This article explores some of the issues relating to females in technical fields, particularly in the Open Source/Free Software movement and among communities of geeks and hackers: Why are there so few of them? Why are there even less who achieve excellence and recognition in their field? What causes and correlations can we find that might tell us more about this? And does it matter anyway? The desirability of having female hackers is also explored, and a possible alternative role for women in the field is suggested.
Much discussion of gender inequality in certain fields revolves around the concept of "Nature vs. Nurture". "Nature" is the term used to describe biological and genetic influences that are present at birth, while "nurture" refers to the environment in which a person is brought up.
The "Nature" side of the discussion is very difficult to investigate, as it is near-impossible to examine biological and genetic influences in isolation. Any person who is the subject of such a study would already be "polluted" by their upbringing and environment.
Since we cannot address the issue of "Nature" with respect to female geeks, this article will attempt to examine the "Nurture" side of the issue, and changes to our environment which may encourage more women into technical fields, especially hackerdom and the Open Source/Free Software movement.
With respect to terminology, I will use the terms "geeks", "hackers" and "Open Source/Free Software community" somewhat interchangeably in this article. I realize that they are different (though overlapping) groups, but since there appears to be a similar dearth of females in all three categories, the following discussion applies equally across the board. If you don't like my terms, feel free to mentally replace them with your own as you read this document.
It is also necessary for me to disclose my gender at this point. Those of you who have read my previous article will know that I am a self-identified "geek chick". I have been using computers since the age of ten or thereabouts, using Linux since 1993, and identify closely with hacker subculture and the Open Source movement. I feel it is necessary to explain this so that you will know where I'm coming from, and not misinterpret what I say in this article.
Lastly, I probably need to make it perfectly clear that this isn't an academic paper, and that this article is based on personal opinion and experience. And, despite the fact that I'm my own boss, the opinions expressed herein are not necessarily those of Netizen Pty Ltd or any other entity or group, including other female geeks.
It's been mentioned time and time again (and again, and again) that environmental factors prevent girls from becoming involved in the sciences, and that there are strong disincentives which discourage them from pursuing career paths in technical fields. This isn't up for argument; studies have repeatedly confirmed this, and it is widely accepted as correct.
However, I was thinking about this this evening and tried to figure out why it is that some people (both male and female, but predominantly male) can end up being geeks and hackers when they have little technical background, and why it is that so many people with technical background end up not becoming geeks.
In all fields of geek endeavour (and possibly in all fields of endeavour, period) there are levels of competence. Anyone who is new to computers will struggle at first, then at some point they will achieve a revelation, and break through to the next level. For applications users, this revelation comes when they realize the similarities between applications and are able to apply the general rules they have learned (such as, "Cut and paste work similarly in all applications" or "Most applications have a File menu, an Edit menu, minimize and maximize buttons, etc.") to new applications they encounter. For a programmer, the first revelation comes when, after learning more than one language, they realize that most languages have common constructs such as variables, conditions, looping, and error handling, and that the differences between them are merely a matter of syntax.
It is the ability to step back and take a wide view -- to find patterns and irregularities, rules and exceptions, general cases and special cases -- which allows us to put one level behind us as solved, and move on to the next one. Inhaling large bodies of knowledge such as technical documentation is also required to cement understanding of specific fields, and it is not uncommon for hackers to spend an intense period absorbing information in this manner.
Unfortunately, doing this requires a level of dedication beyond what is considered "normal" for most people. In hackerdom, this usually takes the form of a period of obsessive focus known as a "larval phase", which brings any natural tendency towards a hacker to the fore, and teaches necessary skills to bring a neophyte to maturity as a hacker. Why is it that only a small minority of people are prepared to undergo this process and emerge from it into the next level of understanding, as a butterfly emerges from its cocoon?
larval stage n. Describes a period of monomaniacal concentration on coding apparently passed through by all fledgling hackers. Common symptoms include the perpetration of more than one 36-hour hacking run in a given week; neglect of all other activities including usual basics like food, sleep, and personal hygiene; and a chronic case of advanced bleary-eye. Can last from 6 months to 2 years, the apparent median being around 18 months. A few so afflicted never resume a more `normal' life, but the ordeal seems to be necessary to produce really wizardly (as opposed to merely competent) programmers. See also wannabee. A less protracted and intense version of larval stage (typically lasting about a month) may recur when one is learning a new OS or programming language.
