Leonie Tanczer

Leonie Tanczer is a researcher at the UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy. She received her PhD at Queen’s University Belfast and is a former fellow at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society in Berlin. Her research examines the intersections of the social/political and the technological and is currently focused on internet security and governance. Most pertinent to this project, Leonie has also published several articles on gender and hacktivism.

Our correspondence took place in the fall of 2015 via e-mail between Belfast and Montreal.

Cathleen: How do you define Hacking?

Leonie: The ambiguity of the term actually constitutes its beauty — although it often makes my day-to-day research quite challenging. I personally perceive hacking as a very broad term. I think it is most commonly applied to computer hacking which comprises activities ranging from gaining unauthorized access to systems or data to manipulating technology for unorthodox means, up to the production of free software. However, I also feel that hacking is and should encompass more than what this rather narrow focus on technology can offer. I genuinely feel that you can “hack” society. For example, you can use the same kind of “hacker” mindset to modify not only computer systems but also to change society and concepts such as class or gender. Think of social engineering which is a non-technical method and basically human manipulation! In my opinion, that just shows how you can hack in principle anything and you may or may not use technology for this end; one way or the other, you alter something in ways that it was not initially intended, anticipated or designed for. But I acknowledge that this might not be a commonly shared view.

How does this view tie into your conception and use of the term “hacktivist” in your writing?

Again, I face the difficulty of defining a highly contested concept. Yet this time it gets even harder as the term hacktivism comprises both the ambiguous words of “hacking” and “activism”. Nevertheless, I consider hacktivism as the use of hacking techniques for social and political purposes. This is quite vague, I know. But I am a bit more restrictive when it comes to the means involved in hacktivism. I do associate hacktivism solely with computer hacking. The term would otherwise be hard to discern from other forms of activism that are applied both on and offline. Additionally, the reference to “social and political” allows hacktivism also to be distinct from hacking. You can certainly hack your washing machine for personal reasons to – I don’t know – improve its performance. However, you can also hack your washing machine with the intent to send a political message to, for example, Siemens. I accept that there is a very thin line between both concepts and that hacktivism can easily be considered as vigilantism and, as my research shows, even terrorism. But this makes it even more important to study this phenomenon and identify what it means to people who call themselves hacktivists.

What do you think it is about the “open space” egalitarian concept and discourse at the core of the standard hacker/hacktivist space that allows for the subjugation, under-representation, and frequent harassment of anyone who does not fit the unspoken mold (ie male, white, cisgendered, and straight)?

The question relates to my research on the Post-Gender discourse that was very popular in the Pirate Party of Austria (PPÖ) but also in the Pirate Party of Germany a couple of years ago. For them, the term Post-Gender represented a gender-neutral social order and the overcoming of heteronormativity. However, when examining the PPÖ’s actual structures and attitudes more closely, it became obvious that the party was not living up to these “open space” and “we have surpassed feminism” arguments. The results of my research show that the party constructed Post-Gender as an “Egalitarian Discourse.” Participants used Post-Gender to legitimize the existence of an egalitarian society free of any gender differences while it also enabled them to deny the prevalence of gender discrimination, negate any form of feminism or reject the promotion of women. The lesson we learn from this research as well as other studies (see: Jordan and Taylor, 1998; Turkle, 1984; Nagenborg, 2006) is that it does not help to simply ignore something and make it seem as if, for example, gender or inequality wasn’t existent. Ignorance or lack of focus will certainly not make everyone become equal. All it will do is to maintain and reinforce the status quo. Thus, if there are structural inequalities for certain parts of society, they ultimately need to be made explicit; otherwise, I am afraid, it will be far more difficult for excluded groups to claim space and make their voices heard.

In your 2016 piece, you introduce the “Male Oblivious Discourse,” which you write “discursively constructs gender as being a non-issue and therefore non-existent.” With this in mind, how does one challenge assumptions that a predominantly or exclusively male space is merely accidental?

By simply listening and giving voice to those who are underrepresented or frequently excluded. This applies to researchers, journalists, or the community that faces this particular dynamic. They are often prone to be oblivious to those marginalized groups. On the other hand, through the examination of the structures that make this exclusion and inequality possible. If you know that there are differences in the toys girls and boys are playing with, or if you know that females in hugely male-dominated fields are more often confronted with sexism, then you basically have an outline of issues that led and will lead to disparities. They are therefore uncovered as being inherent to a system and not merely an accidental or a “natural” phenomenon. So I believe in the necessity to thoroughly research such dynamics to make their revelation feasible. On the basis of these findings, society can then come up with ways to tackle them.

