Nick Desaulniers is collecting brief statements from people who do open-source about what it means to them, as a text file extended via Github pull requests. You can add your own by forking the repository and submitting a pull request. I’d love to see more additions from people in communities that are marginalized in open-source development (and in tech generally).
This is a guest post from Beth ‘pidge’ Flanagan. Beth is a Senior Software Engineer for Intel’s Open Source Technologies Center and spends most of her time working on OpenEmbedded Core and the Yocto Project, mainly as the release engineer and maintainer of the yocto-autobuilder. She is also a geek, a queer trans woman, a motorcyclist, and a practitioner of random bits of general purpose geekery. She has been working in IT/software engineering now for the past 23 years. She blogs at http://hacklikeagirl.wordpress.com.
I was born and raised right outside of Newark, NJ. My family was working class and I grew up in a working class neighborhood full of first and second generation immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, Brazil, Italy, Puerto Rico, Central America, etc. Basically, a neighborhood that most people wouldn’t think of as a fertile bed for nerds. I tell people to basically imagine some of the more gritty scenes from The Sopranos and they’d get an accurate idea of where I grew up.
I realized at a very young age that I was a trans woman and that without a well thought out plan, I wouldn’t be able survive the conservative confines of that world. This concept of needing to escape was further compounded by the fact that I was on the bottom of the social ladder at school. I was bookish, had a serious lisp and a severe femoral torsion which caused me to walk pigeon toed (hence the nickname I carry to this day). I also had a classroom full of boys and some of the girls who marked me as “different” from my first day at school and did not let up in their abuse for the entirety of my elementary school career.
When I was 9 or so, I had a pretty good idea that all the praying in the world wouldn’t make me not trans and that I should probably spend some time figuring out what to do about it. So, I petitioned my father for an adult library card (remember a time when ‘looking stuff up’ included a trip to an actual library?). I remember asking him if he would sign the papers for my library card and he handed me the largest book on the bookshelf he could find,’The Crusades’ by Zoe Oldenbourg. He told me “Read this and do a book report and I’ll sign the permission slip”. I read it in about a month or so and that signed permission slip opened up a world I could never have dreamt of.
That library was my salvation. In its stacks I learned, in carefully hidden books, that I could do something about being trans. For the first time I could remember, the serious depression I had been in since age 6 when I figured out that I wouldn’t grow up to be a woman, not at least without a little bit of help, abated somewhat. The library became my second home. It was where I spent my days, hiding from the world. I went into full on reading mode, devouring anything I could get my hands on, but always ending up back in the science row with it’s miniscule amount of books on computer science. But, they did have an entire set of “The Art of Computer Programming”. I flipped through it somewhere around age 10 and didn’t understand one bit of it! Somehow though, I was strangely enamored with the idea that language could be turned into something that made machines do work.
I mentioned before that people generally don’t think of working class people as a hotbed of nerdism. If anything, I think that the reality is the exact opposite. When you grow up without a lot of money you end up learning how to make things last and fix things that need repair. My family was no different. My father was a fairly decent carpenter who tried, bless him, to teach me with absolutely no success. His mechanical skills were impressive, something I ended up being able to learn much later in life. My grandmother however taught me how to crochet. In crocheting I saw math and patterns and it taught me how patterns could create beauty.
When you’re the kind of strange effeminate kid in a working class world that I was, you end up spending a lot of time alone and learn to quickly entertain yourself. One summer I spent a full week alone in my backyard with a roll of tin foil, a magnifying glass and a thermometer seeing what the highest temperature I could achieve was. That was also the year I built a boobytrapped for the backdoor to the house. (I was afraid of burglars). I forgot to unset it and it almost knocked my mother out when she opened it and a few of my brothers baseball bats came flying out, full speed, towards her face.
1982 came around and something happened that would change my life forever. It all started with two lines.
10 PRINT "I HATE SCHOOL!!!"
20 GOTO 10
I still remember those first two lines of code I ever wrote. It was a 10 year old kid’s ‘Hello World’. The Catholic school I attended had invited this computer education company in to do an optional computer class. I begged my parents to let me take it. I remember the first day I stepped into that class. About a dozen or so Commodore PETs, with the ever so high tech audio cassette storage devices.
After the first few classes, you just stopped trying to load your prior work from tape at the start of class as it took forever to load. You got really good at remembering what you did the week before and learned to type quicker than the audio tape could load. I ended up falling asleep at night listening to those tapes (SkreeeetchWoooooSkreeeeeeetch!); in love with the idea that you could store STUFF on tape other than music!
So, here I was, this kid who was absolutely on the bottom of the social ladder. I was despised by the kids at school and my ability to have control over my life was greatly impacted by overly protective parents, my age and obvious gendered behavior difference, but… for those 45 minutes a week in 1982, I had, for the first time in my life, actual agency. I could sit there and tell a machine to do whatever I wanted it to and the results were up to me. It wouldn’t beat me up. It wouldn’t make fun of me for the way I walked, or held my books. It wouldn’t call me awful things. It would just do what I told it to do. (This generally entailed new and more complex ways of spitting out how much I hated school, to be perfectly honest.)
Those little two lines of code turned into a much larger program that year and my parents ended up trying to nurture the one thing I had shown an actual interest in. I’m still unsure of how my father afforded it, but one day he came home with a Timex Sinclair 1000, literally the cheapest computer there was. I actually recall using it quite a bit, but, as the concept of needing to store things was a bit beyond my dad, who was a truck driver, he had neglected to buy the audio tape drive. I would have to leave it on for weeks with a note on it, telling people not to shut it off or I’d lose my program.
But, no matter how much computers could act as an escape for me, there was still this huge thing I had to deal with and as I got older and the effects of puberty started to hit, my depression worsened. I stopped writing code in my Junior year of high school and just focused on trying to make it through the day. By the time I hit university I was an absolute wreck from trying to deal with being trans. So, after the first year, I made the best decision ever. I quit and moved to Washington DC and was able to have space to figure out what my plan was.
I moved back home after about a year because I had gotten fairly sick. By this time, my mother had gone from being a secretary to getting a degree in accounting to being a VP at a small software company. Behind my mothers back, I finagled a job there. I will always remember the engineering manager who risked her wrath to give her weird, green mohawk having kid a job. So, my lucky break came in 1991, at age 19, writing insurance software in MagicPC for 5 dollars an hour.
Eventually, I left to take a job at the local university. Here is where I encountered the second thing to change my life. Windows 95.
It was 1994 and we were previewing the beta of Windows 95 for a migration from Windows 3.11. I absolutely loathed it. There was no integrated TCP/IP stack. I was use to the Solaris command line by that point and this was still the clunky DOS shell. It was nothing I wanted and while it was an improvement over 3.11, I wanted something more, so I went searching for a better solution and found it in Slackware.
I don’t remember the exact version of Slackware I finally got to install, but I know the kernel was around 0.99 (before loadable modules and ELF binaries!). It was like a dream and a nightmare rolled into one. When you got it working it went like clockwork, but it was an absolute TERROR to set up. Package management? Nope, tar.gz and make were your friends. I got really good at debugging makefiles.
