Writing about FOSS sexism

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Oct 09, 2009 GMT
Bruce Byfield

A month ago, I wrote an article about sexism in the free and open source software (FOSS) community. The result has been educational, to say the least. It's one thing to know about issues intellectually, and quite another to plunge headlong into a firestorm of reactions.

So what have I learned exactly? To start with, while members of the FOSS community like to think of themselves as rational beings, when subjects like gender issues are raised, emotion swamps logic to an alarming degree.

This tendency shows up occasionally among feminists in over-reactions, such as the call by srlinuxx on Tuxmachines.org to boycott Ubuntu because its founder Mark Shuttleworth made some sexist remarks in his LinuxCon keynote. However, such reactions are understandable, given that the issue is just now being discussed openly after years of people gritting their teeth in silence.

They are also a minority of reactions. More balanced responses to incidences of sexism are expressed regularly on such sites as Geek Feminism, where the regular bloggers show a consistent sense of the appropriate level of response, and seem dedicated to constructive activism.

But the real flood of emotion comes from the anti-feminists and the average men who would like to deny the importance of feminist issues in FOSS. Raise the subject of sexism, and you are met with illogic that I can only compare to that of the tobacco companies trying to deny the link between their products and cancer.

Because I took a feminist stance in public, I have been abused in every way possible -- being called irrelevant, a saboteur, coward, homosexual, and even a betrayer of the community. I know that many women in the community have been attacked much more savagely than I have, so I'm not complaining. Nor am I a stranger to readers who disagree with me, but the depth of reaction has taken me back more than once. I think the reaction is an expression of denial more than anything else.

Personal vs. Institutionalized Sexism

That brings up another point I've learned: people who are not consciously sexist themselves tend to be unable to see institutionalized sexism around them. They are not aware of any prejudice against women in themselves, so how could there be any sexism involved? They seem unaware that institutions and customs can be sexist simply by what they value or how they operate, that even something like a discourse developed by men talking to men can institutionalize sexism. Nor do they understand that, by simply accepting such institutions or ways of acting, they become supporters of sexism.

For instance, I am currently part of an email conversation with a prominent FOSS community member who has been pilloried who is hurt and baffled that I (or anyone else) could apply the word "sexism" to them. Their reasoning? They did not intend to be sexist, so therefore they can't possibly be. Therefore, labelling their behavior as unacceptable is unfair, they argue. The fact that, in context, their actions and remarks could not possibly be described in any other way honestly does not seem to have occurred to them. No matter what I say, they remain hurt and baffled -- and, like so many, deeply in denial.

Cutting across existing lines

But probably the largest lesson for me has been how understanding of gender issues cuts across other connections. Having spent much of my life in academia before becoming a freelance writer, I always assumed that, if you knew one or two opinions that a person held, you had a strong chance of knowing what their opinions were on other subjects. For instance, if someone worked for left wing political candidates and promoted recycling, they were probably concerned about recycling and racism as well.

Similarly, I assumed that, in the FOSS community, if you were a free software supporter, you were concerned about social justice and would therefore be against sexism as well.

No doubt I was naive, but that turns out not to be the case. Developers are just as likely to be feminist as testers, technical writers, and artists. More importantly, people in the open source camp are just as likely to be feminist as free software supporters.

In fact, to my chagrin, if anything free software supporters are often more likely to be hostile to feminism than open source supporters. While all sorts of people claim that no problem exists, in the last month, I've found that free software supporters are the most likely to accuse me of betrayal for raising the issue, or to argue that legitimate responses to sexist behavior is part of a deliberate effort at character assassination. Not all free software supporters act this way, let me emphasize, but a large and vocal minority certainly do.

I'm not sure, but I think that the logic here is that if you are already part of an idealistic movement, your actions must be above criticism in every other sense. From that assumption, perhaps it follows that anyone questioning any part of your actions must have the most Machiavellian of motives. The fact that some people who raise issues do seem to enjoy fault-finding because of past grievances only makes this assumption all the easier to hold.

With such painful lessons coming my way, this last month has been shocking, disappointing, and -- above all else -- exhausting. I've lost respect for some people I thought I knew, and gained respect for others. At times, I've been happy to escape into writing a purely technical article to take a brief holiday from the endless angst.