The simple answer to this is that it is those who are less attached to the idea of "having a life" who are prepared to spend weeks at a time glued to their computers. The correlation between technical proficiency and social ineptitude is not that those with poor social skills turn to computers; rather, that those with good social skills will have less opportunity to advance their technical ones.
This leads us back to the issue of gender, and why there are few female geeks. One reason may be that girls are encouraged more strongly to be social, and to place greater value in social interactions and social skills. Also, many of the hobbies boys are involved in -- model building, sports, etc. -- reward obsession to a higher degree than girls' hobbies, and hence lead to a greater inclination and ability to focus during their larval stage(s). While girls also have some activities which encourage dedication/obsession (namely music and sports), they are far more likely to give them up during adolescence than boys are.
Those people who are able to obsess over technology for extended periods of time, to the detriment of "normal" social interaction, at least on an occasional basis, will be rewarded with greater depth of knowledge. It's as simple as that. A geek who realizes this will say things like "Sometime when I've got a week free I really have to get my head around such-and-such a topic..." and will try to find the time to go through another larval phase, even if it means spending their holiday time in front of a computer.
So why is it that some people with no apparent social commitments and an interest in technology are nevertheless unable to excel in the field? I believe that it's because people need to start young, and learn that there are new levels to be reached. I've seen people convinced that they are computing wizards because they can correctly build a PC and install Windows, and never realize that there is more to it than that. These people have never learned to look for the underlying patterns or to seek the next level. It would never occur to them to spend a week sniffing packets, reading RFCs, groveling over a core file, or banging their head against a desk trying to bring their code to perfection. They cannot see or appreciate elegance, and will never be able to produce it. They will move from the field of technology into sales or management, and they will not regret it.
It is a sad but true fact that, no matter how many more women are becoming becoming technically literate, there is not -- and will not be, anytime soon -- a proportional number of female "alpha geeks".
Can this be changed? Do we want it to be changed?
Assuming that we want it to change, there are several things can be done to increase the number -- and the quality -- of female geeks.
Encouraging students at high school age to study technical subjects may not be an effective measure. Sure, it will probably result in more girls studying mathematics and sciences, but the analytical mentality required to achieve excellence in technical fields must be encouraged long before high school age.
Here are some measures which may help foster an analytical mindset in children -- especially, but not only, girls.
Pushing women through secondary or university level technical courses will not produce hackers. Giving girls Tonka trucks instead of Barbies will not produce hackers. Only the early installation of the right kind of clues, and supporting the kids in question in their quest for knowledge and understanding, will achieve it.
Only a very few of my generation happened to be brought up this way (thanks, Dad). It remains to be seen whether the proportion will increase over the next couple of decades.
This can be described as:
Option 1: Change the way females think to fit hackerdom
But do we want more female geeks and hackers? Ask most male geeks -- particularly those who are young, straight, and single -- and the answer will almost certainly be a resounding "YES". The reasons for this should be obvious. Perhaps the question should be modified to: Why do we want more females in this area, and what benefits (if any) will this bring?
A quick straw-poll of hackers suggests that the reason for wanting more women in the field (hormonal urges aside) is that it is felt that they would bring a different perspective and generate new ideas.
If this is the case, our entire question needs to be turned around. Not "Why are there so few women?", but "Where are we drawing the boundaries of hackerdom, are we prepared to expand them to let new perspectives and ideas in, and would expanding them cause a greater proportion of women to be included?"
Currently, projects are considered to have more "hack value" if they are low-level (kernel hacking, for instance, as opposed to applications), general in nature (useful tools rather than specific applications), and require supreme efforts of concentration and dedication to complete.
There is also a view of development projects that separates them into "hard" and "soft", where "hard" projects are those which are lower level and have greater kudos associated with them. Hard projects include such things as kernel hacking, writing device drivers, and creating new programming languages. Soft projects include applications, user interfaces, multimedia, documentation, and so on. By stretching the definition, we could say that advocacy, training, marketing, and business-related activities could also be considered "soft" projects.
If females are wanted in order to bring new perspectives and ideas, perhaps the values we use to judge hacking projects, and the ways in which we describe and categorize them, will need to change radically. For instance, the value we place on "soft" projects may need to be reappraised, or we may find new and interesting ways in which "hard" and "soft" can overlap and interrelate.
Opening up our definition of hackerdom to include such traditionally female concepts as user interface and psychology, written and verbal communications, group interactions (both electronic and face to face), et cetera, may be a valid alternative to requiring women to fit the existing hacker mold. Additionally, it may result in communities and processes which are even more powerful than our current models. This can be described as...