But, I was hardly bored. I spent way too much time getting kernels recompiled, fighting with X11 settings on my Diamond video card, wondering why the NE2000 card would blue screen all the Windows 95 boxes on the token ring. Bored? I was too busy tearing apart this amazing thing that people had put together, in part, just for something cool to do.
It was magic. Here was this thing that didn’t work out of the box! I had to actually sit there and figure it all out. That year and a half I spent learning the operating system inside and out gave me a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride and a sense that if I could survive a Slackware install and make it out on the other end, a gender transition should be a piece of cake, right?
I had finally figured out the logistics of my transition and set a date. To put it mildly, the concept was sound, but the execution went poorly. I lost my job, my family and the entire situation created a rift in my family that will probably never, unfortunately heal. So, here I was, age 24, with a brand new gender presentation, a high school diploma, a job history I couldn’t use because it was under a different name. I had moved to Philadelphia and was living on a friends couch because I was kicked out of home. Things were not looking very positive.
But, there were a few things I did have.
I knew how to write code.
I knew Unix and Linux.
I was too damn stubborn to take “No”.
And I was left with no other choice.
I’m not sure how I got hired, I’m sure in part it was a bit of desperation on their part, but within the month, I ended up getting hired as a sysadmin, administering 250 AT&T BSD boxes that ran a computer based testing suite. I ended up working on porting the program over to Linux which got me hired into writing the next generation of that software.
From there it was on to trying my hand at UI design with stops in animation, power grid, control systems. And then, eventually, to my current home in the embedded world.
I look over the past 30 years since I first sat down at that old Commodore PET and am thankful. I had a mother who, despite our differences, firmly instilled in me the idea that women, even women like me, could do anything. I had a work ethic that instilled in me that as long as I could do the job, nothing else mattered. I had the stubbornness to not believe the people who were telling me “NO!”. I had the curiosity and the drive to figure it out for myself because I knew that no one was going to tell me how to do it.
My nerdcred doesn’t come to me from a piece of paper, but by sheer force of will. I know a lot of my colleagues came to where they’re at by the “traditional” route, university, internships, etc. I’m glad for them but I do not envy them a bit. While my route was the hard, tough slog, I would never trade it for the world.
I firmly believe that my past gives me a perspective in geekdom that is relatively unique. It has made me a better engineer than I think I would have been had I gone that traditional route. It has defined who I am and has made me a better person because of it. I can look at people from non-traditional nerd backgrounds and see their inner engineer. I’ve learned that sometimes, you find the most brilliant of people in the least likely of places. I approach new experiences, be they personal or technological without one iota of fear.
And lastly I always know that the first program I write whenever I learn a new language is going to be my own, special, personal version of the first two line program I ever wrote.
A big initiative for those interested in getting involved in open source is happening right now: the GNOME Outreach Program for Women (OPW). OPW is accepting applications from now until November 11, 2013 for the program that begins December 10, 2013 and ends March 10, 2014.
If you’re interested in getting involved in open source, but don’t know where to begin, consider applying for OPW. OPW internships are paid, full-time, and allow you to work from home (there is also funding for potential travel to visit your sponsoring organization for a short period of time). OPW is inclusive: all women, including cis women and trans women; as well as anybody who was assigned female at birth; and anybody who identifies as genderqueer, genderfree, or genderfluid (regardless of the sex they were assigned at birth) are encouraged to apply. OPW is open to students and non-students alike (as long as you’re 18 years old or older as of December 10, 2013) and is open to people with any level of computing or software experience, so long as they’re relative newcomers to open-source development.
As the OPW page explains, “The internships offered are not limited to coding, but include user experience design, graphic design, documentation, web development, marketing, translation and other types of tasks needed to sustain a FOSS project.”
Not that I’m biased or anything, but since I work for Mozilla, I’d like to call attention to our OPW projects. Several other organizations are participating as well — Debian, Fedora, GNOME, the Linux Kernel, OpenStack, Wikimedia, and Xen — and if you’re involved with one or more of those, you’re welcome to toot your project’s horn in the comments!
This is the third time that Mozilla is participating in OPW, but the first time that Mozilla Research is participating. Because I work for Mozilla Research, on Rust, I’m excited that we’re accepting one intern each for Rust (a new systems programming language; most of the internships focus on libraries and tools for it) and Servo (a prototype parallel Web browser engine implemented in Rust), both of which are projects that are under the umbrella of Mozilla Research. A third Mozilla opportunity is to work on community building with Larissa Shapiro, Mozilla’s Head of Contributor Development. For the full scoop on all of these projects, see Mozilla’s OPW page for December 2013. I’m coordinating Mozilla’s involvement with OPW, as well as coordinating mentorship for the Rust projects; Lars Bergstrom is coordinating the Servo projects.
If you’re not sure whether you should apply to OPW, then you’re probably somebody who should apply. But as the OPW page says, the application process is collaborative, so it’s a good idea to talk over email with the coordinator for the project you’re interested in to find out more about what they’re looking for in applicants. As always, it’s best to show that you’ve done your homework and ask specific, focused questions so as to help the potential mentor help you.
If you’re not in the OPW audience, you can still help! Please advertise these programs to students and women who might not otherwise see them. You can put up posters where people who are marginalized in open-source communities will see them; help encourage people who are enthusiastic about one of the projects but might be too nervous to submit an application; and help connect the same people directly to projects whenever you can.
I shamelessly ripped off portions of this post from Terri’s OPW/GSOC post from back in April.
In Part II of Coding Freedom, Biella begins the vital work of problematizing the meritocratic ideal.
“Hackers will publicly acknowledge… acts of “genius” and are thus fiercely meritocratic – in ideology and practice. Yet given that so much of hacker production is collective, a fact increasingly acknowledged and even celebrated in the ethical philosophy of F/OSS, a commitment to individualism, meritocracy, and independence is potentially subverted by the reality of as well as the desire to recognize their fundamental interdependence. The belief in the value of individuality coupled with the constant need for the help of other hackers points to a subtle paradox that textures their social world.”
Who among us picked up any technical skills whatsoever without the help of someone more skilled who helped us out just because, in the spirit of paying it forward? Patient friends, lucid documentation, gentle answers on mailing lists: these are the familiar stepping stones from n00b to basic competence. Depending on your point of view, they exist in dynamic tension with, or in stark contrast to, the Romantic hero, powered only by genius and Mountain Dew. You know, this guy:
There is for sure a seductive aspect to the idea of meritocracy, an aspect that’s maybe especially potent for adolescent people – or nations – who are trying to separate their identities from their progenitors in order to individuate and develop their potential. It’s understandable, but it shouldn’t survive contact with the real world, which is nothing if not More Complicated Than That.
“The United States is often thought of as a living embodiment of meritocracy: a nation where people are judged on their individual abilities alone. The system supposedly works so well because, as the media myth goes, the United States provides everyone with equal opportunity, usually through public education, to achieve their goals. As such, the hierarchies of difference that arise from one’s ability (usually to achieve wealth) are sanctioned by this moral order as legitimate.”
You’ve got to love the strategic deployment of qualifiers in the above passage, especially if, like me, you have come late in life to the conviction that meritocracy is bullshit. Yeah. I said it. The single biggest flaw in the idea of meritocracy is the proposition that there are people who are without merit. This is, to put it mildly, not the case.