But am I sorry I raised the issue, or got involved in the discussions when other people did? Not in the least. I was convinced a month ago by the facts that FOSS has a problem with sexism, and the reactions I've seen have proved the accuracy of that conviction a hundred times over. It's not a comforting conviction, but it's a true one.

Besides, I keep telling myself, if what I see is offensive to me, at least it does not directly oppress me. Compare to female feminists, I have it easy. So what right do I have to complain?

Anyway, I'm not very good at lying to myself. Since very few other writers about FOSS care to approach the topic, I expect that I'll be writing and acting on my convictions from time to time in the future, no matter what reactions I get.


  • thanks for the clear writing of the story

    really appreciate your article and then the followup about the reaction.
    we are all pretty good at denial and defensiveness, but you uncovered
    a wealth of it, and took a lot of flak, and i appreciate your integrity and

    especially like your comparison to the tobacco industry's denials!
    clever.. and i bet that stung a lot of your naysayers.

    thanks a ton - more than you can imagine.
  • Survival is overrated

    Priscilla Oppenheimer Oct 13, 2009 10:52pm GMT
    "Women are a protected class." If that's true, shame that it got to that point! Shame! It shouldn't have been necessary.

    It was a necessity. Those societies which protected their women overtook those societies which didn't. Even today, you fill find that every society treats it's average woman better than it's average man (I'm sure there are screams of protest over this concerning the middle east. But, we're not comparing the middle east woman to you, we're compairing the middle east woman to the middle east man. Yes, she has to wear a Burka. He has to wear a rifle, and use it. She has a longer life expectancy. Any more standards you want comparison on?)

    Why is this? To even start this conversation in earnest we're likely going to have to start from the beginning. That means going as far back as talking about what "rights" really are (a very common misconception today). I'm pretty sure that you and I disagree there, so talking anything further up the chain is just us arguing with no possible conclusion as we're really talking about different things.

    But even skipping all that, let's just go back to one basic point: Women are the limiting factor in reproductive capacity. A society that went to war with 50% of it's forces being women might win that war, but it would loose the next when when it's opponent society which kept it's women safe greatly outnumbers them.

    Hell, it's that exact reason why Europe is going to become an Islamic state. While our women are picking careers, their women are having babies. If you're young, you might live long enough to see Shira law VOTED into place in Europe.
  • For the record...

    ...I'm ignoring mikeeusa entirely on the grounds that he's either a troll with incredibly terrible taste, or a dangerous nutcase who should be dealt with by the appropriate legal authorities. I assume everyone else is doing the same...
  • We don't want protection

    "starts small, like 'obviously sexist' terms and the like, but then once that is accomplished the goalposts move and move and move"

    Nope, it started BIG, with discrimination in the workplace. We can take hazing, etc. We can take our lumps, as you call it. But don't mess with our livelihoods. Don't mess with our ability to use our abilities to make a difference in a field that we're good at and that we care about.

    The little stuff, language, etc., is offensive because of where it comes from not because of where it's going. The world is going toward fairness, where people are not judged by the content of their non-autosomal chromosomes, but by the content of their character.

    "Women are a protected class." If that's true, shame that it got to that point! Shame! It shouldn't have been necessary. We're "fair game" (to use your term) for dissent, argument, etc. I'm OK with fair treatment. Does that work for you? It works for me.

  • Demonspawn:

    All I have to say to the bit of your last post addressed to me is that I've never been a member of any community, including F/OSS communities, which seemed to think it was a good idea to organize themselves internally as an anarchy. They all set rules of acceptable behaviour. Nations do this. Forums do it. Sports team supporters' groups do it. Companies do it. IRC channels do it. Distributions do it.

    Your position that any kind of communal behavioural standards are an intolerable abridgement of personal freedom seems to be...well...not shared by the vast majority of people *or* communities, historically and in the present. I don't think any current F/OSS community would agree with it. Certainly the Ubuntu community doesn't. http://www.ubuntu.com/community/conduct
  • Thank you!

