help re-think, re-argue, and re-position our case(s).

I will now provide a quick working through of developments over the past 20 years in feminist STS. Please note these succinct accounts may appear to be over-simplistic / reduced.

Feminism can be roughly be grouped into two camps: essential feminism and anti-essential feminism. Essentialist feminism is often being reduced to a biologically essential view of women (biological determinism). Followers think there is an essential difference between men and women. Anti-existentialist feminism rejects biological differences, and emphasises on how society alienates women as The Other. Anti-essentialist feminists argue that we need to understand the processes through which female subjectivity is constituted in patriarchal culture. In order to de-construct the definitions of man/woman or masculine/feminine, anti-essentialists argue that we need to understand how these socially constructed meanings are created and inscribed in the process of becoming part of modern human society.

Amongst the feminist theories, there are also different schools that focus on gender issues from different aspects and provide different measures.

– Liberal feminists, in general, argue that women should be freed from any forms of oppressive gender roles. Liberal feminism is often considered as an individualistic form of feminism theory. However, their belief in women’s ability to show and maintain their their equality through their own can be criticised as a wishful thinking as they assume that women have a unified voice and can be universally addressed.

– Radical feminists usually view traditional and/or stereotypical women-dominant roles or jobs as exploitative (for example prostitution). They think women are often objectified and reduced to a piece of merchandise in mainstream societies. In the field of science, technology and medicine, radical feminism rejects most scientific theories, data, and experiments precisely because they not only exclude women but also because they are not women-centered. They emphasise that silencing of the female voice results from male domination, forced heterosexuality, the insistent emphasis on all forms of supremacy, including misogyny, racism, classism, ageism, homophobia.

– Marxist feminists / material feminists, focus on the gendering process along with the labouring and economic process. They usually look at the role of production (including domestic production) to examine the conditions that lead to the oppression of women (such as unpaid housework).

– Socialist feminism recognises that women are often in disadvantaged social groups and therefore support and welfare should be provided for them.

– African American/Womanist and Racial/Ethnic feminism focuses on the socialist and ethnic factors which both criticise race and class as sources of oppression.

– Psychoanalytic feminism criticises the biological determinism in the Freudian notion that anatomy is destiny and boys and girls have to resolve the Oedipus and castration complexes that arise during the phallic stage of normal sexual development.

– Postmodern feminism, unlike liberal feminism, denies universality and a unified voice of women, and focuses on situatedness by considering that everything is socially constructed by ideology, discourse, the structure of the unconscious and/or language.

– Postcolonial feminism focuses on how modern knowledge and technologies reflect the varying complex aspects of the interrelationships among developed and developing countries in general and between the particular cultures of the colonized and colonizing countries.

– Cyberfeminism sees the potential of the Internet and computer science as technologies to level the playing field and open new avenues for job opportunities and creativity for women, a woman-centered perspective advocates women’s use of new information and communications technologies of empowerment, eventually will lead to an end to male superiority.

While these categories of feminism theories help to get a historic overview of feminist literature, there are a lot of overlapping ideas amongst them. Few feminists, if any, these days would subscribe to a fundamentally biological view of women, although many still attempt to distinguish specifically female values from male values, recognising that all values are socially constructed. These people believe that female values, because of their essential humaneness, should be resurrected, celebrated, and revitalised.

I have observed that the discussion about women in FLOSS development so far has largely been inspired by essentialist feminism, liberal and socialist feminism: people believe that women behave differently compared to men (a lot of FLOSS participants claiming women are better / softer talkers online, for example), that women need extra help (mentoring, role models to aspire to) to overcome the barriers of participating in FLOSS development. This line of discussion proposes a risk of reducing the issue to a biological difference (essentialism). Also, a lot of emphasis has been placed on the ridiculously low number of female participants in FLOSS development, and a lot of actions taken are in line with liberal and socialist feminists’ suggestions. This has little difference from the treatment about women in STM (Science, Technology and Medicine). While enlarging and including women in FLOSS development is crucial, I think we need to go beyond the current focus on the how, and deepen our understanding of the why. I’d like to argue that issues with “women in FLOSS” should not be treated interchangeably as “women in STM” because of two fundamental issues: 1) Unlike the industry and any other sectors, members of FLOSS communities (largely informally formed) follow meritocracy and those with fluent coding and programming skills have been advantaged. But a key question is: why coding / programming skills are favoured in this world? 2) Majority of the male FLOSS developers claim that they enjoy coding, and that coding / programming / developing FLOSS is fun (the book by Linus Torvalds is even named ‘Just for Fun‘), heroic (as the biography of RMS – ‘rebel code‘ – suggests), is a pleasure, and is playful. So the other key question is – why isn’t coding fun for women? Why so few women report their playful experience with ICT (except for social networking websites such as Facebook)? What emotions are associated with female experiences with ICT or FLOSS or coding – positive (happy, heroic, as the male counterpart experience) or negative (anxiety, anger, depression)? These two questions are so profound that addressing them will substantiate the discussion and actions.

