Feminist Internet Software

Annina Rüst

Assistant Professor, Computer Art Program, Department of Transmedia, Syracuse University


When I began my research into creating feminist technologies, a well-known female computer scientist told me that another female technologist had told her the following: “If you are a woman in technology, it is likely that you will, at some point in your career, give a talk about women in technology.” [1] She said this because there is a gender gap in places where technology is created and sooner or later many of us who work in technology start wondering why there are so few women in technology.

As I am writing this, I have just moved to the next step in the life of the prototypical ‘woman in technology’: I created a feminist piece of Internet software and am now writing a paper about feminist Internet software. This paper describes one of my projects but also highlights Internet software written by others in the field. The set of projects I will describe calls attention to the gender politics of technologies and technologists. To provide context, I will first give an overview of how scientists explain the gender imbalance in places where technology is created. I will then describe the projects. They are the lived reality of female technology developers expressed in algorithm. They are also proof that (gender) diversity among technology creators matters and how it matters.

Background Statistics and Motivation

Early digital, programmable computers were large, noisy machines that filled whole rooms. The people who created the physical aspects of these machines were mostly male, but women made up a large share of the programmer workforce. They designed the foundation for software practices that exist today. [2] At the time, it was believed that programming was woman’s work. [3]

Today, the number of women going into computing jobs in the United States is on the decline: In 2008, women, who generally outnumber men on college campuses in the U.S.A., only earned 18 percent of computer and information science bachelor’s degrees in the United States. In 1985, it was 37 percent.The amount of women in information technology-related jobs has decreased as well: In 2008 it was 25 percent, down from 36 percent in 1991. [4]

The lack of women in today’s tech production spaces is explained by researchers from different disciplines. There are essentially two sets of explanations. One set of researchers finds that women are simply not interested in technology and say that this explains why women decide to enter technology fields in smaller numbers than men. Other researchers spend more time interviewing both men and women who work in tech occupations. The scientists conducting these studies ask questions about the environment and find that adverse cultures within technology fields keep women out and discourage those who stay.

One study that exemplifies the first set of explanations is “Why Are There So Few Women in Information Technology: Assessing the Role of Personality in Career Choices,” a study published in the Journal of Economic Psychology in 2008. The authors claim that it is not primarily discrimination or other “differences in ability and choice” that deter women from IT jobs. [5] Rather, the authors say, “much of the difference in entry into information technology (IT) is the result of the fact that, on average, men and women value different aspects of work, and therefore, make different career choices.” [6] The study found that men and women who preferred activities where they got to systematically manipulate objects, tools, and machines were more likely to choose IT careers. [7] Men on average scored higher in the area of this type of preference. [8]

The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), another study from the field of psychology, presents similar findings. The study found that men regarded by the researchers to be “mathematically gifted” were more likely to go into physical sciences and engineering while women who had the same level of mathematical performance chose careers in medicine, biological sciences, humanities, and social sciences. The SMPY study found that these women had a preference for working with the organic while the men favored inorganic objects. The women valued “people contact” in their work and on average had better verbal skills then the men. [9] The researchers attribute the fact that women were not choosing engineering and physical sciences and preferring careers in other fields to these abilities.

Both studies use widely respected methods from the field of psychology. But do statistical differences between the sexes really tell the story of why women tend to avoid tech fields? And, what role does discrimination play?