    Thank you for writing about this very tiresome and not very modern problem -- sexism in FOSS. Hopefully, as more and more people start to speak up about the exclusionary behaviors within FOSS communities the end result can only be more diverse development teams, better software and a competitive advantage over traditional software development models.

    Those communities that choose not to adjust will be left behind.

    Putting some $ behind my thank you - I'm subscribing to Linux Magazine. Thanks again for speaking up.

  • Replies:

    Adam Williamson Oct 13, 2009 9:17pm GMT
    I frankly fail to see why wanting others to 'play nice' is assholery. 'play nice' appears to be the basic message of the codes of conducts of all F/OSS projects that have them, for instance. It's not a revolutionary idea. What's the problem with playing nice?

    Because it is assholery, as defined as "setting the terms that others have to live by." Because "offense" is defined by the viewer, then all the sudden those people now have to watch everything like a hawk as to not offend the poor thin-skinned people who will use this to their own advantage.

    They need to realize a fundamental truth: I cannot offend you. You can choose to be offended by what I say, but that decision is yours and not mine. I am not responsible for your emotional decisions. To try to set up the rules so that I am responsible for your emotions means you are becoming the asshole trying to constrain and control me.

    And the bigger problem is that it starts small, like "obviously sexist" terms and the like, but then once that is accomplished the goalposts move and move and move. Much like sexual harassment started as the "sex for promotion or as a term of employment" definition, but then moved on "saying she looks good and she doesn't want you to do so" will get you fired and blacklisted. Hell, there's even been a case where a guy knew said women had the sick up her ass and therefore avoided giving her any remarks in that manner, and STILL was found guilty of sexual harassment because he didn't compliment her like he did other women in the office.

    The problem is that these women want to be in the "man's world" but still want women's protections. The two cannot co-exist without destroying morale and productivity. If you want to leave the traditional female role behind, you leave the traditional female protections behind and go get your lumps like men have for ages.

    Priscilla Oppenheimer Oct 13, 2009 9:19pm GMT
    We don't want protection or any politically-correct BS. We want work, respect, a fair chance. We want to contribute without being marginalized. Why is that so hard to understand? I just don't get it.

    Bullshit. If you didn't want protection you wouldn't be raising this issue in the first place. You obviously don't want to stand on your own two feet and take lumps, you want to be protected from them because "you're a girl" or some other nonsense. Again, if you leave the traditional female role behind, you must also leave behind the traditional female protections. We do not have to pander to your sensitivities. We are out here to create things and live in this dog-eat-dog world, and advance through brutal competition. If you can't take that, stay home and be a mother. You at least have that option.

    Quit trying to change the rules that you're not fair game for hazing, dissent, argument, or insults because you're a woman. Quit trying to be "more equal" than the rest of us who went through all that to get where we are.

    And yes, I will admit that a lot of men simply just don't want women there. Why? Because women ARE a protected class, and we know once there's a sufficient number of you, we have to start pandering to your sensibilities _or else_. Want to get rid of that problem? Stop trying to be more equal than the rest of us.
  • my theory about why are fewer women in computer related fields

    I have thought long about all this, and I think I have a theory.
    The reason why there are fewer woman in computer related fields than in law or medicine, is because the men in computer fields are worse. Worse how? worse seducing women. This causes these men to be frustrated, and lots and lots of them plainly hate women. Even married guys that failed a lot in their youth missed the opportunity to feel secure about themselves, and have a buried mysoginist inside.

    So what are we asking, as women?

    We are asking men (in the computer industry, or specifically in FOSS) to be better men.

    We don't like when men feel so frustrated because of not being able to get the women they wanted that they become angry against women, and vengeful. Let me explain:

    Men feel a strong desire to posess women, especially when young, we can agree on this.
    They dream about women, they draw women, they build sculptures and latex dolls representing women, they print and publish magazines filled with nude pictures of women. They film nude women and publish the movies, creating a huge industry. All this because they want to reach women, touch women. And that is hard for them. It takes a lot of work and skill to get women. We can agree that all this activity is almost male exclusive.

    We, the women, do not need to do this. We don't build male dolls, or dream about touching real men helped with nude photos of men. If we wanted, we could have sex anytime, lowering our standards. We have different needs. We need good men.

