Open Sourcing Feminism: The Challenge of Collective Intelligence in 2014

• Written by Alina Siegfried


Vivien Maidaborn

It is a shock to join a new industry, one forging open thinking, open models of exchange, and open source only to discover how closed it is to women.

This post began on a journey with my colleague Ben through Europe and the US in late 2013, talking with other people in the civic-tech and open source world. Our conversations were focused on citizenship, direct democracy, diversity and open technology. In about week three I wrote the following in my journal:

Journal Entry, Berlin Dec 2013

“What has been shocking is how few women have been part of this journey, how much men have dominated the space, across countries and cultures. My senses feel assaulted with this assertion of masculine presence in so many ways.

The men who hear me ask a question but address their responses to Ben; the woman-hating art on the office walls of men with whom we thought we shared a vision for the future.

The men who interrupt women's conversation to assert their knowledge and expertise closing down the sharing already in play; the taking of physical space in buses and trains. In Strasbourg, even the youth delegation in our session, as wonderful as they were, were all men. I wonder if hearing and listening to the issues of youth is just one more priority that is more important than addressing the inequality of women, and the silencing of women's voices?”

Since coming home to NZ I have been paying attention more to what is happening for women in open source communities and in the wider technology world.

Women are silenced in many different ways in life; in the open source and tech world this intensifies because of repeatability, and ease of broadcast. For feminists arriving into open source networks the marginalisation is intensified because of the shock at the actual experience compared to the expectation.

Gina Trapani suggests a conscious desire to exclude women within many OSS communities, a theory which is supported by comments on the recent gendered pronoun debate on Github. Both of these articles emphasise that fact that sexism in the open source community is consciously upheld and also strongly contested. It seems that the forces resisting change are still greater than the forces encouraging and facilitating it.

Who is in the room

The numbers of women in the tech industry, and particularly women engineers and coders tell us this is not an equal opportunity world. says they invest in increasing the diversity amongst people training in computer science, particularly women and under-served minorities because right now in the U.S. only 15% of computer science graduates are women.

How are we treated

If you want to know how deeply some people object to strong powerful women's voices, the stream of online misogyny is the most obvious, widely broadcast and visible example. The message though is no different from what women experience in many situations. I am reminded how men yell at lesbians in the street, and vilify women who publically oppose male violence. The new thing here is the medium and the ease that misogynist messages are amplified.

The pathetic sameness of the message over the 40 years I have been listening to it, the shallowness and complete lack of intelligence does not detract from its success in controlling what women feel able to do, which groups to join or frontiers to cross.

There are well known situations where women have been attacked online, with the intent of silencing them. Feminist Frequency author Anita Sarkeesian found herself the target of threats and abuse after suggesting that society take a look at the over-sexualised potrayal of women in video games unless there is fantasy games as Overwatch, that people play with the help of overwatch boost they find online. Australian journalist Asher Wolf founded Cryptoparty and then left it on the basis of continuing misogyny and hatred towards women within and outside the party.

Thankfully, amid the blasts of hate mail and trolling of feminists’ Twitter accounts, a movement of resistance to the oppression is also growing. While projects like Everyday Sexism are bringing to light examples of sexism in the advertising, workplaces and the corporate world, there are growing numbers of women opening up the conversation about sexism in the open source world and the internet. Take a look at  Geek Feminism and Tech LadyMafia who are creating an international network of women becoming guardians of the space.

The UK Guardian article on the ‘4th Wave of Feminism’ highlights some of women who have spoken out:

“A chorus rose against online misogyny. Criado-Perez highlighted the string of rape threats sent to her on Twitter, writer Lindy West published the comments she received, (“There is a group of rapists with over 9,000 penises coming for this fat bitch,” read one), and the academic and broadcaster Mary Beard, Lauren Mayberry from the band Chvrches, and Ruby Tandoh from The Great British Bake Off, all spoke out on this issue.”

What do we value?

Journal Entry, New York Dec. 2013

“It is so easy living in my own lesbian friendly woman-loving context to forget how quickly you become invisible and how diminishing it feels to be not seen or heard when you are right there in the room; to see my voice falling like empty air on ears not listening, and to experience the privileging of men's voices even when in themselves they reject that privilege. Perhaps most shocking is that even when asked to stop, some of these passionate and values-aligned men cannot hear anything except their own voice, spewing their own brand of self importance in an endless gush of loud advice and domineering confidence.”

The privileging of male voices in the room is a more subtle way of silencing women in the open source community. In my observation, this happens in three ways:

  • Women are socialized to listen carefully to men – our safety depends on it and we do it very well. Men are listening to women much less carefully and often not at all.
  • Men tend to be in the roles and occupations that have either structural authority or are seen as the more important roles.
  • Finally, power attracts. So when people see who has the power in the group, attention flows that way.

