Building digital technologies

Translated from Spanish. Original article here

The inclusion of women in the building of technology (and specially, of digital technologies) is an issue that has got the attention of a variety of groups, from policy makers to researchers, public organisations, NGOs and entrepreneurs, and also of course groups that describe themselves as feminist.

Why does the “gender gap” get so much attention? Probably the reason for this, as several studies demonstrate, is that the inequity and the inequality of gender in the field of technology hasn’t been always this way. Data from from 2013 of Sadosky Foundation of Argentina, revealed that in Argentina in the 1970s more than 75% of students in Computer Science were women. Other studies, even when they are less rigorous, show that inexplicably in the 80s there was a global tendency that saw less women in the technology field.

It is hard to understand this reinforcement of woman and man stereotypes and impossible to determine the cause for it. A possible explanation is that there was a conservative backlash in the 80s that stalled the progress that social and feminist movements had made in the 70s in relation to gender equality.

The problem of gender inequity remained unquestioned for a long time, in part due to the fact that digital technologies remained a niche subject, that concerned only researchers, academics and the militia man. With the rise of computing industry in the country and later the popular use of the internet in the 90s, it was obvious that women were lagging far behind in participation in the building of digital technologies. A good portion of the world population interfaced with these technologies on a daily basis, and so we find ourselves in the paradoxical situation where women have been excluded in the building of the same technologies that they use intensively in their daily life.

In 2002, Val Henson wrote an interesting article called HOW-TO encourage women in Linux. The document sought to change daily practices in the free and open software communities that reinforced the exclusion of women in Linux user groups. But not until 2014, a software programmer named Coraline Ada Ehmke developed a code covenant for contributors to free and open software projects. Coraline Ada Ehmke was tired of the continuous harassment that women and LGBT people received when trying to collaborate in any project. Twelve years had to pass between the moment in which Val Henson wrote her “HOW-TO” and when Coraline launched the first version of her covenant code. This shows that the problem is real, but the progress in solving it was slow and hard to implement.

The problems of women-participation in the building of technologies are complex and hard to tackle. It begins with problems with public policy, where there remains a dire need for policies to incentivise the inclusion of women in science and technology careers through special scholarships or vocational programs for girls and teenagers. Cultural and social practices reinforce the exclusion of women – practices that are often perceived as being part of the codes of geek-culture, largely masculine and on occasion just plain sexist.

The solutions that Ehmke and Henson thought of are addressed to that community. And without a doubt, it is still useful to redirect men to read consciously Henson’s proposal. It is useful because it is specifically meant for men to think and rethink about their privilege and how their practices consolidate rather than break down the inequity. A man who is reading about Ehmke and Henson, is at least making an effort to recognise male privilege, but for the fulfilment of our rights we have to go a step further.

There are four notions about what is implied by “participating in a technology project”, that I think are necessary to discuss, to understand the social problem that we as women face when we want to be participants in the building of technology.

Meritocratic misogyny: If I am here, anyone can do it

This is the feminine version of the “Read The Fucking Manual” (RTFM), so popular in geek communities. The idea is that if a (read any) woman became a developer/sysadmin/network manager/any other position, then every other women is in the position of doing so. If she’s not doing it, then it is because she’s not interested at all. This premise doesn’t take into account previous inequities and inequalities to access technology and education opportunities. The starting points – and specially, the learning process – are always different. It’s possible that when this person installed her Linux for the first time, it was an exceptional thing to do, but that doesn’t takes away from the attempts of the rest of women to do it now. The important thing is to encourage other women to participate, and not to be the only woman achiever in a crowd of men. There is a pleasure in being special, but not at the expense of the advancement of other women.

“Show me the code”: is code the only valid contribution?

Without a doubt, without code, without lines of code, no software project would even exist. But it’s a lie that this is the only way to contribute to a software project. Eventually, those who code are so good at coding that they forget one of the fundamental parts that guarantee the replicability of the project: documentation. And, just in case, as well, many forget one of the fundamental aspects of any project, that is communication to others of the existence of the project, so others can contribute to it. To document, to translate, to organise the available information and to communicate are activities that can be executed in a software project that are fundamental and necessary to any project. It can be a way to work on a regular basis, in a respectful environment, with people that we’re interested to work with and from whom we can learn.

Everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others

In general, the space that women have to experiment is much more reduced than the space that men have. Take a simple test: every woman that has had a brother and a family computer, probably listened more than once from her mother: “Give it to him, He is the one that knows about the computer stuff”. It doesn’t matter that our brothers also often failed (and that finally it was necessary to call the computer technician) – the space for men to take apart, to fail, to experiment, to break things even, is always bigger.

What’s the only way to contribute to a technology project? Precisely, it is about taking things apart all the time, and to then research and dig , to find the solution that fixes the problem definitely or temporarily. The fear of failure and the fear of making mistakes are mechanisms that impede the experimentation and the learning process. This is the principal karma that any women with desire to participate in technology needs to be freed of to participate: it is not about doing it without a mistake, but it’s all about failing and learning from it.

Let go, patriarchy

Your lover or partner could be the love of your life, your brother might be an essential person in your existence and your father the hero of any story, but they might not be the right person to teach or tutor you. Probably both of you end up losing your patience with any challenge that you face because their challenge is teaching you and yours is learning. The easiest thing to do is to find another person to learn with, whom you can talk to as an equal, even when there are differences in the knowledge that each of you might have around the subject. The already established roles of our male partners or our family cannot be our liberating mechanisms.

Women have an enormous challenge to participate in the building of digital technologies. Of course, we need to address our male partners and colleagues, point out their position of male privilege and be with them when they learn to question it. We need to facilitate the inclusion of more women in these kind of spaces. But we can also make strong steps by learning how to collaborate and participate, build environments that facilitate the learning process and fortify our self-esteem to contribute in building technology.

The most important thing is knowing that we’re not alone.

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