    That is why we feel angry when they post a joke about "chick delivery service for the perfume buyers", ( http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/SmellyWerewolf_incident ) because we don't like weak men that only dream about getting "chicks" and can't get any. We don't like them because these men, frustrated by their own unfullfilled desire, become agressive and mysoginist in the long run. We would like for them to realize that if they were good men, they would have the women they so much desire.

    Biologically, we will always have and advantage over men. We get to choose. We have the sexual offers, they are just one more bidder. This enrages men, and this (my personal theory), is what caused all the disadvantages experienced by women historically. The almost-slavery in arranged marriages. The imposed silence, the obstacles when trying to have a job, to vote, the violence.

    So their jokes may not be exactly "sexist" in the sense that they attack women or degrade them or objectify them, their jokes are usually in a previous step: they are speaking about their weakness, their unfulfilled desire for women, and we start to feel the hate that situation could spawn.

    If they were really successful with women, they would not be posting stupid jokes about men getting chicks delivered to them. That's a fantasy that speaks for itself.

    Be better men, realize there is no need to hate us, so we can feel safe and confortable doing any activity with you.

    Sadly, men that chose computers are not the best skilled men, talking about seducing women, and that is the root of all evil. Do you want to know why medicine or law does not have the gender imbalance that computer related fields have? It is because the men that chose medical careers were better at getting women. So they don't hate women, they accept us.

    Maybe if we encourage the weak stupid geek men to open their eyes and see that they can too be desired if they do things right, the computer industry will become a 50% 50% male female world.

    As it is, there are too many stupid males frustrated and mysoginist because they were too weak and afraid to ask girls out and succeed.

    Just an opinion (or better yet: a theory). My opinions change over time. This post is not representative of who am I as a person.
  • We don't want protection

    We don't want protection or any politically-correct BS. We want work, respect, a fair chance. We want to contribute without being marginalized. Why is that so hard to understand? I just don't get it.
  • demonspawn:

    I frankly fail to see why wanting others to 'play nice' is assholery. 'play nice' appears to be the basic message of the codes of conducts of all F/OSS projects that have them, for instance. It's not a revolutionary idea. What's the problem with playing nice?
  • Assholes:


    The problem is we're trading one set of assholes for another.

    "Sexist" men who want everyone to conform and allow them to express their "sexism" freely
    "Protected" women who want everyone to play nice so they feel safe and non-offended.

    FOSS already works fine with the current set of assholes. Why trade them for a new set of assholes? Where's the benefit?
  • demonspawn:

    I understand that argument, but frankly my answer is yes, I'd rather lose people who have a problem with not acting like assholes than people who have a problem with others being assholes. The assholes would appear to be the ones who ought to make way in such a situation.
  • Loses out?

    "The kind of unintentional, low-level sexism that shows up all the time in F/OSS contexts makes our little F/OSS Club seem less attractive to women. Hence, most of them choose to join some other club instead, and the F/OSS Club loses out."

    Here's an old IQ test:

    If you have 5 crows sitting on a fence, and you shoot one of them dead, how many crows are left on the fence?

    You're ignoring the ripple changes, also known as unintended consequences.

    So you think that if we just "make everyone play nice so women feel welcome" then more women will come to FOSS and FOSS will gain because these women are now here when they weren't before. That is a simplistic view that is only looking at first-order change and ignoring the total results of that change.

    The change is "make everyone play nice so women feel welcome", not "have more women enter FOSS" which is why you are not seeing the logical conclusion. The issue is that "making everyone play nice" will grate on some nerves and stifle the expression and debate that goes on in the forums, all for the purpose of making a nice safe playing ground for the women to come into. Many men will chafe under those conditions (much like women currently chafe under the free-for-all) and those men will decide to go elsewhere. So the question is, do you want FOSS to lose out of the women who can't take the current situation, or do you want FOSS to lose out of the men who will no longer enjoy the freedom they came to FOSS for in the first place?

    You're going to lose some of each group. How you set up the rules determines how much of each group you lose. There is no _magical_ answer of getting both. The question is, is the small number of women you would gain (women make up a small percentage of programmers) worth the greater percentage of men you would lose?

