This article is based on a talk I presented at LibrePlanet (the annual conference hosted by the Free Software Foundation) in March, 2015. The images used on this article were originally used as slides for the presentation itself, and was later published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license on Wikimedia Commons.
In the beginning the Cyberspace was created
When we started claiming the Cyberspace a couple of years ago, we had imagined a future world where race, economic power, military force, or station of birth would not be parameters of one’s ability to access. Of course, we were dreamers. But we were tired too, and felt the need to build a kind of spaciality that was to question the power relationships inherent in our social structures. It’s been some time now; our modernity is looking at us in the eye and asking some serious questions, and rightly so. The community-driven approach towards education, computing, and technology that has emerged through the years, has weaved new cultures of learning – ones that have shaped this very modernity indeed. Education was till now was believed to be achievable only through a process of knowledge transfer from an authority to a learner: that is to say, by teaching in a closed classroom often consisting of a few chosen ones. In that respect, the new model of learning is empowering in itself. It is meant to address the everlasting gaps in the development of Science and Technology by lowering barriers and transcending labels marked by race, color, and gender. But, has it really been so in practice? Do we really have increased participation in this field from identities whose existential experiences have been shaped by the virtue of being the other, the second one? Has the subaltern entity accessed yet? Is it distinctly visible yet anywhere on the larger paradigm of technology? The immediate answer would be: No.
It’s been several years since we pledged to create a civilization that was to strive for equality and collaboration. Yet, even today, the gendered subalterns (both in terms of sex and sexuality) continue being the have-nots of the digital age. The problem further lies in the nonchalance with the alarming statistics that so clearly portray the gender gap in technology and computing.
Several of the people I have acquainted with were curious to know “why do we even believe that women have to contribute to science, technology, and computing in an equal capacity to men?”; they further added the obvious argument that it might just have been a choice made by the gender itself. These are often not people who are particularly “misogynist or xenophobic”, but are just as much of victims of patriarchy as is Vitalstatistix (the chief of the last Gaulish village to resist Roman invasion who features in a series of French comics known as Asterix) in this picture. However, in order to create the perfect antithesis of questions that counter feminist approaches, the questions themselves must be analyzed and pondered upon. What is also worth exploring is why do we really care so much for the equity and inclusion in sociotechnical systems after all.
As feminist theorist Carol Gilligan answers it: “to bring women in is not just to rectify an inequity…it means to change the whole conversation” (Patterson and Hall, 1998). It is thus important to spark the changed conversation on what is really keeping women out of the loop of science and technology, how early gender socialization constricts the option of many women, and what we are missing out on, as a result of these gendered exclusions.
Why do we care?
According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology’s most recent statistics, women made up 26 percent of the computing workforce in 2013 – the report further broke down the numbers showing: 3 percent of computing workforce were black women, 5 percent were Asian women, and 2 percent were Hispanic women. Now, those numbers particularly mirrors the situation of the traditional industrial world where exclusion has not been unnatural, historically. The numbers, however, are not much higher at the open communities of Free and Open Source softwares: a study in 2010 showed, Wikipedia, one of the most successful Open Source projects to engage people in an incredibly active virtual community had a female participation rate of 13 percent. Women are indeed significantly absent from the entire STEM milieu, including the Internet activities related to the branch of STEM (An acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education). It is all too easy to attribute this crisis to the choice of an entire gender, and this vindictiveness only reminds us of the cheap dismissal that chauvinists and others antipathetic to oppression have made throughout the history of patriarchal domination.
However, it would also be unwise to oversee the unifying experiences that women do share sometimes: as feminist theorist Ruth Behar (1993) warns, “the opposite tendencies to see women as not all different from one another or as all too different” can be misleading in several ways, so much so, that it can lead one to be “unconnected to the lives of other women” (Wendy Luttrell, 1947). Which further suggests that with every woman we let go from the world of computing, we are also depriving ourselves of the unique experiences she comes with that could otherwise be used to make the Cyberspace more diverse and richer. And on that note, let us take a moment to remind ourselves of the often ignored truth about the implications of gender inequity in sociotechnical systems: it is as much of a loss to technology and computing as it is to the oppressed. The gender bias in technology is also technology’s issue, and it is rather interesting that it has not been pointed out as often as it has been labeled solely as a feminist complaint: as it is indeed a lot easier to attack feminism than it is to attack the loss that technology suffers from with every woman eliminated.
