I consider myself pro-feminist. I was one of the first professional journalists to talk about sexism in free software, and I make a point of mentioning newsworthy women whenever possible. However, my position does not mean that I support every argument in its favor. I am particularly hesitant about the argument that free software is missing something if its developers are mostly male, and that having a more equitable proportion of women will automatically make free software better.
The idea is probably true in the sense that more women in free software means more developers. Perhaps, too, more testing with female users might affect usability to a degree.
But unless I’m mistaken, the people making this claim mean more than that. Without actually saying so, they seem to be hinting that there is a female sensibility or perspective that is currently missing in free software. That seems a valid argument in literature or other arts, but I can’t help suspecting that there are only so many use-cases in software development, and that few – if any – are related to gender.
The argument isn’t helped by the vagueness with which it always seems to be made. How, exactly, does a database become better because a larger percentage of woman wrote its code? How might more women improve the features of a word processor? I am ready to consider such arguments, but, aside from an issue with name changes in Git, I have never heard any made except in the most general terms. The main exception, as Anita Sarkeesian continues to document, is video games – but games fall into the category of story-telling, in which gender issues are self-evident.
Anyway, the argument has been made at least a couple of times before. Some suffragettes claimed that giving women the vote would eliminate war and poverty – a claim that we now know to be untrue. Eco-feminists made similar claims about innate nurturing tendencies a couple of decades ago, but their arguments from alleged evolutionary fact are no more solid than the biological arguments that misogynists use to prove female inferiority.
As Cordelia Fine relates in the wonderfully titled Delusions of Gender, the differences between male and female intellectual capacity are simply too minimal for them to be taken seriously. Given a coding project to a group composed entirely of women, and statistically the result is as likely to be as satisfying – or as messed up – as what is produced by an all-male group.
However, my real objection to the argument is the fact it is utilitarian, which seems a dangerous way to argue what comes down to a matter or rights. The trouble with a utilitarian argument in such matters is that, at least in theory, it can work both ways.
For instance, when the question of women serving in combat is raised, most of the arguments against the idea claim to be firmly grounded in the practical. The claims are made, for instance, that women lack the necessary strength, or that male soldiers would be distracted by their wish to protect their female peers. Yet even if these claims were true – and I believe they are not – would that stop anyone insisting that women should have the chance to serve in combat? I know that it would not change my opinion.
In the same way, women’s greater participation in free software is a right, a possibility that should be open to any woman who proves her competence. It seems to me that to lose sight of that basic fact is to risk being distracted by arguments that can just as easily work against the cause as for it. Argue that everyone deserves a chance, that everyone should be able to fulfill their potential – but don’t argue that the result will be noticeably different in other ways, because the odds are that it won’t be.