Sexism in geek culture and libertarianism


It’s common knowledge that women are underrepresented in IT and computer programming. But I didn’t realize that women are severely underrepresented—right around 1% of those programmers are women—in the exciting subset of computing often referred to as “open source.”

For those unfamiliar, the term open source refers to software released with the source code accessible to other software developers. What this means is that people can take your invention and copy and modify it to create other inventions without having to pay you any money.

For libertarians, the open source movement is especially promising. By all accounts, it has hewn pretty closely to what intellectual property foes like Jeffrey Tucker have predicted will happen when you let information free: World-changing inventions such as Wikipedia, WordPress, and Firefox are and are the result of open source development.

But why is this wonderful new world of openness seemingly closed to women? That’s the question the Mercatus Center’s Jerry Brito asked Joseph Reagle, Assistant Professor of Communications Studies at Northeastern University and author of a new paper entitled, “Free as in Sexist? Free culture and the gender gap,” in a recent “Surprisingly Free” podcast.

Two things are awesome about this. First, it’s great that Reagle is studying this problem in a rigorous, quantitative way. But even closer to my heart is the fact that a liberty organization, the Mercatus Center, is helping disseminate the findings. Libertarian thought leaders have, in my opinion, largely ignored both emerging technology and feminism to their detriment, so it’s wonderful to see Brito and Mercatus doing their part to close the gap.

In his paper and in the podcast, Reagle hypothesizes that there are three main contributors to the lack of women in the open source movement. They are as follows:

The geek identity, as traditionally constructed, and discursive style can be unappealing, open communities are especially susceptible to difficult people (which can be especially alienating to women), and the ideas of freedom and openness can be used to dismiss concerns and rationalize the gender gap as a matter of preference and choice.

Basically, take several aspects of geek culture that are particularly unappealing to women, exaggerate them, and you have the open source community. I’m sympathetic to this view because it makes sense on the surface and seems to jive with my own experience and the experiences of others around the internet (just take a look at the “fake geek girl” debacle).

One of my favorite parts of the podcast was about 15 minutes in when Reagle describes geeky womens’ frustration with having to have what they called Feminism 101 conversations over and over again with geeky men. When statements such as “Men and women should be able to participate equally” or “Men and women should be treated equally” are treated like axioms, sophisticated conversations are possible. But when they’re instead called into question, it’s Feminism 101. It should come as no surprise that there aren’t more women who want to waste their time with people who need this explained to them.

I’m not the first to make comparisons between geek culture and libertarian culture. But I will say that the brouhaha surrounding first Julie Borowski’s video and then my response concerning why there aren’t more libertarian women brought to my attention just how much Feminism 101 conversations are sadly still desperately needed in libertarianism.

Women do make up a larger percentage of libertarians than open source geeks. I think that’s  partly because we’re by-and-large not still arguing over whether men and women should be able to participate equally or should be treated equally.

However, unfortunately, there are still many prominent libertarians who publicly make sexist generalizations, refuse to identify as feminists, and openly mock the feminists who have fought to make those aforementioned axioms, well, axioms. Therefore, it really should come as no surprise that there aren’t more women who want to waste their time with people who need basic gender equality explained to them. Sexism is a pretty big turnoff to many thinking women.

So bravo to Reagle, Brito and Mercatus. Listen to “Surprisingly Free” and keep up the good work!

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