Studies that have examined the culture of tech spaces found that discrimination in fact does play a role. Researchers from the University of Cambridge studying the Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS) community found that it is the culture within FLOSS that keeps women from participating in FLOSS projects. The study shows in a remarkable way how perception of the problem differs depending on the gender of the person asked. In the survey, 75 percent of the women answered “yes” to the question, “Regarding the FLOSS community as a whole, have you ever observed discriminatory behaviour [sic] against women?” This stands in stark contrast to the replies of 78 percent of males who answered the same question with “no.” [10] Another question asking whether it is easier for women or men to receive acknowledgment for work done in the FLOSS community showed a similar difference in perception. Men said that it does not matter whether you are a man or a woman, but women said that men get more acknowledgment. [11] The study also showed that social misunderstandings are frequent: Almost half (48 percent) of the FLOSS women in the study had been asked out on a date by male members of the community. Eleven percent of these women said that this happens frequently [12]. The authors of the study write: “Not only does the frequency of sexual propositioning make women feel alien, but it can disrupt mentoring relations and communication in general.” [13] It is therefore ironic that the study also found that among FLOSS producers, women’s disinterest in participating in the development of Open Source Software is seen as a choice. Explaining the lack of women as based on the culture that keeps women out would threaten the idea of individual autonomy, a concept that is important within the community. [14] The researchers found that there is a general discomfort with the topic of gender and gender differences: “The acknowledgement that there are gender differences in practice sits uncomfortably and is often perceived as divisive in itself, as we have seen.” [15]

Within corporate structures, women’s experiences are similar to those of women in FLOSS. The Athena Factor, a study conducted by the Harvard Business Review among women from Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) professions shows similarly hostile conditions: 63 percent of the women interviewed said they had experienced sexual harassment. The authors of the report write: “over time 52% of highly qualified females working for SET companies quit their jobs driven out by hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.” [16] The study reports that this happens at the middle of the career when women have already invested significant amounts of time and effort into their career. [17]

Both the FLOSS study and the Athena Factor report show impressively that, along with the gender gap, there exists a cultural awareness gap and consequently an empathy gap and an opportunity gap. Both studies make recommendations as to how tech workplaces could become more equitable spaces. The Athena Factor emphasizes that labor shortages in the SET field are worsening and that this makes closing the gender gap an even more pressing issue. [18]

As a cultural producer, I find the data collected by the Athena and FLOSS studies more instructive. What is troubling me about the psychology studies is that they offer little hope for changing the status quo because they see statistical differences between the sexes as the cause of the problem. Feminist theorists have long criticized psychology, specifically evolutionary psychology, for not taking into account that gender roles are socially constructed and therefore open to redefinition. [19] When analyzing primate research, Donna Haraway writes: “ [. . . ] a constant dimension of primate studies has been the naturalization of human history; that is, making human nature the raw material rather than the product of history.” [20] The two psychology studies cited above carry this counter-productive research pattern described by Haraway into the twenty-first century. Studies like the FLOSS study and the Athena Factor, on the other hand, collect data in order to provide insight not so much into how men and women differ statistically, but rather into how men and women experience their work environment and the culture within. This is more productive because it sheds light on the culture surrounding computing. It is a culture and a field that are mostly opaque to outsiders because of the technical specialization required. The FLOSS and Athena Factor studies see tech culture as something that can be changed into a more equitable space. They therefore provide a backdrop, motivation, and reference for the work discussed in the next section of this article.

Internet Software

Talkbackbot by Jessamyn Smith is a project that directly addresses sexism in the tech workplace. [21] The tech workplace culture takes place in real spaces but also over the Internet: Companies often have their own chat servers or Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels on public servers. This allows co-workers to stay in touch whether they are in an office together, traveling, or telecommuting. In Smith’s company’s chat channel, besides her co-workers, there was also a chat bot, a program that responds to certain chats with so-called “that’s what she said” (TWSS) jokes. Smith explains the joke on her blog thus: “[ . . . ] the idea is that when somebody says something that could remotely be turned into a sexual joke, e.g. ‘I’m trying to solve this problem but it’s really hard!’ you say ‘That’s what SHE said,’ in a lascivious tone.” [22]

When Smith and others in her company pointed this out and asked to have the bot turned off, they were not taken seriously. Consequently, she wrote a chat bot of her own that responds to TWSS with a quote from a notable woman. She ran it from one of the development servers at her workplace. In a blog post, she explains that, as a result, she got compliments but also complaints from co-workers about the additional bot’s comments “spamming” the channel. As she writes on the blog, somehow the co-workers did not understand that if the TWSS bot were removed, her bot would also stop replying. [23] The TWSS bot running in Smith’s workplace was based on an earlier TWSS chat bot.After news about Smith’s project was published widely on the Internet, the author who had written this earlier TWSS bot program issued an apology [24] and removed the bot’s source code from the GitHub repository where it had been available for download.

