Surprise! Feminism.

So yesterday’s article on it being OK to write shitty open source has had thirty thousand views. Most of these came from it hanging out at the top of r/programming for nearly 24 hours.

Which… wow. Another four thousand (which it will probably manage today) and it will be twice as popular as my next most popular articles, which have respectively had a nation wide referendum and years of being a wikipedia link from a popular article to drive up their traffic.

Of those thirty thousand, I’d bet you decent money that twenty thousand minimum thought it was purely about software aphorisms like “release early, release often” and “worse is better” (it’s not about worse is better. Stop trying to make it about worse is better) and didn’t notice that it was not even subtly coded feminism.

“Wait, what? How was it feminism? You didn’t even mention gender!” says my old friend, the suspiciously convenient anonymous voice, currently acting as an expy for a whole bunch of dudes who would have been happy to do the job.

You are correct, suspiciously convenient anonymous voice. I did not mention gender, and in a perfectly egalitarian feminist utopia the piece could have stood on its own without any feminist undertones to speak of.

But we don’t live in that utopia.

As I mentioned, there are two things that you need in order to produce quality software for free:

  1. Time
  2. Money

Anyone want to take a guess what women on average have much less of? Anyone? Anyone?

Did you guess “Both of these things”? Well done!

In our society, a far greater burden of free labour is placed on women (Terminology note: I think everything I say about women in this piece also applies to people who are not women but are perceived as such). They are more likely to be expected to do child care, more likely to be expected to do house work, more likely to be expected to provide free emotional labour in the form of support and favours to others.

And, as we established, labour takes time. So all of this extra labour women are being expected to do cuts into the time they have to do other things, like open source.

But wait, there’s more! Women are also paid less (exact reports for how much differ, so I’m not going to mention a figure for people to derail the point by quibbling about). The freedom to take time off to work on a thing is a lot easier to have if you’re actually paid enough to be able to afford it.

It’s OK though. In order to make up for the lack of these two things, women do have a few things they have more of to offset it.

  1. Dudes who think they are entitled to their time for free
  2. Standards of quality they are expected to meet

…wait, that doesn’t make it better at all, does it?

The sad fact is that women with a public presence get given a much harder time than men do, and this transfers entirely to the open source world: People are extremely ready to police the quality of your work already. Being a woman turns this up to 11.

So with less time and less money to achieve quality in and higher standards they are likely to be expected to adhere to, is it any surprise that the percentage of women in open source is a lot lower than it is in tech overall (where it’s already bad)?

Open source culture in general, and this problem in particular, are not exclusively feminist issues. You absolutely can and do experience these problems as a man, and these problems could easily still exist in a fully gender equal or genderless society, but any understanding of how these problems manifest in and interact with the society we actually have will be incomplete without the structural analysis of privilege and its interaction with gender that feminism brings to the table.

If you want to read more about this subject, I recommend this great piece by Ashe Dryden: The ethics of unpaid labour and the OSS community. A lot of my thoughts and opinions around this were informed by it.


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