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Thoughts on engaging women in tech communities…

April 10, 2012

This morning I read an email thread on 80c (a group for artists using free software) discussing the underrepresentation of women in F/LOSS (Free, Libre and Open Source Software) – although the discussion relates to women in tech and computer music more generally also, it seems to be a much greater problem in F/LOSS.

This report has some useful discussion and statistics:

As a follow up to this Alex Mclean wrote a post suggesting a theory for exclusion in free software as lying in general boundaries to entry into programming and a lack of confidence preventing  long term commitment  (later edited removing the comments about confidence).

I had been thinking a lot last summer about how positive discrimination and attempts to engage women in tech – if not well thought out – can be just as damaging and off-putting to women involved in or interested in tech so I posted the following reply to Alex’s post (apologies that I was too lazy to turn it into a proper blog post!):

Interesting theory… but im not sure i agree. I think its more likely a problem with deep rooted gender stereotyping not yet having been addressed in this area. 

Your final paragraph appears to characterise excluded groups (women being one of them) as being low in confidence and therefore not being able to apply themselves to the difficult task of learning how to programme. But I dont think it the case that women are inherently low in confidence for technical tasks. They are however culturally conditioned to have low confidence in this area. 

I really think that a large amount of the exclusion of women stems from their objectification in tech. I’ve regularly had people say thing along the lines of (paraphrasing obviously) ‘oh, it’s weird your into this, women usually aren’t’, or ‘oh it’s great that you’re into this even though you’re a woman’. i.e. the reaction is not ‘what do you do in this community’ but rather ‘oh, you’re a woman in this community’. This isn’t to say that people are often reacting negatively (although this has been an occaisional experience – for example when i once got completely cut out of a conversation that I had been part of because it got a little technical and the men conversing assumed that I would no longer be able to participate!), but they are often acting as though I’m a novelty or an oddity.

I also had a frustrating experience at ICMC last year where someone decided to organise an unofficial ‘Ladies Dinner’. This isn’t something i would usually attend as i dont believe in gender segregation but a couple of people that I wanted to speak to were going so I went along. However the result of this was that I then spent the majority of the rest of the week talking about how women are underepresented in computer music and the problems with this rather than talking about computer music, which is what I went there for! In the same week i was asked to apply for a commission specifically for female composers, which i did slightly begrudgingly as I have mixed feelings about whether this type of commission is promoting or segregating women. (i had intended to blog about this at the time but didnt want to jeopardise the commission by having ‘anti-feminist’ online rants!)

So, it seems as though women who are in tech are expected to talk about being a woman in tech, rather than talking about the tech itself. Early on in my masters degree i got labelled a feminist by my course mates – the vast majority of whom were male. As far as i could see I hadn’t really done much at this point to warrant this title aside from occaisionally complain about chauvinistic or mysogynst comments idly made by people who didnt realise what they had said was sexist. 

Since then I’ve been involved in a large amount of discourse about being a woman in computer music and have in a sense accidentally – but willingly – lived up to the feminist title that was put upon me. 

I also have had a number of opportunities come my way where my first thought has been that probably I’ve been asked to do this as they needed a token woman, I could be being paranoid here but when you’re in a serious minority and often judged on your gender rather than your merit it’s hard to know when someone genuinely likes your work, so I often find positive discrimination as much of a problem as negative discrimination. 

My point of this being (finally), that maybe if we weren’t told so often that women are low in confidence in tech and need extra help to get into it then maybe we wouldn’t be so low in confidence in tech. 

I really do care about the fact that women are underrepresented in tech communities and I do think that more should be done to discourage their exclusion. But i sometimes find that postiviley discriminatory discourse that characterises women as an other or seperate category or as needing extra help to reach the same technical and confidence levels as men is often as unhelpful as the negatively discriminatory cultural conditioning of women being objectified or less able to carry out tech tasks, and maybe if men in tech could talk to the women in tech on the same level as they talk to other men, with the same amount of confidence in their abilities and about what they’re doing rather than about the fact they’re a woman (celebratory or otherwise) maybe there would be less of a problem.

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