A Response to “Engendering Change?”

I would like to thank Christine Dunbar-Hester and Gabriella Coleman for taking the time to read and comment on my recent piece in New Media and Society.  I suspect that all three of us would agree that gender and technology is never a “done deal,”  and that this is largely a good thing both politically and for social theory.  These notoriously thorny, fraught interrelationships continually prove to be intellectually productive in different times and places.  In my article, I identified a set of cultural and social notions within free/libre/open source software (F/LOSS) communities that make them less, not more, likely to have women participants despite fewer institutional barriers to participation.  In their recent posting, Dunbar-Hester and Coleman point to multifaceted ways that women and men are in fact discussing and creating support mechanisms for resisting dominant forms of doing gender within F/LOSS.  They go much further than I did in my article in terms of spelling out the diversity of resistance within these communities.  For the most part, I chose not to name specific groups with whom we worked in the course of research.  Some of the groups Dunbar-Hester and Coleman list in their response were included in our study, but others were not.  Both in my article and in their post, forms of resistance are indeed present and visible.  I look forward to more work being done on the topic of the strategies of transformation, inclusion, or resistance that do gain traction.  There is a lot yet to be done on this count.

However, I am concerned that their post might lead readers to believe my piece was about something that it was not.  I did not argue that the “gender problem” in F/LOSS centers on a double bind  of performing gender as either “too feminine” or “not feminine enough.”  Rather, I argued that the “gender problem” centers on what is meant by “open.”  I argued that the very sense of openness with which F/LOSS challenges other models of programming also mobilizes a liberal, individualizing form of gender normativity that exacerbates the exclusion of women.  I did argue that gender presents itself as off-topic (“taboo” as they put it).  However, this ethnographic point, which was substantiated in reference to practices and discourses that were readily observed, was in the context of a much broader argument that F/LOSS exacerbates wider cultural threads of liberalism that value gender “blindness” (amongst other blindnesses) and individual bootstrap-pulling. The bulk of the piece focuses on how F/LOSS enacts these cultural threads through the ways in which code is produced and exchanged. I argued that the myth of individual merit-making, where people are freed of obligations to one another, is more convincing in a context where people can write a piece of code and say, “here it is–do what you like with it” and have no further contact.  In this context, not all socio-technical forms are equal. Turning to listservs to resist the isolating effects of liberal individualism is not the same thing as challenging the valorization of lines of code that are separable from their authors.  A listserv has a different cultural valence than a patch in communities that value doing over talking.  A challenge to normative gender practices may in fact happen through the listservs, or in concert with other efforts, but as a socio-technical form a listserv alone leaves intact the model of the autonomous, autodidactic  geek.  Its use does not necessarily challenge the notion of code as something separable from the self, such that a “meritocracy” of worthy code is conceivable.  While the forms of liberal individualism in F/LOSS have in fact done much for new modes of technical production, they have their limitations when it comes to enabling institutional and social ties for inclusion.

No one denies that efforts are happening to make genders more visible and provide more support to marginalized groups.  Nor do I claim that absolutely everyone involved in the F/LOSS world thinks in these gender normative terms.  Instead, my goal was to explore what makes supporting change so difficult. Though Dunbar-Hester and Coleman have pointed to the efforts that do take place, they did not suggest that women are not marginalized, or that building systems to support women programmers is  easy. Understanding this marginalization does require a better understanding of the dynamics at stake in male dominance.  Just as gender is never one thing, so too sexism is multivalent and contextually situated.  A community overwhelmingly made up of men begs for a gendered understanding of how that community forms beyond “openness” as an organizing framework.  Gender is clearly doing some work for creating its coherence.  This coherence is no mere legacy of public/private dynamics, where men constitute their autonomy through a disidentification with feminized domesticities.  It is not a simple legacy, bound to get better with time, but a fascinatingly different take on longstanding dynamics through newer socio-technical logics.

Pointing out the socio-technical coherence with which “openness” is constituted is not the same thing as flattening every aspect of gender to a single “thing.”  If we can all agree that women are still talked about as “unicorns,” then we must agree that gender dominance is still in play even if the original quantitative assessment is now dated.  My work was to point out why such conversations about gender are so difficult, not that they never happen or never change.  I very much agree that a new quantitative survey that would identify women’s participation rates in F/LOSS communities is long overdue, and I would encourage others to take this up.  Indeed, as openness shapes more sociotechnical relations beyond F/LOSS per se, we urgently need to understand this evolution both within F/LOSS and in other areas of technology production.  Doing so, in my view, means tracking new and different forms of dominance alongside new forms of inclusion.  More women and more openness across the spectrum of technical production, both in F/LOSS and outside it, may in fact indicate more individualized, bootstrap-pulling women within a heightened neoliberalization of technical work, or it might mean more fundamental transformations in what it means to form social ties within “open” cultures of technology production.  I suspect the long term evolution will be much more complex than an either/or characterization, of course, but new quantitative data would be another opportunity to consider what does and does not change as more women join these technical communities.  I am also strongly in favor of future work that would mobilize queer theory to provide a view on what heteronormativity does for F/LOSS, alongside documenting the ways in which marginalized sexualities gain space. These are not papers that I chose to write, but they would be allied and necessary work. My hope for the present piece was simply that it might be both constructive and useful to recognize that issues of inclusion do not inevitably resolve themselves with greater “openness.”