Free Software, Free Society?

September 18, 2014

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Endocode and newthinking are partner companies who campaign for gender balance. The following interview is also available in German on the newthinking blog; it was conducted in June 2014 with Silke Meyer. Silke is a doctor of political science with a penchant for IT. She works as a system administrator at Wikimedia Germany and in her spare time does volunteer work for the Berlin-based Freifunk initiative and the open-source distributed social network Friendica. Her doctoral thesis is entitled “Free Software, Free Society? Reproductions of Difference in Free/Libre Open-Source Software Communities”.

Silke, you took a close look at Linux User Groups and analysed how people interact in them, how they deal with technology and also how societal constellations of power and hegemony are reflected in them. Alongside gender, other factors included ‘expertise’ and ‘style’ when dealing with technical equipment. What insights did you gain when it comes to gender?

Gender as an issue is clearly present at many different levels, and not just in Linux User Groups, of course. What really struck me was how strongly many situations fall back on established symbolism: for example, the stereotype of women not being interested in computers is also highly influential in Linux Groups. That is then reflected in the real-world experience, i.e. in specific situations: when giving help on Linux issues to others, people who are ‘read’ as women are confronted with totally different presumptions about what they already know about Linux, in how much depth their question needs to be answered, if they want to learn how to resolve the problem themselves or if they want a male to do it for them.

Right, and I can imagine that that is just scratching the surface. Do you have examples of where male dominance in IT is more explicit?

You can sometimes find allusions to gender in source code or software configurations, too. One initiative, which is based on open-source distributed WiFi networks, uses one specific channel and one specific code for the network across Berlin. The code needs to be uniform to ensure the network functions, and to make sure it’s easy to remember, it is derived from the sentence “two coffees, babe!” (02:CA:FF:EE:BA:BE). That sparks a clear association in my mind: “men” look after the technology, while “women” bring the coffee. I guess it’s just a case of someone uncritically thinking “it’s quite amusing and easy to remember”. It is, however, also an allusion to gender roles and a traditional division of work. From a certain point, unfortunately, once this allusion is in the configuration, it’s very hard to change because there are devices out there using it.

And as the examples show, they are also very heteronormative: there are only two genders, men as doers with top knowledge of technology, a seemingly homogenous group of experts, and women as service staff, as decoration or objects of male sexual desire. A male-dominated domain can, however, be changed not only by admitting more people who clearly identify as women, but also by all the other possible ‘others’ who shake the heteronormative two-gender system without which these ‘male domains’ per se wouldn’t even be able to exist.

The issue with the gendered division of work is also partly apparent in open-source projects: for example, there is often talk of how women are totally underrepresented there. Studies exist which indicate only one to three percent of developers on open-source software projects are female. But what counts as a ‘contribution’ to these projects? Very often, it’s only the programming, the most respected job. We can, though, think more laterally and ask ourselves what else is part of a good software project? Examples include interface design, documentation, software testing, booth duty at exhibitions, public relations etc. It’s not that these things are always done by women, but ignoring them often strongly distorts the figures and makes many jobs – and the people that do them – invisible.

Would you say that open-source social networks are gender-neutral? Is anyone welcome, regardless of their gender?

I don’t think any part of society is neutral when it comes to gender. Far more important is whether people in any one group are discriminated against on the basis of gender, gender identity or assigned gender. There’s no one answer for the open-source software communities and many differing reports from women on the issue. In a large number of the social networks, gender suddenly becomes a topic when the first woman joins a group in which everyone identifies as male. I’ve often experienced or noticed that newcomers to Linux Groups, if they are construed as women, are stereotyped as ‘feminine’. They often have to hear that they are women, and are frequently expected to speak for the female gender. The content of the social networks, open-source software, often retreats into the background for a while. That, of course, if not true of all groups and can also change when women get involved on an ongoing basis.

My own experience has been quite good, especially when I’ve been in a group for a longer period and know the people there. I sometimes hear pretty shameful things from external service providers when I’m at work. For example, I call Deutsche Telekom and say ‘Hi, something’s not right with your DNS. How do I root out the problem?’ They then say something like ‘can I speak to the system administrator?’. Or my colleague brings a service technician into the building, and as soon as I turn up, the guest says ‘No-one’s offered me a coffee yet’. Coffee, babe, as it were.