The second biggest flaw in the idea of meritocracy is that it’s just a recursive modern gloss on the Divine Right of Kings. Leaders in the (ostensibly-meritocratic) open source community are entitled to exercise power because of their merit. The proof of their merit? Is their exercise of power. The word “meritocracy” is an ungainsayable defense of the status quo. It’s conservatism in a nutshell. As Alexander Pope once, infuriatingly, put it: “Whatever is, is right.”
This week, in which Linux kernel developer Sarah Sharp advanced the revolutionary notion that programming could be carried on without ad hominem attacks, has added special piquancy to this passage from Biella’s book:
“When Torvalds and Murdock developed their own projects (the Linux kernel and Debian, respectively), they did things differently than the earlier cadre of Unix hackers by fostering a more egalitarian environment of openness and transparency. Participation was encouraged, and recognition was given where it was due. Accepting more contributions was also, of course, seen as a way to improve and encourage technical efficiency.”
Biella acknowledges that Linux and Debian grew up to be very different projects, and goes on to discuss Debian’s Social Contract, Free Software Guidelines and Constitution. She has some sharp observations on the fear within the Debian community that the “meritocracy” will be “corrupted.”
I’d like to propose that the notion of meritocracy is itself corrupt. Ideas may have, or lack, merit. People have worth, and every person is worth more than we can possibly imagine. Inclusive communities are likely to write the best software because in them, ideas can compete on their (yes!) merits; and because software written by the other communities has exclusion coded into its very DNA.
But, y’know, I’m not a kernel coder, so who the hell cares what I think? ;) More to the point, dear readers: what do you think?
This is a guest post from Alex, who is a volcanologist in their spare time. When not messing about with rocks in their underground
lairlab, they can often be found shouting about trans (especially genderqueer) rights, earlier diagnosis of endometriosis, and books with dragons in.
Content notes: sexism, abuse
My dad was among the first cohorts to graduate in Computer Science at a prestigious university back when the course was introduced. Every single person I’ve been involved with long-term – and some of my major interests along the way – has been a computer scientist. Over the course of my life, I’ve frequently chosen to hang out with programmers; in my early-to-mid teens, I spent a slightly worrying amount of time on Netnews (yes, as distinct from Usenet). I grew up in the Silicon Fen. I half-joke that I was brought up by the Internet; I’ve just graduated with an MSci in physical sciences from a similarly prestigious institution.
And it wasn’t until 2012 that I first wrote code.
Hello, everybody. My name’s kaberett, and I’m a Dreamwidth volunteer.
Code. It’s used in my field: it’s a vital component of modelling. I’ve spent my life surrounded by coders and design architects, by people whose reaction to “nothing exists that does what I want” is “okay, I’ll build one, then”; whose reaction to “I’m bored” is “what can I make?” And still: it was 2012 before I wrote any code.
Sadly, I think there’s a pretty obvious first-order explanation for this: I was assigned female at birth, and socialised accordingly. I spent my childhood being torn down by my computer-programmer father for “not having learned [that] yet,” or for answering questions “too slowly” at dinner, or being told I’d “never get a job if…” or being yelled at about how valuable his time-that-I-was-wasting was.
Does this mean I think all programmers are like him? No. Did it mean I was too scared to use the (theoretically) best resource available for me to learn from? Yep! And it landed me with a whole bunch of other issues. Asking for help with maths was right out – and so, really, was asking for help with anything. I’d acquired the conviction that I’d be belittled and torn to shreds, and that any information I did get would have more to do with building up my “instructor”‘s ego than my own knowledge base.
That experience is what I’m bringing to the table here. That, and a whole lot of reading, about the issues with diversity in FLOSS culture – and some more first-hand experience, this time with a place that is, by all accounts, doing it right.
And here’s what I suggest: in terms of getting high-quality code written by a diverse community, line-for-line my gut says that tech confidence is much more important than (perceived) tech competence.
Let’s pause a moment, while I define my terms. I use (perceived) tech competence to mean, broadly, the (perceived) ability to identify and fix a problem (without use of external resources). I use tech confidence to signify the belief that this is something that one can do – or learn to do, if one doesn’t know how to yet: it’s about trusting yourself to be able to figure it out, and trusting your community to help you rather than deride you if you ask questions.
And that, right there, is where we stumble straight back into the issue of the meritocracy: the idea that a competitive environment – in terms of number of lines of code written, or features rolled out, or bugs squashed – is more important than one that values every contribution and every contributor.
Meritocracies are inherently broken, and competitiveness – while sometimes healthy – also erects an enormous barrier to beginning volunteers and coders. An ivory-towered culture of enthroned experts – one that enforces the idea that you must have a high level of technical knowledge to be worth talking or listening to – makes many people afraid to ask questions. This in turn makes learning slower and knowledge transmission harder, and leaves the group more likely to land in a situation where the only person who understands how to do what Sam does is, well, Sam. And that’s a problem – when Sam becomes ill, or they take a holiday, or they decide they don’t want to be involved any more, or sometimes they die. This is something that’s seen over and over again in, for example, the field of graptolite studies.
Let’s take a diversion, actually. Graptolites are an enormously important extinct species, most a couple of inches long at the outside, and they more-or-less resemble saws. Their diversity and steady morphological evolution – and the fact that they were found in all oceans on the planet – makes them superb for establishing relative ages of sedimentary rocks in the geological record. Problem is, there’s hundreds of species of the little sods, differing in such minutiae as how many thecae (saw teeth) they have per centimetre, the percentage overlap between thecae, the extent of curvature… which is all fascinating, except for the fact that the most recent illustrated catalogue of known species? Was published, as a serial, in 1901. (Want to know about some awesome scientists, incidentally? Look up Gertrude Lillian Elles and Ethel Mary Reader, née Wood.)
Do you know how many species have been reclassified since 1901?
Answer: a lot.
And so your best bet for identifying a particular graptolite is, if you’ve got one, to hunt down your local expert and get /them/ to do it for you.
And then, in the way of all flesh, they die – and you find yourself waiting for the next generation of experts to develop their eyes, because none of them write any of this down.
One of the things I’m spending a lot of my volunteer time on at the moment is encouraging Dreamwidth’s new volunteers (affectionately referred to as “babydevs”). This means, in practice, that I’m spending a lot of time writing documentation: how to do things that Everyone Knows, so that there isn’t the entry barrier of perceived “wasting senior devs’ time with trivialities”; so that we get consistency of explanation; so that we are more welcoming.
As I’ve said, pretty much my entire experience of volunteer work in the FLOSS world is at Dreamwidth, where I’ve been encouraged, throughout, to get started, to ask questions, and to seek help. Dreamwidth values my broader contributions to the project just as much as it values any code: I’m valued as much for tagging our incoming suggestions for features, adding to our volunteer wiki, putting together lists of easy-to-tackle bugs (“babydev bait”), and for end-user support, as I am for what coding I do. And that’s important: I got embedded in the volunteer culture well before I started trying to learn new skills, and the encouragement and support I got for that made me believe that I’d have the same level of encouragement and support if I attempted to branch out. It’s not just me this helps, or people who are new to coding: we also make space for people who already can code, but haven’t yet found time to contribute to any project due to other obligations. We’re always working on making public records of this: for example, our wiki entry on Things Real Dreamwidth Programmers Do is a relatively recent invention.
