Monday, February 11, 2013

What Feminism has to do with Software Freedom

English: The symbol of meritocracy
English: The symbol of meritocracy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
By Guest Writer: Bruce Byfield 

I'm often asked why I support feminism in free software. Mostly, the question is polite. Sometimes, it is rude and unintentionally comical, describing me as "a neutered male" in need of  an intervention. Others keep silent, except maybe to sigh, obviously thinking it wearily inevitable that someone with a reputation as a free software supporter should go galloping at the windmill of yet another cause. But even then, the question lingers in the air, waiting for an explanation.

The curiosity isn't helped, either, by the obvious fact that I support some feminists, and not others. However, you can support a cause without endorsing all its supporters, or all the tactics suggested for realizing its goals -- which is all I will say on that subject.

So why do I believe feminism is essential to the free software movement? The quickest answer is that I have been a feminist in everything I've done since I was fourteen. In particular, for thirty years I had a feminist marriage. 

But these are personal reasons, and I don't want to psychoanalyze myself in public -- (doing so would bore me as much as anyone else). Still less am I going to rehearse the massive under-representation of women in free software (if you haven't heard the figures by now, you're deliberately not listening. Enough to say that they are far too low to be the result of choice or chance). 

Instead, l'd simply like to suggest that there are at least twelve reasons why free software supporters should also be feminists:

12. Sexism, misogyny, and the under-representation of qualified women is a major contradiction in free software and technology. You can't claim to be returning control to people when you are ignoring or mistreating over half of them. – not if you want any credibility, anyway.

11. No free software and technology project has so many people that it can afford to discourage potential volunteers. Yet the way many parts of the community treat women, that's what is happening now.

10. Feminism has nothing to with quotas, lowering standards or double standards. It's about removing everything that prevents meritocracy from operating the way it should. It's about actually building the meritocracy that many people in free software believe already exists.

9. The attitudes towards women in free software are being used by career advisers as a reason to steer women away from these areas. Who wants to encourage an attitude like that?

8. Proprietary software has six to fourteen times greater participation by women. Granted, that still leaves plenty of room for improvement. But does anyone really want to concede that the proprietary mindset can do anything better than our community can?

7. The current state of affairs is embarrassing. Hasn't everybody had enough of community leaders making sexist remarks, or of keynote speakers delivering pornographic presentations and startups making gaffes? When the defenses and rationales are trotted out, it's as bad as hearing an elderly relative make a racist remark at the family Christmas gathering. You're torn between challenging their spite and nonsense and pretending it didn't happen so you don't make a scene. 

6. The current problems have been festering for over a decade. The time to do something about them is long overdue – and finally awareness has grown to a point where things are being done.

5.Increasing the participation of women requires nothing that's not routinely expected in modern society. If you have trouble with the idea, you're probably not capable of holding down a job or socializing with other people, either.

4. Free software idealism feels tired right now. Maybe another form of idealism can restore some passion to it.

3. Talent has no gender (and no ethnicity, culture, age, appearance, or political views, either). When you are lucky enough to find talent, you encourage it. You don't put obstacles in its way.

2. It's all about the kind of future you want to build, and eventually leave behind you. If you're a woman, it's about your future. If you're a parent, it's about a better future for your children, especially your daughters. If you're a man, it's about supporting your female relatives, friends, and colleagues, and having no regrets when you look back on your life.

1.To echo George Orwell, talking about his political beliefs: common decency.

-- Bruce Byfield

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  1. Bruce Byfield wrote, "8. Proprietary software has six to fourteen times greater participation by women. Granted, that still leaves plenty of room for improvement. But does anyone really want to concede that the proprietary mindset can do anything better than our community can?"

    Is this true? An image search shows very few women involved with M$'s developers conferences and those are mostly in the entertainment/advertising.

    Compare that with a search for "debconf" and women are prominent.


    Debian has about 1700 entries in its database and judging from names I would guess about 1% are women. They have a gender field but many leave it unspecified.


    Select "any" for country and click "search".

    9 women have posted profiles at

    "Microsoft currently employs 88,180 people who work across 32,404,796 square feet of Microsoft's premises, over 50,000 of which are U.S.-based. The male to female ratio is very high among Microsoft's American employees with a staggering 76% male workforce."

    That's for all US employees, not just developers. That includes office staff, salespeople etc.

    There's certainly nothing structural about Debian to prefer men. Bias in maths, science and technology is a widespread phenomenon in some regions. It's not about FLOSS. I expect as more barriers are broken by FLOSS the gender barrier will break too.

  2. They're getting old, but have a look at the FLOSSPOL survey results. Obviously, the exact percentages vary, but the overall pattern remains the same: Women are under-represented in technology in general, but they are especially under-represented in FOSS.
    - Bruce Byfield

  3. The 2% figure for FLOSS is really just programmers -- the numbers are not so bleak when it comes to the whole FLOSS infrastructure. Women have much better representation in sales and management of free-software oriented companies and they are better represented in documentation for free software.

    However, the FLOSSPOLS number of 30% for proprietary software is _also_ limited to programmers. So, yes, there really is a distinct FLOSS bias against women programmers.

    There are in fact, LOTS of "structural biases" built into the free-software communities. Removing these biases was the subject of an article I wrote for Free Software Magazine in 2008:

    The issue is not that these communities "exclude" women, but rather that they are built distinctly around the psychological needs of men. Women do not find these environments inviting, motivating, or interesting. (And truth be told, there are a lot of men who don't like them that much, either).

    I suspect this is just as much a problem for proprietary software development, but much more of it is _paid work_ for which the women will simply grit their teeth and endure the crap to get their paycheck. Or it may be that proprietary working groups are more likely to operate in the "real world" where normal social limits are applied rather than relying exclusively on flame- and troll-ridden mailing lists, news groups, and chats.

    However, women absolutely DO collaborate on projects online -- one only has to look at fan fiction communities to see this. Therefore, it's clear that you _can_ build online collaboration environments that are inviting to women. I see no technical or psychological reason why free software collaboration environments couldn't adopt these design practices.

    I think it is clear, though, that free software development appeals particularly to certain very male psychological needs: to prove oneself in a pecking order and to establish territory and authority. These are not big motivators for women. They are more likely to be motivated by having the quality of their work appreciated -- which requires an active and supportive community that we don't have.

    But existing free-software communities are caustic and hostile, designed to exclude anyone who doesn't fit the community's stereotypes of a good developer, and generally full of criticism, insults, and tearing-down of contributor's egos. One reason major free-software pundits are such egoists is because you have to be to survive in this environment.

    There are some situations (the military perhaps) where these behaviors may actually be adaptive towards the work. In those professions, it's fair to tell the women to suck it up and behave like men if they want to get by. But I'm not by any means convinced that free software development is such a discipline. In fact, I think the quality of free-software would improve dramatically if the communities were more supporting and less hostile.

    So there's more reason than just accommodating women to want these changes.

  4. Women learn not to post profiles publicly because that gets comments about their looks. If they post a profile without a picture, they're "obviously too ugly".

    It's really disturbing to realize that one side effect of the rise of technology has been to create more ways for creepy, disturbed men to stalk and harass women.

  5. thank you for this. beautiful post. I'm seeing a lot of people sharing this on fb. thank you so much!

  6. @Alex McFerron: And thank you for the kind words!