We tend to value roles that are dominated by men, and in the open source community that is the engineers and coders. It is clear we need more women in these groups, but we also need to value the roles that sit alongside the coders. Many of us aspire to inclusion and collaboration across diversity, but how many of us actually do the core muscle work? A good litmus test for open source organisations and teams to understand who you privilege in your team, is to play with these gender bias games. Understanding whose voice gets listened to in your group is a great start.

Entertaining difference?

One argument is that women and men enjoy different social and work contexts; that there are good reasons why we might choose different roles and jobs, and even good reasons to work separately. While there may be some seed of merit to this argument, many who hold this view ignore the contextual factors of the abuse, bullying and lower pay women experience compared to men.

Building a New Narrative

The narratives we tell around open source itself, are part of the reason people are not considering the gender politics of the community.

The prevailing pattern in human rights movements is to give importance to the issue itself – peace, indigenous rights, nuclear freedom, mining etc. This becomes the narrow focus, and the connections between issues, oppressions and contextual factors are lost. As early as 1960 this was being written about in the context of the peace movement, and many of the issues raised in this  Feminist Magazine Solidarity article remain totally relevant today.

It is noticeable in the web, that most articles about open source focus on the technical issues; the new code or tool, the pattern of use and the growth data. Wikipedia defines open source without any reference to the inclusive ideals within which it is grounded. And PC World is equally uninterested in anything except the growth and impact for business. This reflects the male interest and bias in the narrative around open source software.

Even more lacking is the narrative about the collaboration required to build good open source software, and how to do that well with greater input from diverse voices. We are missing so many of the discussions on how the interactions with online community informs technology. This issue is addressed in the work Nancy White et al did for their book Digital Habits. In this narrative, the technology serves community – it is clear that community is the purpose. Which raises the question of what is being served by marginalising women in a community interested in collaboration and collective intelligence?

Finding Collective Intelligence

Sexism exists in many (probably most) work environments, so why is it so critical to stamp out in the open source community? It matters here like nowhere else because open source is about collective intelligence; it presents an alternative to individualistic models of the economy and cultural life. Collective intelligence is an oxymoron if in the process it excludes half of the population.

There are fantastic reasons to use and develop open source software. It addresses the fundamental issue of the right information and connectivity, involves collaboration and delivers better software. The goals of feminism and the open source movement have much in common, and the community could learn a lot by embracing feminist values.

Access and Diversity – Open source software, tools and resources are being built for a diverse world, where 50% of users will be women.

Openness – Women's rights are human rights and the internet is a vital space for women’s organising and participation across the globe. This aligns so closely with the intent and purpose of the open source community. We can build on each other's strengths to achieve greater social justice.

Security – Privacy and security in the net is being constantly improved, but often fails to consider the security issues for women. We need to use our particular skills, knowledge and experience to create safe internet spaces for women.

The Challenge

The challenge of today is to make room for the complexity of new power relationships in our diverse societies. We need to recognise and respect both our differences and our similarities, as we will inevitably merge, separate, combine and retreat in the work of solving the systemic, interconnected, wicked problems of our time.

Women are an integral part of this work. We are deeply and profoundly affected by exclusion and marginalisation today as much as ever. The interface between the personal and political has long been a narrative that women bring to systemic change.

The collective intelligence central to collaboration and inclusive decision-making needs all of us. I once defined myself as lesbian separatist so I could grow an identity separate from general society. These days I recognise that overcoming separatist thinking is a key part of the solution.

Journal Entry, San Fransisco Dec 2013

“Half way through our trip I am woken up to the danger of dropping women's priorities, women's voice and women's work from consciousness. In this young and technological world I am working in, I feel like there is a subtle fight going on all the time for us to respect the powerful and important differences in the perspectives that women bring. Every day I see the tweets from the UN Gender programme reminding me about the work of many many women in the world. The daily work often defined by water, food, children, health of communities and the fight for safety, education and safe reproductive technology. Through the Women's Refuge work in NZ, we can see that it is still a deep cultural reflex to control women through violence and intimidation. I am reminded about the fight for life women face in a world where fundamentalist religion and patriarchy are growing – those twin deadly power-over paradigms that assume men are more vital and important than women. Women's voice, presence, involvement is not some nice to have, something to fight for after we have resolved poverty, or changed the way democracy works. Women are integral to the success of the open source movement.”

Vivien Maidaborn is a founding member of Loomio, and has a depth of experience in organisational systems, decision-making processes and social change acumen. She has been CEO of CCS Disability Action and Relationships Aotearoa in New Zealand, and is the founder of the social enterprise Lifemark.

Vivien is one of two female founders of Loomio, alongside Alanna Krause who is interested in innovation, technology and structures for positive social impact, as well as being a director of the Enspiral Foundation

Tags: Articles and Interviews

Would you like to keep in touch?

Join the Loomio newsletter to hear about product updates, upcoming events and stories from organizations using Loomio.
Delivered every 2 or 3 months.


Made in Aotearoa, New Zealand
Hosting available in USA, EU or Australia/NZ

© 2023 Loomio Cooperative Limited. All rights reserved. “Loomio” is a registered trademark of Loomio Cooperative Limited.