Option 2: Change hackerdom to be more accepting of females
Do we want to change hackerdom to suit females at all? Or do we want to change female mentality to suit hackerdom? Both involve fairly massive social upheaval, and there is no way to tell whether either of them will be successful in the long run.
For the sake of the argument, let's look at another option: change neither. That is, make an effort to fit women (as they are, without trying to change them) into hackerdom in its current form.
Option 3: Fit women (as they are) into hackerdom (in its current form)
Women have, in the past and the present, demonstrated their ability to fit into hackerdom both socially and technically. Male hackers, as described in A Portrait of J. Random Hacker, are not particularly prone to overt sexism or other bigotry (at least as compared to the general populace or to men in the IT field in general) -- perhaps because "if one's imagination readily grants full human rights to future AI programs, robots, dolphins, and extraterrestrial aliens, mere color and gender can't seem very important any more." Nor are male hackers unwilling to accept new ideas and perspectives; rapid changes in technology and their inherent intelligence and ability to integrate concepts make it easier for them than for many other people.
Female hackers (for some definition of hacker which is not necessarily tied to "hard" projects) do exist. I know several of them. However, the geek/hacker community doesn't seem to notice or acknowledge them. I'm not saying this out of a sense of immature pique at having been overlooked, but in response to numerous articles on Slashdot and other fora saying, in effect, "Where are the female geeks?" Every time this occurs, numerous female geeks and hackers say "Here we are!" and, largely, get ignored or forgotten by the next time the question is raised.
Perhaps what is needed is an acknowledgement of female hackers and other geek chicks, a PR campaign to let other proto-geekettes know that we're here, in fact an active recruiting campaign.
This recruiting campaign would need to target women who have the latent abilities -- perhaps instilled by parents or teachers following similar strategies to those outlined above, perhaps owing to biology or genetics -- but who have not yet found a community of like-minded people to encourage them to extend themselves. It would need to teach them both technical and social skills relevant to the group, and show them the reward that can be found in hacking.
This campaign would need the support of both men and women who are already part of the community. Only the combined message of "We want your input" (from the guys), and reassurance that it's worthwhile and that a newcomer will be encouraged and respected (from the girls), can have the desired effect.
In the last year or so, I've seen several attempts to do exactly this, and been involved in at least three. The most active and recognizable of these groups is Linuxchix, a group formed by Deb Richardson as a forum for female Linux users.
Linuxchix boasts hundreds, if not thousands, of members both female and male, and several mailing lists from "techtalk" where technical questions are asked and answers found, to "issues" where the issues facing women in computing, Open Source, the IT workplace, and the Linux community are raised and discussed.
Linuxchix has received extensive media coverage from Slashdot to ZDNet to the mainstream press, and women are starting to realize that Linux is not actually a male-only domain.
Another, less formal, move towards gender consciousness and encouraging female hackers has been seen in the Perl community. While the "MarsNeedsWomen" Perl Mongers group is largely inactive, the Perl community is home to regular discussions on the topic of women in Perl, why there are so few, and what can be done about it.
The underlying issue in the Perl community is not that there are few Perl programmers who happen to be female (because, as far as we can tell, there are lots -- especially those who use Perl as part of the jobs as Web developers or systems administrators) but that those females (with a few notable exceptions) are not active in the Perl community. For instance, O'Reilly's Perl Conference in August 1999 is said to have had approximately 1% female attendance.
In recent discussions on the perl-trainers mailing list some theories were suggested to explain the lack of women in the Perl community.
One theory is that female Perl programmers tend to use Perl as a single part of their jobs (for instance, web development, data management, or systems administration) and not as an end in itself. These women don't "identify" as Perl programmers, and would be unlikely to attend a Perl conference, join a user group, or subscribe to a Perl journal, when they could find similar resources more suited to their wider needs (for example, a Web development conference).
A second theory suggested that the confrontational style of many Perl discussion fora (for instance, comp.lang.perl.misc and the p5p mailing list) may be offputting to women. I was personally going to discount this theory, until I realized that in fact the level of confrontation and flamage on p5p is my main reason for not being on that list. I don't think of myself as having particularly delicate sensibilities, nor do I shrink from heated discussions when they're necessary, but for me, arguments about the deep technical language of the Perl interpreter have no value to me. This is quite likely true of many other female Perl programmers, and yet another indication that women are more interested in applying technologies to real life situations than to obsessing about the implementation details of those technologies.
