craft, code, gender, and computing

Embroidery is constructed (mostly by women) in hundreds of tiny stitches which are visible on the front of the fabric. The system of the stitches is revealed on the back of the material. Some embrioderers seal the back of the fabric, preventing others from seeing the underlying structure of the pattern. Others leave the back open for those who want to take a peek. A few integrate the backend process into the front of the fabric. The patterns are shared amongst friends in knitting and embroidery ‘ciricles’.

Software is constructed (mostly by men) in hundreds of tiny pieces of code, which form the hidden structure of the programme or interface. Open Source software allows you to look at the back of the fabric, and understand the structure of your software, modify it and distribute it. The code is shared amongst friends through online networks. However the stitches or code only make sense to those who are familiar with the language or patterns.

-Else Carpenter

I’ve been reading a book about gender and computing that looks to point to gender as a feature of the digital divide.  What is more interesting is that the authors, psychologists, seem to look at how computers are presented in an educational setting as a contributing factor to why boys and girls have different levels of comfort with computers and end up using them differently.

So, it was interesting to come across the blog post Open Source Embroidery: an interview with Ele Carpenter today because it seems to talk about the idea of technology at a very meta-level, drawing parallels between disciplines (craft and engineering) and media (embroidery and code).  I started knitting, and I guess part of the interest was that it was this gender-transgressive activity, but I also quickly saw the parallels to computer programming.  You can build things from scratch or from patterns (even the language is paralleled with pattern in software engineering referring to an algorithm for a reusable approach to a commonly repeated task in code) or a combination of the two.  Similarly, coming from an interest in FLOSS and the approaches that underly that kind of software and computing environments, I saw parallels in knitting in the multiple approaches that can be taken to reach a similar result.  Though there are many more parallels that can be drawn, the final one that was apparent to me was the vast amount of online documentation that I found for knitting and how it ranged from educational howto sites, to sparser patterns designed for an audience of similarly advanced skill level, to sites showing off the knitter’s prowess.

For better and worse, I think that I approach knitting in a very gendered way as I have a bag full of half-finished knitting projects in my closet.  This reminds me of the trainer who taught the secure programming class that I took earlier this week talking about his tendency to stop projects half-way through and how that had lead him to pursue consulting rather than development.  He ended this anecdote by saying, “for the ladies in the audience, I’m sure that you know what I’m talking about”, referring to the idea that their husbands also frequently started projects that they wouldn’t finish (which assumed that the women in the class were both straight and married which is a a whole ‘nother deal).

Ultimately,  I think that this discussion of software and craft is important because they show how similar skills, analysis, and culture has been constructed across a pretty vast gender divide.  To me, this is evidence that technical (or craft) ability is not tied to a particular gender and that the overall absence of women from computing (and in particular FLOSS) or men from crafting has less to do with the way their brains work and more to do with social construction.