9 Myths about Free/Open Source Software and Feminism

Thursday Jan 16th 2014 by Bruce Byfield
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An apparent backlash against women participating in free and open source software projects should be better understood.

In the last five years, the role of women has grown and feminism has become a recognized part of the free and open source software (FOSS) community.

However, this change has not gone unchallenged. Critics, often responding to their own misogyny and taking advantage of very real feminist gaffes, have been quick to characterize free software feminism in the most hostile ways possible.

In particular, here are nine myths about free software feminism that are either false, over-generalizations, or half-truths at best:

9. FOSS feminism is only a priority for women:

False. Although men tend to stay in the background, many support FOSS feminism. For instance, when The Ada Initiative looked for one hundred supporters to give it initial funding, 52 of the 87 individual donors had male names (the rest were anonymous, or groups). [Full disclosure: I resigned from The Ada Initiative's advisory board in November 2011, after serving on it for several months.]

8. FOSS feminists are outsiders:

Almost always false. Logically, feminists would have no interest in changing FOSS if it wasn't important to them. The majority of FOSS feminists are active code contributors, and most of the rest contribute to projects in other ways, such as writing documentation.

7. All FOSS feminists have the same concerns:

False. Some groups focus on encouraging women to code, others on getting more women to speak at conferences. Still others lobby for anti-harassment policies at conferences.

At times, too, the divide between radical and moderate feminists reveals itself. For example, in August 2012, journalist Rikki Endsley, who has written regularly about prominent women in FOSS, wrote about "Why I'm Not a Geek Feminist" in a blog that is no longer available, but was widely commented on at the time. Around the same time, Leslie Hawthorn published a similar critique of radical feminists entitled, "My Feminism isn't Good Enough for You."

These differences do not prevent different schools of feminists from cooperating with each other. However, they demonstrate that all free software feminists do not speak with a single voice.

6. The lack of women in FOSS reflects biological differences:

False. As Cordelia Fine points out in Delusions of Gender, differences between male and female brains have been observed, but connections between physical differences in the brain and ability have yet to be established. Media reports consistently exaggerate the differences and leap to conclusions that reinforce stereotypes.

5. The lack of women in FOSS reflects a personal preference:

False. While in theory women have a choice about whether to join projects, in practice, they are discouraged in so many ways that in practice a choice can hardly be said to exist. The fact that projects like Drupal that make an effort to be inclusive attract a much higher percentage of women than average suggests that, given half a welcome, many women actually do want to participate in FOSS.

(Coincidentally, all of computing could be more welcoming. In 1984, 37% of Computer Science degrees in the United States were awarded to women, but by 2010-11, the number of women receiving bachelor's degrees had dropped to 12%.)

4. Feminism is unnecessary, because FOSS is a meritocracy:

Generally false. While some women have succeeded in free software through their own efforts, the reports of projects being hostile to women are so numerous that meritocracy is revealed as more of an ideal in free software than a consistent practice. Frequently, women are not judged entirely on their code, but find their participation actively discouraged.

3. FOSS feminists emphasize the social over the technical:

False. This is a strange claim to make, because one of the identifying features of the community is the importance of the social aspects of coding, not only in the form of email and chats, but also of conferences and coding sprints.

In addition, relationships within projects often have as much to do with decisions as the quality of contributions.

You might question the claims that code will somehow be better if more women are involved in it, but you can hardly single out FOSS feminists for emphasizing social aspects when almost every community member is doing the same.

2. FOSS feminists advocate affirmative action:

False. Although some FOSS feminist talk about a future time when projects consist of 50% women, none have suggested any kind of quota system. This should not be surprising; FOSS feminists may question how well meritocracy is practiced, or even whether it should be an ideal, but they tend to respect competence as much as their male peers.

Many FOSS Feminists do support programs like the GNOME Outreach Program for Women that provide internships for women at participating projects. However, no project judges the work of these interns differently from that of other contributors.

1. FOSS feminists are pro-censorship:

Generally false; may be true in a specific case. This myth comes from allegations that in February 2013 The Ada Initiative forced the cancellation of a harm-reduction talk by Violet Blue at BSides San Francisco.

However, no feminist nor feminist group did much, if anything, to defend The Ada Initiative against these allegations. The most that can be said is that they remained silent -- in many cases out of concern that denouncing one group might reflect on all free software feminists.

The Need to Debunk

More than anything, these myths show that the backlash against free software feminism is present and active.

Such a backlash is hardly surprising, especially when FOSS feminism has become a community presence so quickly. But, regardless of what you think of feminism in free software, these myths deserve to be rejected. One way or the other, the critiques made by feminists need to be addressed, and these myths listed above do nothing except confuse the issues, and make them harder to confront. Finding common ground can be hard enough at the best of times without imaginary issues adding to the confusion.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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