So, how can contemporary feminist theories help us answer these two questions and reconfigure our currently number-obsessive focus? I, for example, am particularly interested in understanding the socio-technical construction of coding / programming / computing knowledge and skills – how is programming become a highly valued skills and knowledge? And why and how are the values created, constructed, accepted? Theories in science and technology studies (STS) would be particularly helpful in this case (in particular, the concepts and frameworks related to social shaping of technologies and mutual shaping of technology and society).

Marxist feminism is also helpful for answering these queries about skills, professionalisation, payment/reward (both mateiral and immateiral). Are these seemingly unpaid labour (note a misconception about FLOSS developers being altruistic volunteers) completely free (in terms of gratis)? Or is the inclination associated with the system within which the current ICT sector is operated (capitalised by the seemingly informal socio-technical networks, realised in seemingly ‘accidental’ success)?

I think the often misquoted study on the (unusually) high female labour force participation rate in the IT sector in Malaysia is interesting. By misquoting this study, people ignore that the more profound and structural issues associated with the way in which gender works to keep women out of dominant positions in society, as seen in the story of the QWERTY keyboard, described by Cynthia Cockburn (1983). It was a time when male typesetters in printing business tried to retain their high pay by demanding the sole rights to use computer typesetting equipment. In these demands they excluded women and defined them as unskilled. The technological innovation that led to typesetting being equivalent to electronic keyboarding (QWERTY) opened the door for management to replace male Linotype operators with cheaper female typists. The design of the Linotype keyboard was a deliberate design choice – that is, to opt for the development of linotype technology with a keyboard different from the QWERTY keyboard – so as to maintain women’s exclusion from compositing work. Today most women working in the IT industry engage in the tedious, eye-straining work of electronic assembly. Men predominate in the decision-making, creative, and design sectors as venture capitalists, computer scientists, and engineers producing startups, new software and hardware design.” (Rosser, 2006: 14) The popoularisation of the QWERTY keyboard is linked with a gendered process of reducing women to certain types of jobs, which are low-paid, and increase women’s geographical immobility and restrict them from being promoted (glass-ceiling problem) or participating in unions. Similarly, the ‘accidental’ domination of women in Malaysian IT sector is not occasional. It reflects the patriarchal expectations about women and their reduced roles. For example, being immobile, few women would be able to be ‘digital nomads’, a lifestyle claimed by many male FLOSS developers as enjoyable. This is why I think we need to deepen our understanding about women in FLOSS by examining the gendered construction of knowledge artifacts, currently less obvious to us.

Cyberfeminists have illustrated why there is a need of equip women with the right tools and skills to get into the world (e.g., for voicing oneself, for identity building, for money-making). Apart from these socio-economic reasons, the emotive (love/hate) and cultural dimension is again important. Boys’ bedroom culture and their passion for machines / computers is heavily embedded in today’s FLOSS world. The stereotypical picture about boys enjoying playing with computers and gadgets in their bedrooms while girls with their dolls and make-ups unfortunately is still true. Those relentlessly repetitive statements from male FLOSS developers about how much they enjoy coding and interacting with computers highlight the link between emotions (passion of knowing, interests, fun) and engagement with FLOSS. And I think the review of the national curriculum in England provides an opportunity for change – the suggestion of (re-)introducing programming into the national ICT curriculum (a high-level interference from the government) may change this gendered bedroom culture (but no idea to what extent, and whether it’s going to backfire, making girls even less confident of programming – I guess it all depends on how the curriculum is going to be delivered and implemented).

We can see some traces of feminism in the actions taken in the FLOSS world so far (may it be single-sex or mixed-sex support groups). The above thoughts were borrowed from many different schools of feminism. I hope the theoretical underpinning, linking our socio-technical actions with the feminist theories, helps illuminate the picture we are looking at, and the areas that need deeper engagement (intellectual or campaigning), and eventually motivate more actions.

Apologies for cramming a lot of condense content in this short talk. I appreciate that a lot of the ideas here need unpacking and clarification. I will stop here, however. Thank you for your patience.


Cockburn, Cynthia. (1983). Brothers: Male dominance and technological change. London: Pluto Press.

Moody, G. (2001). Rebel code: Linux and the open source revolution. Basic Books.

Rosser, S. V. (2006). ‘Using the Lenses of Feminist Theories to Focus on Women and Technology’. In Fox, M. F., Johnson, D. G. and Rosser, S. V. (Eds) Women, Gender, and Technology. pp. 13-46. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Suchman, L. (2006). ‘Wajcman confronts cyberfeminism’. Social Studies of Science, 36(2): 321-327.

Torvalds, L. and Diamond, D. (2001). Just for fun – the story of an accidental revolutionary. HarperCollins.

Wajcman, J. (2004). TechnoFeminism. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

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