Smith is not alone in facing sexist jokes. The FLOSS study mentioned earlier specifically mentions the frequency of sexist jokes made in IRC channels dedicated to technical topics. [25] If  studies such as the FLOSS study and The Athena Factor mentioned in the background section of this article are an indicator, women take enormous personal risks when speaking up and making projects about sexism in the tech workplace. I asked Smith about this. She responded that she would not have spoken up if this had happened earlier in her career for lack of self-confidence and for the fear of being labeled a whiner or troublemaker. Her concerns are more than justified. Some commenters on popular news sites where talkbackbot was discussed wrote that they would never hire somebody like Smith. As mentioned before, Smith also faced resistance from co-workers, and in an e-mail to me, she explained it like this:

There is also the risk of internal backlash. Some people were quite angry and hurt by my actions. Nobody wants to hear that their company isn’t turning out as they’d hoped, and there is a human tendency to take that out on the messenger. If someone in your chain of command takes offense, it can create a lot of problems for you at work. I can’t say absolutely that it was due to this, but some people started really dissecting everything I had to say, looking for any sign of me being less than perfectly respectful to all groups. Naturally, as a human, I make mistakes in this regard, like anyone else, and it is frustrating to feel you’re being watched. Here is a public example: https://twitter.com/eonnen/status/202534796868583425. [26]

I also asked about the benefits of speaking up, and Smith said that by going public, she was able to create a touch-point for talking about sexism in the workplace. She knows of several people who currently have her chat bot running in their IRC channels. Based on the talkbackbot, Smith created a Twitter bot called The Underquoted [27], as well as a web site dedicated to “Quoting the underquoted members of society” [28]. A mobile phone app is also in the works.

Because I am interested in studying technology culture and because studies like the Athena Factor and the FLOSS study are few and far between, I created my own device for collecting data. The project is called Be Counted – A Survey of the Gender Distribution at Tech Events. [29] It is a participative platform in the form of a website and was created in 2009 with the advice of a group of technical women. [30] The project aims to collect a stream of user-contributed data on gender diversity in technology environments. It asks people who attend tech events to count how many women, men, and others attended the event and to contribute these Gender Ratio Reports (GRRs) to the database.

Be Counted, Annina Rüst, web page screen capture.

Be Counted, Annina Rüst, web page screen capture.

I created Be Counted as a participative tool for technologists to collect data and study tech culture for themselves. Technologists have a preference for quantifiable information and statistics. To date, however, the female contributors to the project outnumber the male contributors. [31]

One reason for this reversed gender gap may be that I mainly promoted the project in communities of female technologists. However, when I look, for example, at attendance data that was collected at the 2011 PyGotham Python programming conference, I can see more evidence for an increased interest among female technologists in diversity topics. Among eleven talks where attendance was recorded, the one talk that had by far the largest female audience was a talk on gender diversity in technology. [32] One of my future experiments therefore will be to give a talk at a technology conference that is ostensibly about a technical topic but is in reality about diversity. This might be a way to reach technologists who tend to avoid gender-related talks.

The third project that I will describe does not address tech culture directly, but it shows that the gender politics of a programmer are important. Jailbreak the Patriarchyby Danielle Sucher [33] is a Chrome extension, a software to be installed in the Chrome web browser. It swaps gender pronouns and gender-specific words on all pages that this browser encounters. For example, if you were viewing this article on the web using Sucher’s extension, you would see the project title as Jailbreak the Matriarchy and all the gender specific words in the article would be reversed, with the title of this article being “Masculist Internet Software.” On her blog, Sucher writes that she was initially interested in creating a program for gender-swapping in eBooks but eventually created a an extension for a browser. She asks, “What would the world be like if we reversed the way we speak about women and men?” [34].