And all of this is crucial, not just to my own personal growth (which – obviously – I’m very grateful for!), but to Dreamwidth’s success as a FLOSS project. It is not focussing, first and foremost, on tech competence: instead, we work towards fostering tech confidence, through creating a culture where babydevs know that senior devs have their backs; a culture where people feel able to ask questions of the broader community, in public as well as in private; a culture where people learn how to test and debug and Not Give Up; a culture where our co-founders own their mistakes, and do so publicly, so that nobody has to feel alone. When people get discouraged, we give them pep talks. We remind people that it’s okay to learn visibly, instead of having to pretend to be entirely competent all of the time. Everyone can learn from the mistake that anyone makes – and mistakes are caught soon after they happen, so consequences can be minimised.
This is in stark contrast to communities where tech competence is valued above all else: where people feel they have to hide their mistakes. In such settings we routinely observe low volunteering rates from people in marginalised groups, with low retention from beginning volunteers, because people are too scared to ask for help or too scared to admit that they don’t know how things work. This isn’t unique to FLOSS cultures, of course – I’ve just finished a degree at a university regularly ranked in the top 5 globally, and I am appalled by the way in which this institution pushes people towards poorer understanding through militating against asking “basic” questions. It’s a habit that leads to misunderstanding, and misunderstandings lead to bugs, and it’s generally an all-round disaster, in which nobody wins.
So: please, if you want to promote diversity in your volunteer base, consider fostering an atmosphere conducive to tech confidence. It makes spaces more pleasant to occupy, and it produces real tech competence. Looking at things this way round? Well, I can’t see any losers.
 That’s not quite true – when I was 12 I spent a fair bit of time messing around with basic HTML and CSS to individualise Neopets profiles. But: it wasn’t standards-compliant; I wasn’t learning the languages as a whole, or even really their grammar; and it was a very structured sandboxed environment, where even very basic efforts were encouraged.
 Compare and contrast with the Perl virtues of laziness, impatience and hubris – except that “confidence” has the negative connotations of “arrogance”, because we are, in many cases, taught that it is bad and wrong to be able to accurately assess our capabilities and state them clearly – and it is especially wrong to reassess our abilities in the light of new information.
When I started off in open source, I believed that bit of “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” that said:
Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch.
Regardless of the truth of this assertion, somewhere along the way I got the impression that people usually get into open source via “scratching their own itch,” and I mixed up prescriptive and descriptive to boot. Personally, I started dabbling in open source testing hoping to learn a bit of Python, and then really got stuck in when I saw a clear unmet need for documentation even though I wasn’t personally going to use it. Sometimes I thought I was inferior — surely I ought to have been thinking up my own projects, improving my work environment, and writing things that would help me out, thus getting me into a virtuous circle of learning?
Here’s one: the newbie who finds it frustrating that they “don’t have ideas.” This person, like me, has heard the message that a REAL programmer or a REAL open source contributor is supposed to be a self-starter who comes up with their own project ideas from the start and uses them to learn. Or the newbie knows they learn best by doing, but they feel a discouraging malaise whenever they attempt to think of an idea to pursue.
This affects people of all backgrounds, but I wonder — is it harder to reflexively “scratch your own itch” when you’ve been taught, as so many women have, to stop scratching and sit like a good girl? If you’re part of an oppressed group, and parents, schools, peers, mass media, and bosses have all consistently punished you when you speak up about a missing stair, then is it any surprise that you’d be slow to start picking up the saw and hammer?
metaphortunate articulated that youthful indoctrination:
I had finally learned that whenever I got angry and I tried to do something about my anger to the source of my anger, everything just got worse for me.
So in the long run one answer to this is that we have to work to make sure everyone has agency and feels it, their whole lives. But, given that some of us struggle with remembering our agency, and that it’s fine to have different learning styles, here are some ideas for priming the idea pump, or for alternate pathways into learning and getting into open stuff.
- Embrace boringness. Look at other fields, like sewing, where it is totally fine to start off by making a simple handbag off a common pattern. In open stuff this might be the “same old same old” LED clock or blog platform. If an idea appeals to you but there’s an inner censor saying “that’s too boring” or “what’s the use,” you can tell that inner voice that Sumana says “shut up.” For me, it’s Skud saying “shut up” to that inner censor.
- Embrace silliness. Perhaps the equivalent of embroidering a happy face onto an oven mitt. Again, if you think it would make you a scintilla happier, go ahead. And again, I have a Skud in my head telling the naysayer to buzz off.
- Find someone else’s pain point. It is perfectly legit to work to improve shared tools. Look around at places online or in your local community where people are asking for help. Maybe you can find a ridiculously tedious data entry job that you can help with a corner of, or it would be nice if a light over here lit up when such-and-such happened. In a sense, this is what Outreach Program for Women, OpenHatch, and Developers For Good offer: the organizers have already curated the TODO lists so you can pick out the tasks that interest you. It is fine to simply piggyback on existing projects and drift around a bit learning lots of little things that way, and the more you learn and do, the more needs and opportunities you’ll discover.
- It’s fine to take a class. Different people at different times learn differently. If you think you’d benefit from structure, encouragement, sociability, and exercises, opportunities from edX to Hacker School to your local community college are worth checking out.
- Work with scraps. I get anxious over wasting food or cloth or paper, so when I cook or sew or write stand-up comedy or poetry, I feel more comfortable working with scraps, with leftovers. When I am scribbling ideas for stand-up bits, I prefer to use textfiles that already have miscellaneous jottings in them, or little half-full notebooks, or odd-shaped scratch paper. No doubt my preference for pre-ruined materials reflects my perfectionism and anxiety over worth. I can be creative more easily if the materials were just going to go to waste anyway. I think the trick to addressing this mindset, in the long run, includes habits of deemphasizing and subtlety, tricking oneself into not making a big production out of any given attempt. I’m not good at that. But in the short term: scraps. Find patterns in datasets you already have. Look through old academic papers to find citations to add to Wikipedia. If you have a web presence you barely use, repurpose it as a CSS playground. I’d love more ideas around this theme.
- The examined life. What do I actually want? Is there a thing that could make my life better? Honestly I find this question really hard to answer; it requires that I address the pain of unfulfilled desire instead of just accepting my world as it is. But if I have conquered some of the ways the kyriarchy has colonized my brain, then it’s possible to hear the “$foo would make my life better” signals and perhaps address them through technology.
What have you found useful in overcoming the myth of boundless ideation, or in learning to listen to your own itch?
You came, you voted and we have a clear winner! I’m delighted to announce that the next Book Club pick will be Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, by the awesome Gabriella Coleman. The book is available for free download.
Go! Read! Let’s meet back here on Thursday, May 9th! I’m pretty sure this one’s going to rock our socks off.
Right now, there are two big initiatives going on for those interested in getting involved in Free and Open Source Software:
Google Summer of Code (deadline: May 3)
Google Summer of Code (GSoC) is a global program that offers students stipends to write code for open source projects. Students work from home, paired up with at least one mentor who can guide them through the process of collaborating with their project’s community. There are a huge number of projects suggestions available, and many projects also accept new ideas from students if you think you’ve got an idea that would be great.
The stipend is $5,000 (USD) for approximately 40h/week of work from June 17 to September 23, so this is a pretty decent short-term job.
