Today in the age of the "brogrammer," whose frat boy tendencies are glorified and sought after by cutting-edge online startups, women in tech often find themselves objectified and excluded -- especially in communities like Wikipedia and open-source software, where women make up even less of the population (around 13 percent and 1 percent, respectively) than in more mainstream technical fields.
That was one of the facts Joseph Reagle, an assistant professor at Northeastern University, drew on for his study about "Free culture and the gender gap." He discovered that just because a community (like Wikipedia) says that it's open doesn't mean that it isn't hostile to women.
Free for all?
The "Free Encyclopedia" Wikipedia's claim to fame is that anyone can edit and contribute to it. To keep errors from cropping up, it has policies that let anyone flag part of an article for review, and allow trusted editors to decide how to present something.
The process by which those editors decide, however, is often highly combative and alienating to women, who "are socialized to not be competitive and avoid conflict" according to Reagle. Sue Gardner, the Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation (the project behind Wikipedia), wrote a list of "Nine Reasons Women Don't Edit Wikipedia," in which she noted Wikipedia's "fighty" and "contentious" culture, where loud and assertive people drive others out regardless of their competence.
"Otherwise commendable features"
Reagle found that Wikipedia's values of radical freedom and openness actually led to a culture that is more closed off to women. He noted that "implicit" power structures existed, even in the absence of formal ones; and that imposing few restrictions on how people treat each other can lead to "a chaotic culture of undisciplined vandals," which disenfranchises women from participation just as surely as if there were rules against women participating.
Similar dynamics exist in popular open-source software projects like the Linux kernel. Open-source luminaries like Eric Raymond are legendarily combative and hostile to "idiots," even while they they tolerate abusive personalities who drive female contributors away. Reagle's study quoted numerous female writers with experience working in Linux and open-source software, who called its community "cliquish and exclusionary" as well as "more competitive and fierce than most areas of programming."
How to achieve equality
Wikipedia's new Teahouse page is "a friendly place to help new editors," which is designed especially to encourage women to participate. Meanwhile, women like Denise Paolucci are creating their own startups like Dreamwidth, which are based on existing open-source programming code. Unlike most "proprietary" code, it's still free for women to do what they want with it -- if they can overcome the obstacles in their way.
Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.
- Technology & Electronics