Jailbreak the Patriarchy, Danielle Sucher, Chrome browser extension demonstrated on Wikipedia entry, web page screen shot.

Jailbreak the Patriarchy, Danielle Sucher, Chrome browser extension demonstrated on Wikipedia entry, web page screen shot.

Sucher’s project is a great technology for experiencing gendered language on the Internet. It, of course, works best in gendered contexts such as on websites of fashion magazines, online shops for clothes or shoes, feminist blogs, or, of course, results of a study about gender in the technology workplace. The project has been reported on widely in the media and users have shared their favorite gender swaps over Twitter. I agree with Sucher when she writes about using the extension: “I’m really just charmed by the way it makes the entire world feel a bit more genderqueer to me.” [35]

Sucher made the source code of the project available, and another programmer, Marianne Kreidler, soon extended the project to make a gender-neutral version of the extension called Jailbreak the Binary. [36] Jailbreak the Binary replaces gendered words such as woman or man with human, and uses gender-neutral pronouns such as ‘hir’ or ‘ze.’ Jailbreak the Binary has only one way of speaking about gender and consequently gives the user a more homogenous view of the web. The ideal situation is to have both extensions installed at the same time and be able to switch back and forth while browsing the Internet. An even more ideal situation would be to have even more browser extensions that have, for example, just female sets of pronouns, or just the male pronouns, or make up entirely new gender pronouns. In any case, Sucher and Kreidler’s software projects can help us understand gender and how it affects our culture.


What the projects described above have in common is that they are algorithmic projects for the Internet that are made from a feminist perspective. What also connects them is the fact they contest, examine, and push for self-reflection among technology producers and consumers. The feminist perspective in spaces where technology is produced is needed to open tech culture up and make it more welcoming for women and for men who do not conform to the current cultural expectations within tech production.

This (future) diversity will hopefully lead to better technology. A study done by the National Center for Women in IT (NCWIT) found that “teams comprising men and women produced the most frequently cited patents—with citation rates that were 26 to 42 percent higher than the norm for similar patents.” [37] This statistic is both hope-inspiring and at the same time daunting. While it shows that diversity is good for innovation, it also tells us that there is still a long way to go until (gender) diversity and a diverse way of thinking is the default condition in the tech workplace.


1. Hanna Wallach, in a conversation, 2008.

2. Janet Abbate, Recoding Gender (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2012), 32; Nathan Ensmenger, The Computer Boys Take Over (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2010), 15.

3. Abbate, Recoding Gender, 1.

4. Catherine Ashcraft and Sarah Blithe, “Women in IT: The Facts,” Center for Women & Information Technology (Boulder, CO: NCWIT, 2010), 10.

5. Joshua L. Rosenbloom, Ronald A. Ash, Brandon Dupont, and LeAnne Coder. “Why Are There So Few Women in Information Technology? Assessing the Role of Personality in Career Choices,” Journal of Economic Psychology 29, no. 4, (2008): 543.

6. Rosenbloom, Ash, Dupont, and Coder,  “Why Are There So Few Women in Information Technology?,” 543.

7. Rosenbloom, Ash, Dupont, and Coder,  “Why Are There So Few Women in Information Technology?,” 552.

8. Rosenbloom, Ash, Dupont, and Coder,  “Why Are There So Few Women in Information Technology?,” 551.

9. David Lubinski, Camilla Persson Benbow, Daniel L. Shea, Hossain Eftekhari-Sanjani, and Marcy B.J. Halvorson,  “Men and Women at Promise for Scientific Excellence: Similarity Not Dissimilarity,” Psychological Science 12, no. 4 (2001): 309.

10. Dawn Nafus, James Leach, and Bernard Krieger, “Gender: Integrated Report of Findings,”  Free/Libre and Open Source Software – Policy Support (FLOSSPOLS) (Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge, 2006): 21.