The deadline to apply is May 3rd, but if you’re interested it’s worth getting involved now because it takes time to find an organization you want to work with, meet the developers, and get help from them in producing a really terrific application.
There are 177 accepted mentoring organizations, but let me take a minute to plug the two I’m involved with:
- I’m the org admin for the Python Software Foundation this year. As well as sponsoring development on the Python programming language itself, we’re an umbrella organization for a large number of projects that use Python, including my own favourite open source project GNU Mailman, a variety of scientific tools, development toolkits, and more. The whole list is here. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of the mentors in person at PyCon this year, and I’m really excited to be working with them, and I think you will be too!
- I’m also involved with Systers, which as you may know is an organization for technical women. As one might expect, working with Systers is a great opportunity to work with technical women on an open source project! More information can be found on their wiki.
I know lots of other folk here are involved with GSoC: please feel free to advertise your projects in the comments!
Outreach program for Women (deadline: May 1)
If you’re a woman who’s interested in getting involved in open source, you may also want to check out the Outreach Program for Women which is similar to GSoC but not limited to students:
Outreach Program for Women (OPW) internships were inspired in many ways by Google Summer of Code and by how few women applied for it in the past. This was reflective of a generally low number of women participating in the FOSS development.
By having a program targeted specifically towards women, we found that we reached talented and passionate participants, who were uncertain about how to start otherwise. We hope this effort will help many women learn how exciting, varied and valuable work on FOSS projects can be and how inclusive the community really is. This program is a welcoming link that will connect you with people working on individual projects in various FOSS organizations and guide you through your first contribution.
Here’s the poster:
Not a student or a woman but want to get involved?
For those of you who are experienced open source contributors:
Many projects are still signing up mentors for GSoC. I usually tell people that this is a 0-10h/week volunteer job (although you do get a t-shirt!) where you get a chance to work with a protégé for the summer and show them the ropes. It can be very busy at times (especially right now when students are just starting and have lots of questions) but it’s very rewarding. Even if your project isn’t one of the ones participating this year, you can still help other projects by doing things like hanging out on IRC to help students set up their development environments.
For those of you not in open source but would like to be:
While these programs are only open to students and women, now is actually a pretty decent time to get involved with a new project because mentors are available to answer questions and students are asking lots of the questions so you don’t have to. Go join a mailing list or irc channel and see if you can follow along!
Please advertise these programs to students and women who might not otherwise see them! Put up posters where minorities not usually represented in open source will see them, help encourage people who might be too nervous to submit an application, and help connect these folk directly to projects whenever you can.
Feel free to ask in the comments below. I believe we have plenty of folk here involved with both programs who’d be happy to help you get involved!
THERE IS NO WARRANTY FOR THE PROGRAM, TO THE EXTENT PERMITTED BY APPLICABLE LAW. EXCEPT WHEN OTHERWISE STATED IN WRITING THE COPYRIGHT HOLDERS AND/OR OTHER PARTIES PROVIDE THE PROGRAM “AS IS” WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, EITHER EXPRESSED OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY AND FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. THE ENTIRE RISK AS TO THE QUALITY AND PERFORMANCE OF THE PROGRAM IS WITH YOU. SHOULD THE PROGRAM PROVE DEFECTIVE, YOU ASSUME THE COST OF ALL NECESSARY SERVICING, REPAIR OR CORRECTION.
— The GNU General Public License (GPL), Version 3
At the beginning of this year, First Monday (a longstanding, online-only academic journal) published Joseph Reagle’s article “‘Free as in sexist?’ Free culture and the gender gap”. The article is the only comprehensive study I’ve seen so far of online discourse drawn from free and open-source software and data communities that focuses on attitudes towards gender and sexism.
In what follows, I examine Reagle’s presentation of two major themes: how dominant definitions of “geek identity” serve to keep communities homogeneous; and how ideologies held by open-source workers sometimes serve to justify mistreating people in the name of freedom of speech. Finally, I suggest another reason for open-source communities’ problems with diversity and equality: an economic one. I’ll use the terms “geek culture”, “open source culture”, and “hacker culture” roughly interchangeably. Not all geeks or hackers work on open-source projects, but open-source communities represent, to me, a highly valued position in the hierarchy of value subscribed to by many people who identify as geeks and/or hackers.
I had a visceral reaction to the “On being a geek” section of “Free as in sexist?” This section covers ground that is familiar to me: the obsessive, monomaniacal approach to programming that hacker culture valorizes; the relationship between this style of working and a confrontational, aggressive style of argumentation; and the relationship between geek identity and normative whiteness and maleness. (As I don’t have any special authority to speak about race or racism, I won’t discuss those issues in depth here; I recommend Mary Bucholtz’s paper “The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness” [PDF link], in which she argues that American nerd culture consitutes an explicit rejection by certain white youths of those aspects of American popular culture that arise from Black Americans.) Even so, the section affected me on more than just an intellectual level. As I read the quotations Reagle chose from sources such as Richard Stallman’s and Joseph Weizenbaum’s writings, as well as interviews with women studying computer science, I felt afraid and disappointed. I felt ready to get out of this field myself as fast as possible. Before I could help myself, my subconscious was already rushing ahead and reviewing the plans I’ve turned over in my head about jobs and careers that I could do that wouldn’t require me to be either a Toxic Open Source Guy, or an enabler for one.
When I was 15, sleeping in a lab and working for 20 or 30 hours at a stretch appealed to me. I wanted to lose myself in code, stop noticing my physical body because I was too engrossed in turning over abstractions in my mind. I think some part of me thought that if I got to be a competent programmer, it wouldn’t matter that I didn’t know how to form connections with other people or that my body was the wrong shape for me. I know now that escaping into work is not a helpful coping mechanism for me. Nowadays, I’ve exercised agency to make my body more comfortable for me; I see a therapist; and I have friends. I want to do my job reasonably well for eight hours a day and go home. I don’t want to run away from life outside the screen by immersing myself in work. I know most of the guys who do the sleep-in-the-lab, work-twenty-hours thing aren’t running away from what I was running away from. (I wonder what they are running away from.)
In Reagle’s article, I read, “Bente Rasmussen and Tove Hâpnes found female CS students who did not want be associated with the dominate [sic] identity of “key-pressers”, i.e., those who were not able to talk about anything beyond computers.” I thought — that’s me, too! I don’t want that either. I don’t think I have to quit being an open-source programmer if I want to have an identity that isn’t just about computers. But sometimes when I’m around people who do seem more like key-pressers than I am, I feel like that’s the way I have to be in order to fit in and be accepted.
Then I try to imagine what it would be like for me if on top of all of this, I felt like I had to conform to a vaguely woman-ish gender role. I didn’t know I wasn’t female until I was 18, and didn’t know I was male until I was 26, but I never felt much pressure to be what girls or women were supposed to be. On the other hand, if I was a cis woman, or even more so, if I was a trans woman (since trans women get expected to conform to gender stereotypes for women even more so than cis women are when their trans status is known), working in the industry I work in, I would have an almost impossible set of constraints to solve. As Reagle shows, success and status in open-source (and even in non-technical “free culture” communities like Wikipedia editing) are correlated with adopting a (superficially) overconfident, aggressive, argumentative persona. Women get to choose between being socially stigmatized for violating gender norms, or being ignored or mocked for violating open-source cultural norms. It’s a double bind.