You said at the beginning that you managed to identify three things in open-source social networks which mirror society. One of them was gender. You also mentioned expertise and style …

The knowledge that is shared in Linux User Groups is very often of an expert nature and the gradual evolution of expertise. You can’t just study Linux and be done, rather it’s the years you work with it and things you try out with it which progressively enrich your experience and knowledge. Most people acquired their expertise on their own or in informal learning environments. And they’re socially selective. Being able to learn in this way means being versed in certain social situations. This often also has an element of gender: because using computers is more frequently promoted amongst boys at a young age than it is for girls, there are logically more men who can look back on a long history of IT experience. So there isn’t necessarily one situation in which gender is important and another one where only expert knowledge is required; the two are more often interlinked.

So, once again, men have hegemony over women when it comes to expertise. What role does power have in the situations you analysed?

That depends on the social network and the situation. In some situation, power is constituted as dominant behaviour and language. Some people, for example, manage to come across as credible even though what they’re saying is nonsense. In other situations, there are spontaneous contests to find the ideal solution, where people want to show who is fastest at cutting out some parts of a file. And it was possible because there was an interested audience, and a style of communication along the line of ‘yours is shit, you have to do everything manually. I’ll be able to do in one line’. It was clearly about the person who had the best knowledge of whatever tool it was and could appealingly demonstrate it. Positions of power here – as indeed anywhere else – have a great deal to do with becoming known as an expert in one field and being recognised as such by others.

I got to know you as someone who can defend their views. You’re not afraid of confrontation if you’re passionate about something …

If I don’t like something, I won’t just ignore it. At the least I usually say something – to whomever’s listening. I also actively use situations to bring issues out into the open. I think that dealing with an unpleasant situation is not my personal problem but rather a chance to highlight what’s happening. I tend to seek the support of a broad audience which has picked up on it [clenches her fist]. It’s really important to critically reflect on hierarchies of power in certain situations and ask yourself: ‘What does gender have to do with what we’re doing right now and do we want to continue like this?’ A big issue here is awareness – and, wherever possible, I try not to negotiate it with one person but rather generally discern the boundaries in the group.

What do you think we, a company which previously had only male employees, need to do to make it easier for women to work with us?

I’d ask myself a few questions: ‘OK, do I have allies if something happens? Whom could I talk to then? Is this somewhere I can cut someone down to size if they act outrageously or cross a boundary? Could I be sure that everyone else won’t just support the other person or maybe even not show any interest in the matter?’ I would hope that this would be addressed at the very outset: ‘OK, you’re the first woman here. What do you need for this to be as pleasant as possible for you?’ I think everyone would have their own answer to this question. Some might say ‘Well, let’s just not talk about it, I’ve never had any problems.’ And others may have specific ideas of what kind of communicative environment they need, if that can be sorted out internally or if an external contact is required. Just recently, there was the case of Julie Ann Horvath, who worked at GitHub and was bullied and openly confronted with sexism. The only option ultimately left to her was to quit GitHub, because there were no forums or other contact opportunities, not even internally, to discuss and resolve the issues.

You’ve looked at open-source social networks, the operative word being ‘open’: I’ve often noticed that openness in this context is applied to the software but not always to other things

[Grins] Yes, that was indeed one of my starting points, a key motivation to write the thesis. This perceived contradiction between ‘we want to do everything differently. We want to develop software and pass on knowledge of it’. That’s a highly emancipatory objective. Why, then, are the groups so homogenous and ultimately not as open as we might expect in many areas? Nowadays, I think: ‘Of course, there are many contexts in which you can contrast objectives and reality and then bring out the contradictions – that’s really easy.’

I’m hearing some understanding there …

To stay with the Linux User Groups: these are voluntary activities, or hobbies. It’s a great deal to ask of one person that they reflect on how they pass on their knowledge and then to gauge that against political ideas which the people themselves may not share. A user group, after all, implies action rather than standing back and thinking of the group as an educational or even political environment. Despite this, I would be delighted to see more serious interest among these tech-savvy communities in engaging with internal social processes and viewing them in relation to the rest of [society] Ideally, that could lead to more inclusive real-world practice.

This interview was conducted by Andreas Wichmann. Andreas is a partner at Endocode AG and an expert in collaboration. As a consultant he helps clients with their processes concerning teamwork and cooperation. In addition to his work at Endocode, Andreas is active on projects at newthinking in several capacities, including as an expert for open innovation projects.

Find all articles in the gender balance series here:

  1. Personal insights: women in IT – with Jennifer Beecher
  2. Just do it! – with Cecilia Palmer
  3. Free Software, Free Society? – with Silke Meyer
  4. What women want – and what they have to learn – with Jutta Wepler
  5. Endocode wants gender balance: How to start? – with Jennifer Beecher