11. Nafus, Leach, and Krieger. “Gender: Integrated Report of Findings,” 19.

12. Nafus, Leach, and Krieger. “Gender: Integrated Report of Findings,” 28.

13. Nafus, Leach, and Krieger. “Gender: Integrated Report of Findings,” 29.

14. Nafus, Leach, and Krieger. “Gender: Integrated Report of Findings,” 17.

15. Nafus, Leach, and Krieger. “Gender: Integrated Report of Findings,” 23.

16. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Carolyn Buck Luce, Lisa J. Servon, Laura Sherbin, Peggy Shiller, Eytan Sosnovich, and Karen Sumberg, “The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, and Technology,” HBR Research Report (Boston: Harvard Business School, 2008), i.

17. Hewlett, Buck Luce, Servon, Sherbin, Shiller, Sosnovich, and Sumberg, “The Athena Factor,” 54.

18. Hewlett, Buck Luce, Servon, Sherbin, Shiller, Sosnovich, and Sumberg. “The Athena Factor,” i.

19. Judy Wajcman, Technofeminism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004), 80.

20. Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 47.

21. Talkbackbot, Jessamyn Smith, GitHub software repository, accessed January 20, 2013, https://github.com/jessamynsmith/talkbackbot.

22. Jessamyn Smith, “What she really said: Fighting sexist jokes the geeky way!,” Geekfeminism.org (blog), accessed March 19, 2012, http://geekfeminism.org/2012/03/19/what-she-really-said-fighting-sexist-jokes-the-geeky-way/.

23. Smith, “What she really said.”

24. James Sokol, “That’s What He . . . is Sorry For,” Coffee on the Keyboard (blog), accessed April 20, 2012, http://coffeeonthekeyboard.com/thats-what-he-is-sorry-for-651/.

25. Nafus, Leach, and Krieger, “Gender: Integrated Report of Findings,” 22.

26.Jessamyn Smith, e-mail message to author, January 2013.

27. Jessamyn Smith, The Underquoted, accessed February 11, 2013, https://twitter.com/the_underquoted.

28. Smith, The Underquoted.

29. Annina Rüst, Be Counted – A Survey of the Gender Distribution at Tech Events, accessed January 21, 2013, http://b-counted.appspot.com.

30. Rüst, “Why?,” on Be Counted – A Survey of the Gender Distribution at Tech Events, accessed January 21, 2012, http://b-counted.appspot.com/why/.

31. Rüst, “Stats,” on Be Counted – A Survey of the Gender Distribution at Tech Events, accessed January 21, 2012, http://b-counted.appspot.com/stats/.

32. Rüst, “Multisession Event: PyGotham,” on Be Counted – A Survey of the Gender Distribution at Tech Events, accessed January 21, 2012 http://b-counted.appspot.com/multisession-event/agliLWNvdW50ZWRyEwsSC1BhcmVudEV2ZW50GMGZBAw/.

33. Danielle Sucher, Jailbreak the Patriarchy, Chrome Web Store, accessed January 21, 2012, https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/jailbreak-the-patriarchy/fiidcfoaaciclafodoficaofidfencgd?hl=en-US.

34. Danielle Sucher, “Jailbreak the Patriarchy: My First Chrome Extension,” Danielle Sucher’s blog, November 11, 2011, http://www.daniellesucher.com/2011/11/jailbreak-the-patriarchy-my-first-chrome-extension/.

35. Sucher, “Jailbreak the Patriarchy: My First Chrome Extension.”

36. Marianne Kreidler, Jailbreak the Binary, Chrome Web Store, accessed January 21, 2012,  https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/jailbreak-the-binary/mmdlclbfhplmbjfefngjbicmelpbbdnh?.

37.Ashcraft and Blithe, “Women in IT: The Facts,” 22.


Annina Rüst produces digital art projects. These projects mostly comprise electronic objects and software art. She creates technologies that are artistically and socially motivated. Her projects happen at the intersection of activism, algorithm, data, electricity, humor, politics, and pop culture. She has a diploma from the Zürich University of the Arts, an MFA from UC San Diego and MS from the MIT Media Lab. She is currently employed as Assistant Professor at Syracuse University’s Department of Transmedia. Her website is www.anninaruest.com.