Reagle quotes a passage from Margolis and Fisher’s Unlocking the Clubhouse: “‘Scary’ and ‘afraid’ are words that recur again and again.” For me, these are emotions that recur again and again when dealing with open-source culture, and when recalling the memories that reading Reagle’s article brought to mind. What strikes me, though, is that I’m almost twice the age of some of the undergrad students who Margolis and Fisher describe. When I was those students’ age, CS culture seemed safe, not scary. It was the rest of the world that was scary to me. Now, something’s changed. I think part of it is that I’ve had too many conversations with colleagues about gender politics that leave me feeling angry, frustrated, and helpless. Those interactions leave me afraid of being dismissed, dehumanized, objectified, or belittled again if I speak up. I’m also afraid of the sinking feeling that, for me, comes from being silent when I witness something I know is wrong. After a while, just walking in the door to the office seems like an entire day’s work.
Another quotation (from a social psychology journal article by Sapna Cheryan and colleagues) that stood out to me was “The profoundness of this alienation is hinted at in a recent study that found even an ‘ambient environment’ of stereotypical geeky items in a room (e.g., science fiction memorabilia and junk food) depressed female undergraduate interest in computer science.” While looking for a new place to live near my workplace in Mountain View, Ca. recently, I was browsing through rentals on AirBnB, and found a post advertising a bunk in a “hacker fortress”. I think the feeling I had when imagining living in such a place might be akin to how the women in that study felt when they saw a roomful of Star Trek figurines and Mountain Dew Code Red bottles. At 15, the summer I was doing an unpaid programming internship and drinking Jolt in the mornings, living in a “hacker fortress” would have seemed like an exciting idea (never mind the potential rape and sexual harassment that someone who looked like I did at 15 would have experienced — I probably would have dismissed that risk at the time). Now, even contemplating having to live in a place with a name like that sends my stomach dropping through the floor.
This section of Reagle’s article is valuable for showing that what I and so many others have experienced is part of a pattern; it’s not a coincidence, nor is it due to some weakness of character that we all happen to share. Women who have been involved, or tried to be involved, in free culture encounter hostility, not as a universal rule but as a recurrent pattern. It’s certainly not that Joseph Reagle is the first person to point out that free culture is systematically hostile to women — women have been saying this for a long time. But the evidence he collects is one more persuasive tool to put in the toolbox for convincing the naïve that yes, geek culture has a sexism problem. In the long term, though, we won’t have made any progress if people in the dominant group only believe women’s experiences when a male academic documents them.
It’s not just women who have been saying it, either. What Reagle doesn’t mention is that queer, trans, and genderqueer people in open-source share many of the same experiences that women do. In my opinion, like most transphobia and homophobia, that’s collateral damage from a fundamental hatred of anyone perceived as departing from a constructed heterosexual, cis male ideal — and that includes cis and trans women, as well as queer men and genderqueer and gender-creative people. (The omission of queer and gender-non-conforming people’s experiences could be due to a lack of written sources documenting it; there are various reasons why people in gender, sexual and romantic minorities might talk about their stories in a forum that lacks a permanent record.)
What makes me sad about all of this is that I still want to be around intellectually curious and playful people who are passionate about learning and making things (though, ideally, ones who don’t limit their inquiry to a single narrow specialty). I still want to have peers who inspire me to be and do more. I still love nerd humor when it isn’t mixed up with brogrammer racism and sexism. But what keeps me out of spaces that attract people like this is that I’m tired of being erased, silenced, and talked over. When I say how uncomfortable I feel when someone is engaging in homophobic hate speech at my workplace, and I’m told that it’s not hate speech or that my reaction to it isn’t real or valid, that’s stressful for me. It makes me want to disengage from the whole community. I’m tired of my female friends and colleagues getting death threats. I’m tired of being told I have a victim complex if I talk back to the abuse that gets directed at me and my friends even if nineteen out of twenty times, I’m silent about it. (It’s actually when I’m acting the least like a victim — when I’m not passively accepting whatever abuse is directed my way — that other software people shame me for “playing the victim”.)
The Mythical Manarchist-Month
While “On being a geek” was an appreciated summary of ground familiar to me, I found the “Openness” section more novel. I was pleased to see that Reagle opened the section by referring to Jo Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, because Freeman’s article resonates with me strongly in light of last year’s troubles at Mozilla.
In my opinion, though, Reagle leaves a few dots unconnected in his discussion of “‘bad apple[s]’ and ‘poisonous people'”. If it’s really a minority of the community that (quoting our own Terri Oda) “actively hinder women’s participation by trying to derail discussions, make contributions significantly more time-consuming, or send inappropriate or even violent private messages to contributors”, then why are they allowed to effectively dominate the community by putting pressure on women to leave whenever they feel like doing so? I think it would be doing a disservice to everyone to ignore the role of the majority of male contributors in the community, who stand back and watch, who fail to exercise effective moderation in discussion forums, who lack the courage to confront other men who are being actively sexist. It is also a disservice to everyone to ignore microaggressions. The ultimate effect of death threats or a constant stream of little reminders that no one feels obligated to include you (like co-workers addressing a mixed-gender group as “guys”) is to make out-group members feel like they’re just not wanted. “Good” people (people who think of themselves as tolerant, polite, and considerate), not just toxic “bad apples”, can engage in microaggressions. And even “good” people often get unnecessarily defensive when called on behavior they weren’t aware was a problem. There’s a fine line between recognizing the disproportionate power of a small number of belligerent people in the open-source community, and using that an excuse for other people to do nothing in response.
The section titled “Ideology” is perhaps the most challenging one to the cherished beliefs of open-source participants about themselves and their role in the political economy — Reagle tallies up a damning list of open-source idols (Stallman, Raymond, Wales…) and their Randian beliefs that would be amusing if we weren’t talking about men who so many people take seriously. Reagle’s insights on how an anarcho-libertarian ideology lends itself neatly to justifying the rightness of the existing gendered power structure are sorely needed. But again, I think he could have gone a bit further. The thing about freedom, at least the way it manifests today in open-source communities, is that it looks a lot like freedom from accountability, without freedom from the very real constraints that burden the many. It’s free as in freedom, not free as in beer, but I’ve started to hear “free as in free from consequences” when I hear open-source people use “free speech” as a reason to be abusive. It’s customary in both open-source and closed-source programming to use the legal mechanisms of licensing and copyright to absolve oneself of all consequences resulting from bugs in one’s software, as per the quotation from the GPL that I opened with. This is not where I want to debate the merits of that approach to the profession of engineering — I do want to ask what happens, though, when a programmer extends that approach to licensing into his personal life. What happens to a community when many of the individuals in it assert their right to “free speech” and thereby claim entitlement to shift responsibility for the consequences of their actions? Typically, when people feel entitled to make others pay the cost for their choices, the people who end up paying are people who the underlying social power structure places as subordinate. I’m using the pronoun “his” because people who are not socially recognized as men (specifically, white men) simply lack the power to do this.
