Extending the notion of code

Yuwei Lin – Manchester University: ‘Embodying Hacker Culture in Women-friendly Free Software Groups’

Yuwei Lin discusses the rise of women friendly hacking networks in a male dominated free software culture. Download Yuwei Lin’s presentation slides

Female software networks

Notes written by students of Theo Vurdubakis -Department of Organisation, Work and Technology, Lancaster University:
Yuwei’s presentation focused on the contextualisation and embodiment of the hacker culture. The aim was to address why certain groups, namely women, are excluded from this type of technological development and to discuss and examine free software as an available source code to all for modification. Free software then is never perfect and should be seen as transparent and open which the reporting of bugs, viruses etc identifies. In contrast, however, notions of hacking and coding are not seen as open and transparent as they tend to originate from engineering cultures and are defined therefore, in the mainstream, by men. It is these cultural beliefs attached to coding and hacking which lead to a lack of visibility of women in free software.

Some of the barriers presented that led to the exclusion of women from this culture are cyber bullying, lack of time (often due to domestic commitments), unfriendly, male dominated, online environments, and a male-defined competitive mindset. What we need to do is to move beyond these barriers and to look beyond numbers, binary codes and biological differences in order to examine different initiatives taking place in the hacker culture that can help us to look further.

One example of a different initiative that was presented was in Women’s Information Technology Transfer (Delian Women). This is a regional initiative aimed at promoting ICT as a strategic tool. The goal is to get women interested in technological development and to date there are 1049 Delian developers. This is an initiative that provides support and online training for women and the focus is on self, reflection and the relationship between emotions, bodies and technologies. This initiative is about making Delian women feel more normal and more a part of the hacking culture. It is also about the provision of a social community, rather than a rigid technological development community.

Another example of these initiatives taking place was a ladies only, Gender Changes Academy. This Academy was shown to have a diverse membership that worked with another similar initiative known as Ladyfest.net. The focus of this is how ‘girls’ make knowledge through a mixture of rationality and sensitivity. This is a move beyond simplistic categories of gender talk which aims to create more intimate and collaborative spaces and increase the visibility of women within the hacking culture.

What these examples demonstrate is a need to appreciate the different ways of hacking that are taking place in contemporary times. These serve to highlight ways of seeing hacking and free software as not only available to an homogeneous group but as an open, transparent and heterogeneous activity which is available to all.


Notes written by Adrian Mackenzie – CESAGen, Lancaster University

Free software forces a very intense collaboration between people. It allows ‘hackers’ to take control of the systems they develop. Motivations for people to be involved include ‘fun,’ for reputation, for mutuality, for gratification, as a job requirement, or for religious reasons.

Coding is over-emphasised in free software. Women are not very visible in free software. Studies of the exclusion of women identify less than 1.6% women involved. In 2006, this was still less than 2%, including women involved in studying it. Women are often involved in translation, localisation, and documentation of software. They are assigned the role of facilitating communication. Can women afford the free-time needed to do be involved in free software? The competitive atmosphere in software development is also discouraging and exclusive.

However, women are involved in free software. How to do this? Women have their own way of developing software. Case studies include Debian Women and GenderChanger Academy. They are based on content analysis of websites, also using IRC (Internet Relay Chat). Research techniques include text mining and corpus linguistic analysis.

In the case of Debian Women, the ultimate goal is to make this group disappear. Women in Debian are still < 1%. The group comprises computer security analysts, programmers, system administrators, and anthropologists. Men are involved as well. It seems to have enhanced the social atmosphere of Debian development.

GenderChangers Academy tries to encourage people to exchange software skills, DIY work on hardware, and organise grassroots events. They also try to do technology differently. This is women only. The membership is more diverse, since it includes artists, social workers, accountants, as well as anthropologists and system administrators. For instance, ‘De Peper’ was a squatting event organised recently in Amsterdam.

While coding knowledge is important, coding also tends to reproduce hegemonic cultures. But there are hybrid femininities. The achievement of the peer networking is to raise the visibility of women in software development. They create a low RTFM environment. While it looks trivial, it is not. They create a different kind of social space, a space that is part of the mainstream one. The women want to be involved in the emerging forms of literacy associated with coding.


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