These insights suggest that the Perl community, rather than trying to find females within its ranks, should be looking outwards to people who are not already members of that community: Web developers (for instance, members of the webgrrls groups), Linuxchix members who may be interested in using Perl or learning to program under Linux, and members of industry groups such as SAGE (The System Administrators Guild, affiliated with USENIX).
By forming visible networks of female Open Source users and hackers, the Open Source community can reasonably expect to attract more females, who bring with them a range of skills other than technical, and who will find greater opportunities for personal growth and for improving Open Source software and community than would have been possible if they had remained in isolation.
Even with the support and encouragement of the hacker/geek community, it is possible -- even likely -- that women will not end up as Alpha Geeks, at least not without a massive paradigm shift regarding our definition of the term. It is difficult for even the most hopeful idealist to envisage women dedicating themselves to the hacker lifestyle and to producing general-purpose, widely used products with high "hack value" like Linux, Emacs, or Perl (all of which were initially developed by men working alone). Some people would suggest that women have more sense than this.
In that case, what chance is there for women hackers to achieve excellence and recognition?
It was mentioned earlier that the skills at which women typically excel include UI and psychology, language and communications, and group interactions. In conjunction with a solid grounding in technical subjects and hacker culture, female geeks may be able to use these strengths in an as yet largely unconsidered field: that of integrator, leader, and facilitator. Social skills which may be a barrier to hacking may in the end turn out to be what is needed to give direction and support to a project. In particular, the "bazaar" style of development prevalent in the Open Source/Free Software community could greatly benefit from the input of technically-literate females, even if they are not actively producing world-shaking hacks.
Already there are indications that this is starting to take place. For instance, despite recent complaints of a lack of women in the Perl programming community, most of the Perl-related mailing lists to which I subscribe are administered by women, who act either as advocates, "den mothers", or both. The Open Source Writers Group, a network of writers, editors and proofreaders involved in Open Source, is run by the same woman who runs Linuxchix. And at least two major Web-based Linux news sites have women prominently featured in their editorial staff.
Roles available for the asking to technically minded women (or indeed anyone with the pre-requisite skills) include:
These are tasks that need to be done, and which aren't getting done to a sufficient degree in the Open Source/Free Software community. Quite possibly it's because of the lack of women in the field.
I do not wish to imply in any way that because these tasks rely on skills which are traditionally considered to be "feminine", they remove the necessity of assisting girls achieve an analytical, hackish mentality from an early age. These roles require hacker knowledge and attitude, not only to understand the technical issues but also to be able to communicate with and understand the needs of the other hackers involved in the project.
Let me repeat this, as people seem to have trouble grasping what I'm saying: These are not non-hacker roles. These are roles for hackers who have additional skills. Super-hackers (in the mathematical sense of a superset), so to speak, rather than sub-hackers.
Now, I realize that I'm going to get ripped to shreds for even suggesting that women should take on traditional, non-technical roles. That's fine. If you don't agree with me, you don't have to do what I say. I don't claim that I have all the answers to anything, nor that I speak for other female hackers.
Before you completely write off what I say, I ask you to consider something that someone once told me: "One person's offensive stereotype is another person's useful rule of thumb." It is a useful rule of thumb (or "heuristic", if you prefer) that women, because of their upbringing, tend to have more skill, on average, in the areas mentioned above.
To women I say: Use these skills. Don't write them off as "non-hackerly". Don't presume that they're unrelated to technology or hacking. Don't think that they're not needed to bring a project to maturity. And most of all, don't discount their value to the Open Source/Free Software community.
To the men in Open Source, I say: take a look at your work, at your projects. Are your projects well managed and well documented in appropriate formats? Have you given attention to the user interface? Does your software have the polish that's needed to gain acceptance outside the hacker community? Are your users being looked after and feeling as if they're a necessary and appreciated part of the Open Source development process? Is your Web site up to date, and does it contain all the information it needs, presented in a consistent, logical format that makes it easy to find information? If the answer to any of these questions is "no", your software is falling short of its potential. If you've ever said that you wish there were more female geeks in the Open Source community, now may be your opportunity to welcome them into your team, not as mascots or hangers-on, but as an indispensable part of the project.
3. MarsNeedsWomen.pm, Fun With Perl, Perl-AI, Melbourne.pm; the Perl Mongers group leaders mailing list is run by a male.
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