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Gender Dynamics in Open Data Initiatives

Published onDec 28, 2019
Gender Dynamics in Open Data Initiatives


  • Open data is a field dominated by the usual suspects, with very little space for people and issues that do not belong to the mainstream - including gender justice.

  • Women are poorly represented in leadership and decision-making roles in the field, which reflects in gender-blind or -adverse policy making.

  • Women working in the field report experiences of discrimination, tokenism, objectification, and trivialisation.

  • Data on gender representation and pay gaps is missing, which makes it difficult to make “authoritative” claims on these issues.

Gender shapes the configuration of “status, power, needs, and interests” in open data spaces.1 Davies (2013) attributes the masculinist nature of the open data movement to its beginnings in the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement, which has been critiqued for being male-dominated.2 Cis, queer and lesbian women face distinct and overlapping challenges in the open data movement, some of which have also been voiced in other fields. The open data space suffers from poor representation of women, particularly women from the Global South. One author describes it as a field dominated by the usual suspects, with advocates for “gender equity, diversity and inclusion”, along with other marginalised groups, struggling for space.3 Critics have further pointed out the complete absence of data on gender representation in open data spaces, which makes it difficult to make authoritative claims on the issue.4

The stark absence of women in open data spaces was noted by first-time women participants at the International Open Data Conference in 2015, leading to the creation of initiatives such as Open Heroines to support travel grants for women participants.5 Women attending open data conferences for the first time, with support from a travel grant by Open Heroines, write about feeling alienated from open data spaces due to complex processes and jargon.6 This is further impacted by under-investment in grants for travel for women, as well as women from the Global South having lower to access to passports and visas.7 Women supported through this initiative have written about the importance of female mentorship in enabling them to contribute to open data spaces.8

Despite these concerns being flagged, goals being set for inclusion by leadership with open data initiatives remain low.9 This is also reflected in, and perhaps correlated with, low representation of women in policy-making and leadership positions.10 Even when women have made it into leadership positions, they have not necessarily created support structures for other women or non-binary people, or have disregarded non-white feminist movements.11 Absence of political will at the top of the hierarchy often puts the burden of creating inclusive spaces on those who are worst impacted by exclusionary policies.12 Women have shared experiences of feeling like they were they only ones being “diverse in a non-diverse environment”, which can even result in self-censorship.13

As has also been noted across corporate, civil society, and academic spaces, women in open spaces feel that they have been hired for token diversity.14 They also find it harder to prove their legitimacy than men in similar positions.15 Learning and growth opportunities can be harder to access due to gatekeeping, and even those men who claim to be feminists have at times acted as gatekeepers or disproportionately received opportunities for growth.16 This has especially been flagged when it comes to gaining access to technical skills and knowledge.17 Some women have shared evidence of the existence of a gender pay gap in their organisations, while others spoke of a lack of transparency and openness in data on pay.18

Women in the open data space have spoken up about being faced with different forms of violence within their organisations or at conferences and meetings. One woman has shared a personal account of being bullied at work by male colleagues, and in particular being abused verbally and emotionally by a male boss, while another reports an incident where she felt objectified and not taken seriously.19 A lesbian woman writes about facing professional risk if she were to be outed in the open government space.20 She then writes about using what others perceive as a “feminine attitude” to gain legitimacy by passing off as straight and avoiding homophobic comments and abuse. She also writes about the trauma of working in countries where homosexuality is criminalised, and socialising with people who are homophobic in cultures she is unfamiliar with.21

One author reflects on the patriarchal work culture in the open government space, which disincentivizes junior women from reporting against men in power as they do not think the due process will provide them a route to justice.22 One issue that has been identified with due process is the need for complainants to reveal their identity, and the inability of people with first-hand information to act without revealing the identity to the respondent.23 This creates a culture of silence because social and institutional power is vested in abusive men.24

Several women have pointed out that the feminist movement and open data spaces exist in silos, apart from one-off initiatives and partnerships.25 Some of these silos started to break at the Open Government Partnership Summit in 2019, which saw large representation from feminist activists.26 However, these would need to be sustained to develop stronger linkages between the two movements. Finally, the very notion of data as a tool for empowerment has been questioned for its masculinist epistemology.27 Open data privileges “data over other ways of knowing”, as it addresses questions of “fact through datasets” rather than narratives or lived experience.28

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