One example of this freedom from consequences is the refrain that so many of us who speak out have heard, over and over, from our colleagues: “Have I offended you? Then the problem is that you’re so easily offended. Your feelings are your responsibility, and I have no obligation to not offend you. No one has the right to not be offended, and anyway, I’m an equal-opportunity offender, so if other people can take the heat, why can’t you? It must be because there’s something wrong with you. You really ought to lighten up, take a joke, get a sense of humor, not let those words have so much power over you, be less sensitive.” (The routine has become so standardized that Derailing for Dummies, as well as the Geek Feminism Wiki, catalog it.) How can these incantations of emotional blame-shifting be unrelated to the disclaimer of responsibility that appears in the GPL and other software licenses? If what characterizes the professional culture of software engineering is our refusal to own our work, what characterizes the after-hours culture of programmers is a refusal to own our words. It’s a culture of solipsism that makes minority group members into objects, designating people in the out-group as dumping grounds for the majority’s animus and need to mock the less powerful. Demanding that another person “be less sensitive” is rude, yet gets treated as polite. And because already-privileged people who make such demands get rewarded further (beginning with social acceptance), there’s little incentive for them to practice empathy.
The egocentrism I’m talking about isn’t just about dynamics between men and women. For example, Linus Torvalds’ public verbal abuse of Linux kernel contributors is an example of how open source culture also tolerates abuse directed by men at other men. (Sometimes it doesn’t just tolerate it, but even encourages it, as when bystanders comment “well, assholes get things done.”) Social hierarchies and displays of dominance are certainly alive and well in how men interact with each other; and because hackers often define themselves as beings of pure rationality and logic, they rationalize these hierarchies as “necessary” for “getting things done”. (I think we could also “get things done” if we recognized and accepted that as humans, we frequently act for emotional rather than purely “logical” reasons — and maybe even if we accepted that the dichotomy between emotion and reason is a false one.) That, however, does not mean that verbal abuse between men is just as intense for the recipient as verbal abuse directed at women by men. It doesn’t mean that verbal abuse between men gets excused as easily as abuse directed as women. And it doesn’t mean that there as just as many opportunities for a man to exploit another man’s vulnerabilities as for men to put women in their place. It could hardly be otherwise, given the wealth of experiences that women bring to interactions with men, of internalized messages that (even for those women who have worked hard to unlearn them) tell them that they deserve whatever abuse they get, that they really had it coming. It’s not that abuse is ever acceptable when directed at anyone of any gender. Rather, it’s that being punched in the face feels more intense than being tapped on the shoulder.
Ultimately, we have to ask whether the freedom to abuse people is one of the freedoms we value. Richard Stallman himself identified four freedoms when it comes to software: “the freedom to run the software, for any purpose”; “The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish”; “The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor”; “The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes.” (He notes that for the second and fourth freedoms, access to the source code is a prerequisite.) The freedom to be an asshole does not appear on this list. Rather, these values point to inclusivity (the freedom to run the software, as in: to be included in the community of people who get to use it) and altruism (helping your neighbor; helping the community by distributing a better version). (Perhaps the inclusivity part is a bit of a stretch — the freedom to participate does not explicitly appear, which may say something about what Stallman took for granted.)
Decades before, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke about another set of four freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. How often do you hear stereotypically privileged open-source guys talk about freedom from fear? As I’ve discussed, much of the dialogue that happens when hacker culture talks about diversity and inclusion is about laughing off the idea that anyone else’s fears might be reasonable. Likewise, techno-libertarianism has very little room for a discussion about freedom from want. There isn’t much time and space in hacker culture for freedom of worship, either — especially when you take a broad view of what “freedom of worship” means and interpret as freedom to believe in things that can’t be proven with logical rules from empirical facts (like the dignity and worth of each human being), without being punished for it through ostracism or in any other way.
In either case, “freedom to treat other people as if they don’t have feelings, or as if their feelings don’t matter” is not on the list. (Thanks to Leigh Honeywell for pointing out Stallman’s and Roosevelt’s four freedoms, and the parallels between them, to me.)
Diversity as Devaluation
I want to ask a question outright that Reagle at best hints at: Is the very nature of open-source, its fundamental ideologies and values, inherently bound up with the insulation of oneself from the collaborative social project of making progress towards equality?
Maybe the whole system by which people produce free and open-source software is designed to provide the same sort of cozy lifestyle that one can find by being a programmer writing proprietary software, but without all those nagging structures of accountability that one finds in the corporate world. Like policies against harassment and discrimination. It’s true that companies adopt those to protect themselves against lawsuits, not to be morally correct, but they do protect people. And open source is a world without that protection. Maybe comparing open-source and corporate proprietary software is the best experiment one can do to determine what measures attract or repel participation by women. We know that open-source projects have an even more lopsided gender balance, as a general rule, than proprietary projects mainly composed of people being paid by a corporation to work on them. Can that really be a coincidence?
In a community with no formal governing structures, it’s far easier for people to take advantage of whatever privilege and power they inherit from the underlying society. One form this power takes on is that of speech acts that dehumanize and objectify people, and appeals to “freedom of speech” to immunize the speaker from the consequences of their speech.
I think that the desire to make boob jokes with impunity is not the only reason why male open-source programmers would want to keep women out, though. After all, the sexist jokes and comments that tend to engage the “free speech” defense the most are rarely funny or interesting. I think sexist jokes and comments are actually a means to an end, not an end in themselves. We know that male-dominated professions tend to be more socially prestigious and more highly paid than female-dominated or even gender-balanced professions. This can’t be an accident; men’s social over-valuation and their disproportionate participation in work that people think of as important form a positive feedback loop. For example, consider doctors and nurses: no doubt, women originally got tracked into nursing since medicine wasn’t considered an appropriate profession for a woman (gotta keep that power out of the hands of women). But even now that women have been allowed to study medicine for quite some time, nursing continues to be a lower-paid and less-praised profession, in large part (as far as I can tell) due to the significant presence of women in it.
The thing about prestige-as-male-domination is that it’s fractal. For example, within medicine, it’s common knowledge that primary care providers are likely to be women, while doctors who work in the most prestigious and highly compensated specialties (e.g. neurosurgery) are more likely to be men. Likewise, within computer science and software engineering, both of which are male-dominated as a rule, it’s harder for women to gain entry into some fields than others. Anecdotally, those fields (within academic CS) are theoretical computer science, programming languages, and operating systems. Among non-academic programmers, open-source programming (especially systems programming) occupies the role that theory, PL, and systems do within academe: looked up to and highly valued. By contrast, self-styled expert programmers tend to disdain jobs in areas like Web development and quality assurance — that’s “women’s work”, to the extent that any software jobs are. Technical writing, as an occupation, is even more looked down on and even more open to women. Perhaps that devaluation is part of a more general distaste among programmers for documentation, which could allow outsiders to glean the in-group’s secrets. Writing documentation is also a form of teaching, which is also a traditionally female-coded profession, and also a profession that’s frequently looked down on. So that’s why it’s so important for men in the high-status subdisciplines to maintain their status by making sure women don’t enter and devalue their field. Keeping women out means keeping salaries high.
