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Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Feminism and FLOSS

Introduction

Let's start this with some definitions. (No, this isn't about feminism and gum disease (although that might also be interesting).) FLOSS stands for "Free (Libre) Open Source Software." As they say, that's "free" as in speech, not "free" as in beer. FLOSS refers to software projects in which participation is more open. Users can get copies of the source code (this is the stuff that programmers make. you can change it and thus change the program) and do whatever they like with it, as long as what they distribute is also FLOSS. This is what we mean by "free."

However, to be clear, the distribution model of FLOSS means it is often also available without monetary exchange. Users can go to a website and get tons of cool software for their computer, including an operating system. You can get computer hardware and never pay for any of the programs on it and do this without piracy or stealing. And if you have technical skills and really like a piece of software, you can even add features to it. Or, you can ask for the feature and somebody might even listen to you and do it.

Every piece of software has a certain community aspect. The users are a group of people who care about the software. Thus, all software has some community. But proprietary software owned by big companies can afford to ignore this community or even work against them. Many of the mis-features in the new version of windows were added at the bequest of media companies and are contrary to the needs and desires of the user community. This dynamic is less present in FLOSS software because the user community has direct access to the very essence of the software. If something unpopular gets stuck in, they can take it back out. Thus FLOSS software is inherently democratic, existing squarely within the free marketplace of ideas. The users own the software.

Therefore FLOSS empowers the user. This dynamic tends to have implications in the social dynamic among users. Many FLOSS programs have online resources to help users and the community will often offer help and support to each other. For example a FLOSS thing I use has an IRC group (a chat room). Many users log in and keep it open in the background. If they have a problem, they can ask about it. If they notice somebody else is having a problem that they can solve, they might jump in and help.

Many of the implications and goals of FLOSS have an obvious commonality with feminist goals. In a more concise summary, my internet friend Paula (aka Bastubis) wrote:

I think FLOSS offers better possibilities [than proprietary software] for feminist use because:

  • it’s community owned
  • mutual and self-help model
  • collaborative
  • empowers the user

Women Developers

Despite all the commonality between FLOSS and feminism, it’s still the case that only around 1.5% of FLOSS developers are women. Therefore, we can conclude that while FLOSS has a commonality with feminism, it is not, in and of itself, inherently feminist or women's participation would be higher.

Ironically, some of the very openness of FLOSS may be part of the issue. All groups have hierarchies and power imbalances. In some groups, hierarchies are formalized and in others they are not. Informal groupings are fine for consciousness raising or within groups of friends, but they can become problematic in groups that are taking more direct action. For example, let's say a CR group decides to act on a specific issue. One person might have an idea for a protest, but, since this is a new direction for the group, before presenting it to the group as a whole, she runs it by a few friends within the group who offer suggestions. Over time, in-groups and out-groups develop, where a core group of friends discusses things before brining it to the group as a whole. This dynamic can quickly become toxic and it's why direct action groups often have specific handbooks for how to organize themselves. You cannot try to right a power imbalance unless you first recognize that it exists.

Ironically, sometimes even more oppressive hierarchy can be better for reaching feminist goals. About 20% of corporate developers are women. Corporations invest energy in trying to recruit women and trying to avoid the appearance of sexism (to some extent). This is not because corporations are good, far from it, but because we have been able to use the legal system to force them to be less discriminatory. However, turning the legal system on FLOSS is probably not the best solution to the lack-of-diversity problem, alas.

So, given all of this, what causes women’s non-participation in FLOSS? Well, most FLOSS stuff occurs on the internet. I remember the good old days of “nobody knows if you’re a dog on the internet” and how the invisibility of identity would lead to a truly colorblind, genderblind utopia. There’s multiple problems with this ideal, which can explain where it went wrong. First of all, access issues meant that the majority of (english-speaking) people on the internet were white men. This lead users to assume that anybody they were talking to was a white men. Secondly, anoninimity causes people to act like assholes. A few assholes could spew racist, sexist, classist garbage until populations that were sensitive to this would leave. The answer to this is not to do it in reverse because it’s a terrible model of how to behave and because it just won’t work. White guys are priviliged and this makes them less vulnerable to this kind of attack. So they’re in a position where they can exert this power and have no negative consequences for it. Probably, these are people who don’t feel terribly empowered in their daily lives. In the offline world, most gay bashers are teen boys who are alarmed about their own sexuality.

Informal hierarchies on online forums, coupled with conditions created by institutionalized oppression, therefore can create an environment which is explicitly hostile to women (and other minority groups). Because everyone is equally empowered, nobody is empowered to stop harassers, trolls, and vocal bigots. Indeed, a completely open forum is a situation where a troll (or a spammer) can destroy a community, by creating so much garbage that any meaningful communication is effectively drowned out. The way to solve this problem is to create a more formalized hierarchy, where certain users are granted the power to ban certain users or remove certain posts. These super-empowered users are called moderators. They keep spammers and trolls at bay. There are more refined models of moderation, such as rotating moderatorship or systems where comments are voted on and given certain scores (so users can elect to see only high-scoring comments).

However, moderation is only as good as the moderator(s). If the moderators don't care about sexism, an informal hierarchy based on sex can still exist. These partially unmoderated portions of the internet are often explicitly hostile to women. The moderated sections are less hostile, but there’s still the nobody-knows-if-you're-a-dog invisibility. Everyone around you is (apparently) a white man. This does not create a welcoming environment.

So what to do about women in FLOSS? As the hierarchies are most often informal, a legal remedy is probably not the answer. Therefore, I think there are two approaches we should explore. One is to work with prominent FLOSS organizations, like GNU, to put women in high profile positions. I think the Ubuntu group is probably receptive to this. This would create a situation where women FLOSS contributors are more visible.

The other approach is affinity groups. Having groups of women working together on FLOSS creates visibility and an a community which is specifically welcoming to them, potentially attracting more women to become active in FLOSS.

I think there’s also a financial issue Do FLOSS developers get paid for their work? (Frankly, I don’t want to add to the amount of unpaid labor already extracted from women.) Programmers in open source may be living off of donations to their projects. They may be funded by corporations and foundations. Some just do it in their free time. The grass-roots kind of FLOSS that we’re talking about is more in the free-time category of development. I’m guessing that the men who do free time development have some sort of infrastructure to support them. They’re students. Or they’re married and have a woman picking up after them or they have a maid (a woman picking up after them). By contrast, women who are not students usually have to pick up after themselves.

Non-profits

The ideals of FLOSS have a great synchronicity with non-profit enterprises, but if we want women who are in non-profits, and thus already getting low pay, to take up FLOSS development, it needs to be part of their job, not something for their free time. The good news about this is that there is funding out there.

If we want women who are in non-profits to take up FLOSS tools, we need to give them training and support, face to face, through affinity groups. The money they save on software licenses will make it worth their time. Also, we as developers need to make sure that the tools we give them are self-explanatory. If they want to get a volunteer to come in for an afternoon and do something, they want hir to just be able to sit down and do it, without having to spend too much time learning the system.

Conclusions

FLOSS and feminism could and should work together. To ensure that this happens on the development side, we need to push for both visibility and anti-sexist moderation policies. We can create visibility by getting women into visible formally hierarchical organizations that already exist and by creating our own such organizations. On the user side, we should specifically offer support through affinity groups, so that women have an explicitly welcoming environment where they can learn about FLOSS tools. Furthermore, we should specifically reach out to feminist non-profits as a means to help them become more effective and thus advance the cause of feminism in the brick and mortar world, as well as online.

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