It is time we change the game with a fresh approach that looks further into the act of exclusion happening here: the approach strives to find out not only the issues that chase women out of computing but also what makes them reluctant to join in, and how computing itself can be evolved to bring a positive change towards gender equity and inclusion. Seymour Papert and Sherry Turkle foresee this evolution towards an equal and fair world of computing with a change that occurs from within computation, and further points out that “equal access to even the most basic elements of computation requires an epistemological pluralism, accepting the validity of multiple ways of knowing and thinking”.
In fact, the most fascinating lesson I have received from my involvement with Wikimedia movement of all these years was to learn the value of diversity in a community. Wikimedia has an incredible community of people who share in imagining a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That is our commitment. Each one of us has our own objectives about how we see that pledge being redeemed, but, no one of us has all the answers to how to achieve this mission. But, together, we are making it happen. Former Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation – the non-profit organization that operates Wikipedia and its sister sites – Sue Gardner explains the need of diversity in making the magic happen: “everyone brings their crumb of information to the table. If they are not at the table, we don’t benefit from their crumb“.
The potential that a truly democratic and fair cyberspace has in empowering the oppressed of the society is immense, and I say that from my experience with this movement of five years. There is a story I treasure in particular, it came up during the WikiWomen meet in Wikimanina (the annual conference of the Wikimedia community) last year. A Wikipedian from the Arab world shared with us this incredible anecdote: that eighty percent of the Wikipedia editors from the Middle East were women.
The numbers in this story are, in fact, too promising to be true. There might be a slight exaggeration in that particular figure, but it is known for a fact that there is an overwhelming participation in Wikipedia from women in the Middle East. It took a digital revolution to make women choose freedom from a region where the price of basic right of education for a girl child is often the life of the girl itself. And once you know that information, there is no way you can un-know it, there is no way you could not care for all the women we are yet to welcome to our cyberspace.
A tale of two women
Seymour Papert and Sherry Turkle, in the article Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete, discuss two significant case of personal appropriation that take place in an introductory programming course in Harvard:
Lisa, 18, had feared that she would find the course difficult because she is a poet, “good with words, not numbers.” But after years of scorning teachers who had insisted that mathematics is a language, the computer has made Lisa ready to reconsider the proposition, and with it her characterization of herself as someone “bad at math.” Lisa started well, surprised to find herself easily in command of the course material. But as the term progressed she reluctantly decided that she `had to be a different kind of person with the machine.” She could no longer resist a pressure to think in ways that were not her own. She was in trouble, but her difficulty expressed a strength, not a weakness. Her growing sense of alienation did not stem from an inability to cope with programming but from her ability to handle it in a way that came into conflict with the computer culture she had entered.
Robin, is a pianist. Robin explains that she masters her music by perfecting the smallest “little bits of pieces” and then building up. She cannot progress until she understands the details of each small part. Robin is happiest when she uses this tried and true method with the computer, playing with small computational elements as though they were notes or musical phrases.
They both get dismissed. Lisa wanted to manipulate computer language the way she worked with words as she wrote a poem, and preferred to write her own smaller “building block” procedures even though she could use prepackaged ones from a program library; she resented the latter’s opacity. Her teachers chided her, insisting that her demand for transparency was making her work more difficult.
She had been told that the “right way” to do things was to control a program through planning and black-boxing, the technique that lets you exploit opacity to plan something large without knowing in advance how the details will be managed. Lisa recognized the value of these techniques — for someone else. She struggled against using them as the starting points for her learning. Lisa ended up abandoning the fight, doing things “their way,” and accepting the inevitable alienation from her work.
Like Lisa, Robin was also frustrated with black-boxing and pre-packaged programs, but she too was asked to sacrifice her own ways of programming a software.
So, what did we learn in school today?
