All work and no play makes Jane a dull girl
Is Free/Libre Software a feminist issue? Policy-makers throughout the EU evince concern at the under-representation of women in the ICT training and industries. There's a growing body of research on the near absence of women in Free/Libre Software development. Software and gadget vendors are also anxious to tap the female market. But, much as with domestic violence, no-one seems to realise that technological exclusion begins at home. An exploration of why women are barely represented in Free/Libre Software also needs to begin at home.
The 20-something-pre-feminist bloc frequently assures me that feminism is no longer relevant since women are now 'empowered with choices'. They, personally, don't feel oppressed and if they don't mess around with computers it's just cos they don't want to. The idea that women have already achieved equality (whether cultural, social or economic) contradicts pretty much every statistical measure you care to name. It seems to me the one thing that's really changed since the 'seven demands' were formulated in 1978 is that it's no longer considered feasible, even by most women, to organise in the name of feminism.
So what about 'official' policy. Well, at EU level (and within the UK) you can observe a kind of split-mind approach. The EU approach to women's issues (oops, I mean 'gender equality') is called 'gender mainstreaming'. It pretty much boils down to integrating women into the workforce and the 'gender question' into other areas of policy-making.
Now if you want to bend your mind into a pretzel, try jiggling 'gender mainstreaming' (particularly the bit about ‘the reconciliation of work and family life’) to make any sort of sense in relation to UK policy on 'the family' and the integration of family policy with the neo-liberal agendas of New Labour. 'The Family' is good because it makes men work harder and, we're told, prevents antisocial behaviour. You end up with women being exhorted to get out there and fill skills shortages in the labour market on the one hand and to stay home and mop up the fallout from New Labour's wreckage of social support agencies on the other. Islamic feminism has a point when it argues that Western feminism has merely doubled women's workload.
In EU States in which Neoliberalism has achieved less of a death-grip, genuine efforts to address women's 'work-life' balance seem to founder on men's statistical refusal to lift a finger in the home. Policymakers know all this policy isn't working but don't budge from predicating social policy on the State's economic agendas and a variously-expressed faith in the mystical power of fatherhood to solve all social ills.
So what does this mean for women in technology? Basically, it means that policy in EU countries revolves around integrating women into technologically-based education and careers. There's some lip-service to the problems of long-hours culture, lack of part-time work, and insecure contracts in the IT sector as a problem for women but, in the UK at least, no-one's doing a damned thing about it. You might as well flush money down the toilet as invest in training people for a career which structurally excludes them. Indeed, statistics show that even when women do train in IT, most will drop out of the career sector within the first few years. Surprise! — a glass ceiling, daily bullying and incompatibity with the reality of women's domestic responsibilities causes them to wise up and change careers!
Like most forms of gender discrimination (and violence), exclusion from technology begins at home — an area in which there's bugger-all research. Based on my own personal observation, Windows home computers almost always belong to male members of the family. Almost every straight woman I know is using a Windows PC which doesn't belong to her (even in single-parent families, the woman characteristically buys a PC for her son and has access to it only when her son is not using it). I know of very few cases where the computer's female owner actually knows the Windows admin password (assuming it's male primary user knew how to set one). If asked about it, the women will tell me it's because they "don't need to use it". It's hard to know how they made this evaluation without actually knowing what it does? Besides, since when was Western culture based on need?
If they use computers at all, women mostly use Windows at work. Thus they tend to know MS Office far better than men do. It once fell to my lot to evaluate new undergraduates' ICT skills. The guys would swagger in insisting they didn't need ICT skills training as they were 'great' with computers. The women characteristically said they 'knew a bit' but weren't sure if they could pass a test. I would then test them. The results would show an inverse relation to the students gendered self-evaluation. The men, usually, thought their ability to plug 'n' play a digital camera or play Fantasy Football constituted ICT genius but, in reality, their computer skills were very basic. The women's ability to build a pivot-table in MS Excel seemed inconsequential both to the women and the men. Yet figuring out a pivot table in MS Excel is a great deal more 'conceptual' than downloading a few photos. The women score far better in an ICT test based on MS Office.
The reason for this seems obvious to me — women have very little recreational access to PCs whilst men employed in clerical jobs need only the most basic MS Office skills. I think this is a key to women's lack of interest. If all you ever do on computers is crunch tedious sales reports and type work-related emails, how the hell are you supposed to develop an interest in 'play' with computers? It's this playful and curious approach to computers that motivates the development of more advanced computer skills. It's through play that curiosity develops. It's also through play — especially in a social context — that we become comfortable with social roles and socially validated in them. If all your mates are sharing stuff on YouTube, then you will 'need' to do it too. If playing on YouTube compromises your gender role, you 'need' not to do it.
Women don't play with computers because their access to them outside of a work setting is more often than not very limited. So there's no shared female culture of playing on computers. Most cyberculture is interactive and based in play. Women don't play much on computers so there's very little female-defined cyberspace. These factors become mutually reinforcing. And rather than admit to ourselves that we're being excluded by the people we care about, we tell ourselves we don't really care about using the PC at the weekend cos women have got 'better' (socially safer) things to do.
So, recreational access to computers is a feminist issue. Social approval around using computers recreationally is a feminist issue. Gendering of online culture is a feminist issue. But how does this relate to FLOSS?