(Statistics backing up what I just claimed about medicine — at least for the US — are available from the Association of American Medical Colleges (PDF link): see table 3 on page 13, “Number and Percentage of Active Physicians by Sex and Specialty, 2007”. The only specialty that’s majority-women is pediatrics; cardiovascular disease, neurological surgery, orthopedic surgery, and a few other specialties are over 90% men. I don’t know of any similar reports about gender distribution (and salary distribution) within different areas of the software industry, so I don’t claim to be speaking any more than informally, based on what I’ve heard over the years.)
“It’s amazing the things women did to advance computing before it advanced to the point that we learned women don’t like computing.”
— Garann Means
Before computers were machines, computers were women. Most of us know that part of the story. What I know less about, personally, was the specifics of the process by which men drove women out of the profession of computing as it, well, professionalized. I can guess that white middle-class dudes saw an easy desk job that potentially would pay well, and the rest is history. Without evidence (at least not any that I have handy right now), I claim that none of this was an accident. Expelling women from computing was essential to the historical process of the professionalization of software and hardware engineering. (I know that that’s roughly how it went down with the profession of medicine, as documented by Kristin Luker in her book Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood: as “scientific” medicine arose, mostly-male doctors needed a way to push mostly-female midwives off the scene, and one of the ways they did that was by inventing the supposed immorality of abortion as a wedge issue.) For many men, a job just doesn’t have as much value if it’s a job that many women do too. And numbers don’t lie: jobs in male-dominated professions literally do have more financial value than jobs in more equal or female-dominated professions.
So arguably, open source is not just a different way to produce software. It’s also an experiment in building an alternative economy for status and peer review. At the same time as for-profit companies began to look harder at how to diversify themselves, how to create policies that would protect workers from sexual harassment and various forms of discrimination, the open source movement gained more and more momentum as a way to recreate all of the good bits of being a software engineer in industry (high social status, freedom, and money) without those annoying parts like human resources departments, processes, accountability, and rules (mostly rules to protect less-powerful members of the community). I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
There’s one misinterpretation of this section that I’d like to head off before it starts. I’m not suggesting that some nefarious group of patriarchs got together, had a meeting about how to exclude women, and disseminated the memo in a lockstep, hierarchical fashion. That’s not how it works. There is no intelligent designer or invisible hand that makes sexist decisions — rather, sexism is an emergent and self-reinforcing pattern that arises from the choices of many individuals. Just as organisms in nature behave in predictable ways without there being any central evolution planning committee, people who study societies have observed that groups of humans often act out predictable patterns too. Of course, sociology and anthropology have different methods and different standards of evidence than biology and physics do, but the social sciences are the only tool we have for rigorously analyzing how groups of people operate. It would be silly and anti-intellectual to discard these disciplines in favor of nothing just because they aren’t like physics.
Finally, a note if you’re asking “where does the money come from in open source?”: more than a few businesses pay engineers (often quite well) to work on open-source software for either part or all of their working hours. (I work for one of them!) In addition, open-source work is frequently a gateway to lucrative jobs and to the kind of social connections that make it possible to found startups. “Free as in freedom” doesn’t mean people work for free, and seemingly more often than not, they do anything but.
Reagle ends his meticulously researched piece with a conclusion that appeals to me as an intersectional feminist: he says that to achieve the goals of openness of diversity, we can’t just focus on openness and diversity as goals (any more, I might add, than an individual can live a happy life by resolving to strive for happiness); we can’t make things better by focusing on a single axis. Just as severe gender imbalances are a symptom of a broken community, addressing root causes will increase diversity as a side effect. But we can’t ignore gender (or race, class, sexuality, or ability), either. Responding to Kat Walsh’s writing about Wikipedia, he says, “the language of being ‘more open and diverse in general’ is problematic. Seemingly, there is no ‘in general’ yet when it comes to notions such as ‘geekiness’, ‘openness’ and ‘freedom'”. I agree — during last year’s code of conduct discussions at Mozilla, some people protested the idea of what they saw as a bureaucratic document codifying standards of behavior with “Can’t we just all be nice to each other?” But being nice, as many people construe it, includes subtly undermining the value and place in society of women and people experiencing a variety of other intersecting oppressions. Likewise, the concepts of “geekiness”, “openness”, and “freedom” will not magically lose their gendered connotations — we have to actively work at it. We can’t build a world where gender doesn’t matter by pretending we’re already there.
Hacker culture is a personal topic for me, so my own conclusions can only be personal. When I was 16, I saw geek culture as something I had to become a part of because I didn’t know any other way to be the person I needed to be. Now that I’m 32, I’m increasingly afraid that it’s something I have to leave in order to be the person I need to be. I know now what I didn’t know when I was 16: that I can be free from constant misgendering, no matter what job I do. I also know what I didn’t know then: I need to be somebody who is kind, patient, willing to admit he’s wrong, and able to make space for other people to join in. I’m not sure if that’s compatible with being in the open-source community, while also having self-respect, dignity, and a place at the table.
Where this is more than just my personal dilemma, though, is that once, I wanted passionately to write open-source code, and now it’s a struggle for me to keep going; not because the nature of the work has changed (on the contrary, it’s gotten more fun as my understanding of it has deepened and my confidence has grown), but because either the culture has changed or I’ve become more aware of its shortcomings (or both). Wouldn’t you want to know about it if you were driving away potential contributors — or forcing them into impossible trade-offs? I don’t think anyone should have to choose between doing good work they love and feeling valued and respected as a human being.
Thanks to GF contributors Leigh, Skud, Sumana and Shiny; as well as Graydon Hoare, for their comments. Thanks to Debra “Teacake” for linking me to the statistics on gender distribution in medical specialties.
ETA Wed. Feb. 6th: Joseph Reagle posted a response to the responses, which is also worth reading.
- How To Be Inclusive: “To create cultures of inclusion, you first have to make acts of inclusion. A culture of inclusion is about offering help before offering criticism. It’s about knowing that everyone’s circumstances are different, and understanding those circumstances before jumping to judgement or conclusions. It’s about teaching, it’s about learning, and it’s about knowing that you can learn from the same people you can teach.”
- No More Objectification: “The widely-covered “Objectify a man in tech” day started out as a lark that emerged when I got fed up with experiencing — and seeing other women writers and presenters in gaming and tech — fielding irrelevant compliments on their appearance when people referenced their work.”
- Women Don’t Need to “Lean In” More; Powerful Men Need to Reach Out: “But women in the US now represent the majority of college graduates, the majority of MAs and the majority of PhDs. How much harder do you want them to ‘lean in’?”
- How do you edit Wikipedia?: “Wikipedia is seen as having a particular culture: valuing openness, cooperation and transparency, commited to the idea of “neutrality”, often adversarial and prone to edit wars and aggressive behaviour. I see myself as only partly fitting into this culture.”
- Interdependence and Strong Female Characters: “As long as we insist that female characters can only be strong through total independence, we do both them and women in the real world a disservice. The real mark of strength isn’t in how much of a loner you can be, how much you can isolate yourself, but how you can strike a balance, maintaining your strength and integrity while being unafraid to build emotional connections with other people.”
- A field guide to privilege in marine science: some reasons why we lack diversity: Scientists don’t always recognize the additional barrers, besides hard work, that prevent people from succeeding at science… Here, I present a short field guide to type of privilege that I’ve observed in science, and explain why becoming a scientist becomes immensely more difficult for people without that form of privilege.”
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Thanks to everyone who suggested links.