Lisa and Robin are just two among an entire section of women who are eliminated from the cyberspace further reaffirming the anxieties they already had about “being an alien” to the world of computing that is generally known to belong to the male hackers. This goes on to prove that not only we fail to bring more women in the cyberspace; we lose the ones we already had by our side. But, if we really keep losing them, a community is no longer a healthy community: it becomes just a device to strengthen the existing differences to a point of no return.
The concept of epistemological pluralism is thus becoming increasingly necessary in order to achieve a sustainable diversity in the cyberspace. Which essentially leads us to the discussion of constructing learning environments, and maintaining the learning environments we construct: there is a change needed in the way we learn and in the way we teach, and together we can make that change happen. In fact, it has already started.
In December 2012, I took part in the internship program known as Outreachy (formerly known as the Outreach Program for Women or OPW), which was run by the GNOME Foundation in the past, and is now run by the Software Freedom Conservancy. OPW was inspired by Google Summer of Code and by how few women applied for it. The official website of Outreachy further defines the initiative as:
A welcoming link that connects talented and passionate newcomers with people working in free and open source software and guides them through their first contribution. Through Outreachy, participants learn how exciting and valuable work on software freedom can be, while helping us to build a more inclusive community.
I was still in school, pursuing my undergaduate studies in Computer Science at that time. And this came to me as a splendid opportunity, as this was the first time I experienced this completely new model of learning that itself was so empowering in its approach. I was a Wikipedian since 2011, and a regular contributor to the world of Free/Open Source softwares, so I was already familiar with the concept of collective learning to an extent. But, I was yet to see it work for me.
It all worked out, and how: besides the fact that I got to code for a real-time collaborative editor for Wikipedia, in 2013, I also traveled to Portland to speak at Open Source Bridge, visited the Wikimedia Foundation office in San Francisco, and finally ended up joining the Wikimedia Foundation in a formal capacity as a Software Engineer. But, above all, I felt like I was a part of something very, very meaningful.
It was in late 2013 that I took part in the same program, again, but this time as a mentor. The idea was to pass on my experiences as a learner and a professional in the Free/Open Source world, but as it turned out, I came back with learning a lot myself. Niharika, my mentee, is now as Software Engineer employed by the Wikimedia Foundation – so that also ended well, I suppose. And not only because Niharika has secured a job that matters, of course that is important. But, I would say, more so because we were successful in making Niharika a part of our community.
Things I learned from Outreachy as a student
I spent a good few months of my life learning how to learn from others. I learned: to ask, to know, and most importantly to refuse to stay invisible. I realized that the mentor on the other side of the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was a not a higher authority, in fact, there was no equation of authority whatsoever. Instead, I was told that I was just as much a part of this community full of amazing developers as was my mentor. And that it was the entire community that I had the support and guidance of. So, I learned the art of asking: to reach out to the community over IRC channels and mailing lists whenever I would get stuck with a problem that the Internet could not help me solve; I was also emphatically taught to exploit the chaos that is the Internet – I joined several other developer communities online and got in touch with many strangers who – from the issues I ran into while installing a software on my local machine, to making an algorithm work – relentlessly helped me solve almost everything; and most importantly, I learned to ask boldly without caring even a bit about how stupid I might be sounding.
I learned to make mistakes publicly, and learned to laugh at the stupid ones and move on. The biggest failure in the traditional education systems today, I think, is in the way it deals with the mistakes a learner makes. It would disqualify the learner in every way possible, immediately stereotyping the person as a genius or a slow-learner judging by the mistakes made in the process, and would eventually chase away the slower and worship the genius. This vicious cycle of judgment inherent in the systems outright destroys the culture of learning: it deprives the socially chosen slow learners of the means of expressing themselves, and at the same time it also deprives the socially branded geniuses of the knowledge of things as they are. And in the end, we are left with yet another generation of insecure individuals who are too afraid to know how much they do not know.
Which further formed the crux of another important lesson from my experience as a student, I learned the art of knowing: I learned that the first step towards knowing was being aware of all the things I did not know; I learned to gain knowledge instead of spending time collecting quick information about things that never was able to provide an in-depth understanding of a subject matter; and most importantly, I learned to share with the community whatever little knowledge I would acquire. The internship program insists every intern to maintain a blog where they would be sharing their experiences with programming and other internship related adventures.
