Gender Activism in Hacking

Naomi Ceder is a programmer and core participant in the Python programming language community. As a trans-identified person, Ceder grappled with whether she would have to “give up everything” in order to transition—and whether the community would accept her for doing so. Fortunately for Ceder, the Python community (and its associated conference, PyCon) was self-consciously attempting to promote diversity by instituting codes of conduct for conferences, meetups, and online spaces. Such codes were beneficial for Ceder as she negotiated her presence and belonging.

Ceder’s decision to move forward with her transition intersects with a major push to address “diversity” issues in open source communities. In 2006, policy research in the European Union showed that women’s rate of participation in FLOSS (Free Libre and Open Source Software) was less than 2%—below levels in industry and academic computer science. These findings galvanized FOSS communities’ growing awareness of gender politics. Many participants sought to “hack” their communities to better reflect the values of openness and participation that made FOSS so meaningful for them, likening the dearth of women and non-binary folks to a “bug” that needed fixing. And some viewed gender itself as a system to be “hacked.”

Ceder’s experience illustrates both a response to FOSS’s longstanding gender imbalance and change from within the Python community. Her intervention was clearly meaningful for her, and diversity advocacy has, on balance, been positively regarded within FOSS.

We might still have cause to wonder: does a local case, like diversity advocacy in Python—or even in FOSS more widely—make a difference to the broader questions of diversity, equity, and justice in Euro-American, or global society? Whatever the answers to these broader questions, the cultural changes in FOSS that support Ceder’s ability to express her identity and remain ensconced within her community—rather than forcing her to “give up everything,” as she once feared—represent a community in transition towards its truer self.

Read Naomi Ceder’s response to this entry here.

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