You write that the “Emphasis Discourse” is the struggle of women to be seen within the hacktivist community. What do you think are a feminist’s most valuable tools within this struggle? Exclusively non-male spaces/dialogues?

In regards to women*-only spaces, I have to admit that I am a huge supporter of the idea, especially if they embrace intersectionality and are open to transwomen*. I have organized female-only conferences and initiatives such as the “Netzfeministische Bier” in Austria and I feel that they can counterbalance hugely male-dominated realms. Other examples are female-only hackerspaces such as Mothership HackerMoms in Berkeley or Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory in Vienna. Again, I think the value of these tools is hard to measure. Still, the fact that women* only spaces continue to be popular even though they started off back in the 60s-80s, is a sign for me that there is a need for it. Another tool that became evident through my research is the idea of feminist hacktivism. Just as other activist forms used by feminists across her*story, hacktivism can provide females with the potential to act collectively and/or on purpose using technology. And I hope to see more of it in the future. Not because I want to encourage anyone doing stuff that is illegal, but because it certainly would break with the male-only stereotype of hacktivism and technology, make feminist issues more prominent in the public discourse, and might also lead to more females taking up hacking/programming/tinkering.

You write that the “Male Oblivious Discourse” allows male hacktivists to put themselves in the subject position of being the standard or norm, thereby putting non-male hacktivists in the position of being an exception. How should we then respond to the Unicorn Law — namely that “if you are a women in hacking, you will eventually give a talk about being a woman in hacking”?

Perhaps we could respond to the Unicorn Law by implementing a Bechdel test for tech conferences, [meaning that] two women* need to be speaking, on the same panel, but not about women* in tech. I saw this being tweeted by Monica Rogati, and I really like the idea. It makes the phenomenon measurable and more visible. I am also in favour of quotas, changes to the way we advertise conferences and modifications to the ways we approach speakers for those events. Thus, in order to avoid tokenism and essentialisation, I think that it is important to not just employ or invite that one token female that needs to represent or is required to speak for the problems that a field faces. And if someone says: “I can’t find suitable female candidates,” – well, perhaps you need to look a bit more thoroughly. For example, I like the concept of Speakerinnen.org. It is a platform that aims to increase the visibility and participation of women* at conferences or panels. Women* can register online with the topics they are able to cover, while organizers and hosts can find experts who can speak on a specific topic.

Why do you think imposter syndrome is so prominent among women participating in tech communities? How does this link to the “Negation Discourse,” which you suggest makes women experience their male hacktivist colleagues as the authority, while they feel excluded?

I am not sure if the imposter syndrome is more prominent in tech communities than in other fields. However, my most recent study shows that female participants articulate trouble to be associated with the “real” ideal of what it means to be a hacktivist – which basically means being male. Meritocracy has thereby the ability to hide structural inequalities. It ties in with the idea of liberalism that is prominent in the scene. People can lean back and say, “Well, I worked hard enough to be here. So if you would work hard enough, you could be here too.” This ignores how people start off from different positions. Thus, even though meritocracy is certainly not the only reason why female hacktivists either justify their identity as hacktivists or reject the term, it offers possibilities to dismiss dealing with excluded groups.

How do we address the (male) gendering of subcultures and practices such as hacking/hacktivism/geekdom and encourage a more intersectional identity within communities that have, in the past, shown resistance to change?

I do think societal structures have a huge impact on us. However, I also take into account the agency of each individual to work within those structures and to potentially modify them – within its remits. Like Bourdieu says: “objective structures and subjective dispositions are in a dialectic relationship”. They influence each other. Thus, in order to challenge such intrinsic assumptions like “women can’t do maths” or “hackers are all men”, changes on both the structural/institutional but also on the individual level are required. Thus, we should address the gendering of subcultures with its revelation, and through the evaluation of techniques that are implemented to tackle them.

For instance what I can immediately think of is to enhance public awareness of females in IT. The only leading female characters I can spontaneously think of in a film that is about computers/hacking is Sandra Bullock in The Net back in 1995. We might get female side-kicks like in Mr. Robot, or side-characters like Penelope Garcia in Criminal Minds, but ultimately the public image is again dominated by males. And that is even worse if we think of other social categories such as race. This would, however, only be a tool to tackle the external perception. To challenge internal dynamics one might implement quotas. A colleague of mine provides coding courses for school kids with the requirement that the school has to send 10 males and 10 females. Hence, ideas like that might help. Otherwise, hackerspaces or tech conferences should start to question their own approachability. What could make people not partake? For example, lack of childcare, is there a huge hurdle to join, do you have females on the managing/ organizational board? Issues like that might be a good starting point.

* The participant wished to indicate that the use of this term was in its most inclusive understanding.