This practice of maintaining a blog of my own led to me the lesson that changed my life forever. I came out as a stronger individual who, under any circumstances, would refuse to stay invisible. I learned the art of staying visible: I learned that writing about a problem might not immediately solve it, but it often answers a lot of questions I might even not know I was looking for, and so I wrote about the things I made, things I failed to make, and things I wished to make; I learned to talk to people in a way that I had never known before – I learned that it was important to talk to the people who mattered and even to the bullies – I learned to pick my battles. It was, however, in Open Source Bridge, that I realized how important it was to actually meet these people in person, who I had always been virtually related to. It was the first time I felt the warmth of a community so deeply – I knew how it felt to hug a comrade.
Before I participated in collaborative learning myself, much of my perception of knowledge was filtered through the idea of education: it was to be transferred from one person to another through the process of teaching. That is how it had primarily been like throughout all of my childhood and for some parts of the adulthood as well. I had no reason to believe that it could effectively happen otherwise. The truth is, however, I did not choose that education system: by the time I was able to find out the alternatives that worked for myself, I was already a part of that system I grew up in. It was but a personal choice to contribute to the the sum of all knowledge, a personal choice that, as feminist theorist Carol Hanisch says, was also decidedly political. And consequently, I chose a collective I wanted to belong to in order to be able to participate in making the planet better, in a way that I also believed in. Whatever learning happened afterwards, was thus through, building a bridge between two worlds – one that was largely public and information based (a software program, several websites and programming forums, IRC channels, relevant mailing lists) and another that is intensely personal. The bridge between them – and what makes the concept of the new culture of learning so potent – is how the imagination was cultivated to harness the power of almost unlimited informational resources and create something personally meaningful (The New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, 2011).
Things I learned from Outreachy as a mentor
But, what would be the role of a mentor in the design of collective learning? The answer, I realized, was the dictionary meaning of the word “mentor” itself: that is, to be an experienced and trusted adviser. Collective learning functions in a way where the conventional methods of teaching becomes an obsolete concept. Obsolete, and mostly impossible. I did not know how I could possibly transfer the tacit knowledge, which grew through my personal experimentation, to another human being I was supposed to mentor. It is not transferable: it cannot be taught; but it can still be learned, rather absorbed. That, to my opinion, is exactly where lies its immense potential to empower a learner. And so, I learned the futility of teaching in the construct of collective learning, and instead went on to learn: to answer, to help, and to guide.
In fact, I never realized until this point that there is an art of answering that one needs to master in life. The virtual world of the Cyberspace have had a list of etiquette that they ask people to follow on the most relied method of communication since the ancient times of the Web culture, The Internet Relay Chat. The website, very appropriately named as Living Internet, explains the need for this practice:
All sorts of people and opinions are expressed on IRC, since it is a real-time common space on the global Internet on which people can exercise their right to free speech. Just as in any public space, such as a park or restaurant, a little attention to chatiquette (chat etiquette) will make the experience more pleasant for everyone on IRC.
But, I am not necessarily talking about just the protocols of human conversation over the Internet (which is also, as we all know, so often violated in the most horrid ways possible, and especially against women), but I am also talking about the practice of answering to a person, any person, with no less empathy and sensitivity than an act of asking deserves. To ask at all is to be vulnerable: it has been conventionally perceived in the education systems as the act of admitting to the authority of the one with the answers. Take for example the stories of Lisa and Robbin, they were made to succumb to the orthodox practices that their superiors believed in. It was, therefore, important to be aware of the amount of power I had – through no choice of my own – over my student, over every newcomer to this world I was already a veteran of, who reached out to me over IRC channels or emails.
