Blogs > Liberty and Power > Open Source, Sexist? Spare Me.

Aug 12, 2014

Open Source, Sexist? Spare Me.

tags: Wendy McElroy,individualism,open source,free software,sexism

I think few statements have struck me, lately, as more annoyingly ignorant, than the comment that open-source software is "sexist." Women, it seems, are underrepresented in the open-source developer community. Women are "excluded" from the community, because it's "unappealing." It's another bastion of male "privilege."

How anyone can be excluded from open source is a mystery to me. It has the lowest barriers to entry of any intellectual pursuit I've ever seen, except perhaps blogging. Anyone with a computer, and Internet connection, and some time can contribute. Contributions can occur on many levels -- you don't need to be a Linux kernel wizard in order to contribute a new application feature, or a bug fix, or write a "howto", or adopt an orphaned project. Since participation is online, you can contribute under a pseudonym if you wish. All the "study materials" are available on-line, for the asking.

Oh, but the psychological barriers, you say!

Well, let me tell you what I had to go through in order to become a computer programmer.

I grew up in a rural town in the middle of nowhere, years before the idea of a "personal computer" had even reached science fiction. Yet I was always a science fiend -- possibly because of the Tom Swift Jr. books a well-meaning and never-sufficiently-thanked aunt and uncle gave me for Christmas. And when a children's encyclopedia introduced me to electricity, and I discovered that I could take batteries and switches and lights, and they followed understandable rules, and I could hook them up and make them do things, I was hooked.

The problem was, our town had nothing more advanced than a dinky hardware store. Our town library had exactly two books on the subject: a 1914 1913 book, Boy Electrician, which told me all I needed to know about making obsolete spark-gap transmitters and coherer detectors, and a 1948 edition of the Radio Amateur's Handbook. (Our school library had bupkis.) Luckily, in those days the Handbook included advertising, and I discovered the existence of mail-order electronics retailers.

I was fortunate in that I could afford to send away for books, and later for small parts...a few dollars here, a few dollars there. I learned patience, waiting for the deliveries. I also learned to go to the local TV repair shop, and ask for any parts they were discarding. One milestone I vividly recall was in fourth-grade show-and-tell, where I showed a photorelay project I had constructed with a photocell and a transistor.

Then I developed a desire to get my amateur radio license...which was a problem, because the nearest examining center was hundreds of miles away. Luckily for me, I had grandparents in that city, whom we visited once a year. I managed to wheedle a trip to the examining center during that visit...for three successive years, because I failed the Morse Code part of the exam twice.

I might have become a communications engineer but for a chance opportunity. I was fortunate that my parents agreed to send me to a one-week "computer camp" for high-school students, at a not-very-distant university. This is not what is called a "computer camp" today. We were learning how to write Fortran, to use a keypunch, and to submit batch jobs to an IBM System/360. I was sufficiently intimidated by the prospect, that I bought a Fortran book and began reading it weeks in advance, to keep up with the other students.

Because even then, I had a vague realization that other students were more fortunate than I. They lived in The City, and had bigger high schools with bigger libraries. Some of the schools taught electronics, and some had computers. They had electronics stores they could visit. Some of them had universities, and university libraries, that were a mere bus ride away. I felt occasionally envious, but I never thought that their good fortune was an obstacle to my learning.

The "camp" left me thoroughly bitten by the computer bug, and eager to use computers in my next high-school science project. I was fortunate that my parents were able to persuade the computer science department at the nearest college (30 miles away) to let me use their facilities. And by "facilities" I don't mean a computer; I mean a card reader, line printer, and a leased line to a computer in a distant city. I didn't have a car, but I was able to cadge a ride once a week with a local teacher who was going there for some continuing education.

Finally I got accepted into a university, and I was fortunate that my folks could afford to send me there. (Because, as you might have noticed by now, we didn't have any higher education close by.) There I continued my batch programming on a System/370. I also took a job at the computer center as a "go-fer", which eventually led to a job as computer operator. And in my junior year I was finally allowed to use the PDP-8 minicomputer in the Electrical Engineering department. In my senior year I was fortunate that personal computer kits were starting to be sold, and I was able to buy one, and managed to borrow some space in a Physics lab to build it. (A 2.5 MHz Z80 with 18K of RAM. 144 RAM chips. Soldered by hand.)

The rest, as they say, is history.

I marvel at the opportunities available today to aspiring programmers and engineers. I couldn't have even imagined a time when people would throw away computers that are literally a thousand times more powerful than my old university's mainframe.* When gigabytes of software, including source code, are available for free, to study, modify, and use. When electronic messages can be sent in the blink of an eye to experts and enthusiasts around the world, with replies often coming the same day. When hundreds of projects are begging for volunteers to write software..."on the job training", with mentors; experience that confers the kind of credentials that earn respect.

And it's available to anyone. Yes, knowledge of English is a plus -- and I'm fortunate to have English as my first language. But anyone in the world can participate; no one cares about your race, your age, your gender, your religion, or your family. And I am nothing short of ecstatically delighted that others can share the joy I have found in computer science!

With all I went through, and seeing all that's available to students today, perhaps you will understand why cries of "privilege" fall on my unsympathetic ears. I was fortunate (not privileged) in several respects, as I have noted, and unfortunate in others. And yet, I prevailed, because I wanted to learn the damn subject!

You want to learn computers? Do it. Don't tell me how "unappealing" you find the computer science lab. And save your whines about "exclusion" for realms in which people are actually, you know, being excluded.

Update: See also this excellent essay by Susan Sons, addressing this issue. (Hat tip to Foo Quuxman at The Daily Bell.)
* System/370 Model 125: 256 KB of RAM, 300 MB of disk, and a clock speed of a few MHz.

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