This is particularly important as we strive to eliminate gender inequity from these virtual communities. Language has its own ways of binding us and breaking us apart. And so have words. It is an eternal battle to eradicate gender insensitivity that language now almost inherits, but it can still be avoided if we all try to be a little more aware. An important step towards this consciousness might be to be more cautious while using specific nouns, and even pronouns (for example, it does not take a lot of effort to use “you people” instead of “you guys”). IRCs are platforms where the identity of a participant in a conversation can be well hidden, which does not change the fact that if you are cursed or abused you are most likely to be mocked with absolute horrid terms that prove the worth of femininity in the least subtle way possible. Then again, that is the impact of the everlasting domination of gender in language. But it is all too easy to blame it all on the history. When in fact, empathy and awareness are all it takes for now to be a responsible individual in the Internet (or, practically everywhere). As a blog I found out further explains the responsibility:
Gender — specifically, masculinity — is inextricably linked to software, and that’s not an attitude that should be tolerated. This isn’t merely a legalistic concern (though that too, certainly), but also a technical one: we believe that empathy is a core engineering value—and that an engineer that has so little empathy as to not understand why the use of gendered pronouns is a concern almost certainly makes poor technical decisions as well.
The ultimate goal while conversing and answering to my student and to anyone else in the community, I learned, was to be understood and to understand others.
This is not that hard to achieve, really. I was answering to help her through the process of learning that she was going through, and not to intimidate her with . To practice the art of helping is to be humble and genuine in every good sense of those two words. Unlike passing on mere instructions, helping needs patience, consideration, and time from both ends. And in the end, it is worth all of that.
The most crucial task, however, as a mentor should be to make sure that your mentee understands that the three months with this program is only a beginning to something meaningful. It is important to discuss the opportunities that you feel your mentee could grab next. We cannot really afford to lose the women we bring in, so there is an immense need to guide the women in a way that does not leave them clueless about their possible next steps in the community.
The story thus far
Looking ahead, I think the practice of collective learning that Free/Open Source communities organically follow, will become indispensable in order to effectively confront dominations marked by “race”, “gender”, “sexuality”, and “class”. In a new and feminist approach towards computing, collectives, as we define them, will become the medium in which inclusive participation will take shape. And in consequence, a change in conversation shall happen, the crux of which shall be to render visibility to the invisible, make a presence of all that has been absent all this while.
The feminist approach towards technology and computing is not a war against the male hackers of the Cyberspace. It is but an effort towards peaceful and productive coexistence, and it cannot happen without the kind of massive collaborative effort that challenges all kind of biases and prejudices. And here is something ironical: a majority of the male “nerds” who are the superiors in this particular demography are the same ones who grew up being bullied by kids who were either physically stronger, excelled in sports, or had a privileged lineage. In another paradigm, these “male nerds” have played the role of the other. However, despite having been victims of stereotyping and consequent oppression once, they take the role of the superior in their own field of work, owing to their gendered identity. The picture of gendered discrimination, and that it is layered with all other forms of discrimination becomes clearer when we imagine female, queer, or trans identities as subjects in this very paradigm of discrimination. For these identities, their lived experiences of racial, ethnic, and class-based discriminations are always interspersed with gendered discrimination, and not to mention, stereotypical representations (from which they are mostly absent). The heteronormative male nerd’s fight always begins one notch higher. He always has one battle less to fight than his female counterpart. The irony is that he mostly does not realize this, in spite of having played the role of the other in an erstwhile narrative. Or, our structures of domination have blinkered him in a way, that it is not even possible for him to see it on his own.
In fact, the distasteful practice of setting nerd stereotypes is responsible for the existing gap to a large extent, as studies say. In a recent article that featured on The New York Times, Ellan Pollack criticized the role of popular media and the stereotypes set by them:
The percentage of women studying computer science actually has fallen since the 1980s. Dr. Cheryan theorizes that this decline might be partly attributable to the rise of pop-culture portrayals of scientists as white or Asian male geeks in movies and TV shows like Revenge of the Nerds and The Big Bang Theory. The media’s intense focus on start-up culture and male geniuses such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates might also have inspired more young men than women to enter the field.
This new approach towards computing strives to confront these bigoted standards imposed on the cyberspace culture. Initiatives such as Outreachy are steps towards breaking that stereotype, and making communities more inclusive and diverse. Because in the end, it is all about creating an environment where anyone, anywhere is able to express his or her beliefs, without the fear of being coerced into silence or conformity. And I do not know of any other time in the history of the Cyberspace when there was a greater need for collectives. I also do not know of any other time when the kind of pluralism we might help build, could have been possible.