    So it isn't "either the FOSS becomes more favorable to women or FOSS loses", it is "which way do you want FOSS to lose members?"

    P.S. figure out the IQ test answer for yourself.
  • Bruce, thank you for this forum

    I learned programming in high school, 2 girls and 28 boys in a research project. Since then I've endured dirty jokes (which I mostly don't understand anyway), I learned to be one of the guys and then found a middle ground because it wasn't all that much fun and finally, with kind support from Systers at Digital, I learned how to speak up for myself. That was 20 years ago. Since then I've been taken seriously, but also called too pushy with my technical opinions, been ignored, and criticized for the sake of criticism, without content - and occasionally can't keep myself from saying, I told you so, when I'm proved right. And there are the men who listen and adopt what I propose or design as their own. Do men do all this to each other? Mostly they don't so I think there's a double standard.

    Sexism might be more or less hidden, but until I feel safe to express my opinions and contribute and be right and be wrong, we still have work to do. Until we hire young women and men who feel completely safe and comfortable, we have work to do. Because it's not just about sexism, it's about building a productive development team. And sexism impedes our efforts there. It gets in the way of good development.

    I appreciate Bruce's article on sexism.
  • @Brian

    See my (very) earlier comment - this post from Bruce is a continuation of an ongoing debate, it doesn't stand entirely alone. There's a link in the very first line to an earlier post of Bruce's that it is referring to, and that earlier post contains links to other places in this ongoing discussion.

    The way you're thinking about sexism in the F/OSS case is inaccurate, similar to several other people in the discussion. That's the kind of sexism you get when one sex is intentionally and maliciously trying to exclude the other sex from some Awesome Area which the other sex wants to get in on - voting, owning property, joining the military, whatever. That's not the situation with F/OSS. F/OSS is not a privilege which we men are actively trying to deny women from getting access to. It's more like a university or school club, competing for members with lots of other clubs. The kind of unintentional, low-level sexism that shows up all the time in F/OSS contexts makes our little F/OSS Club seem less attractive to women. Hence, most of them choose to join some other club instead, and the F/OSS Club loses out. The principal practical difference is that F/OSS is the entity that loses out on the transaction, not the women. There's lots of other things they can contribute their spare time to. The onus is on us to make F/OSS attractive so they choose us.
  • Sexism

    For my money, you have to take brainpower wherever you can get it. If we consider that the world we live in today is the result of virtually unrestricted sexism, I'd say that it's long past the time to be excluding half the world's population from the equation.
  • Sex difference is GREATER than it seems

    Petra wrote at Oct 13, 2009 6:59pm GMT:
    I wish I had time to read all the comments even though I am sure there is a bunch of garbage. As a biologist turned computer scientist anybody who wants to argue biology needs to take a course on the biology of sex differences before they open their mouths. The differences aren't as great as it seems. Hang in there Bruce!


    I would propose that you take a peek at http://www.lagriffedulion.f2s.com/math.htm and recognize the real and substantial differences between men and women. The example in that paper is one of math ability, but when you realize that men have larger standard deviations for every physiological characteristic of human existence you will recognize why men dominate every field which is even a few standard deviations away from the norm. As FOSS coding is further from the norm than just plain coding, you would expect a lower representation of women.

    Simple biological facts.

    The only biological difference (within a species) greater than "male or female" is "alive or dead." No other single selector changes nearly as much.

    So are you going to retake that course before you open your own mouth again?
  • hang in there

    I wish I had time to read all the comments even though I am sure there is a bunch of garbage. As a biologist turned computer scientist anybody who wants to argue biology needs to take a course on the biology of sex differences before they open their mouths. The differences aren't as great as it seems. Hang in there Bruce!
  • Perhaps there is something more fundamental here

    Perhaps this entire debate is predicated on a faulty premise, namely that there is such a thing as an open-source community. Open source is a tool, not a way of life, an ideology, or a community.
  • Thank you

    Bruce, thank you for taking a stand for rational action. Having been the recipient of such vitriol in the past, I know full well how exhausting it is to keep fighting back.
  • What exactly is the problem?

    I've read the article and I'm not sure what the actual issue is to which the author refers. When I think of sexism, I think of the notion that one gender is telling the other gender that they're incapable of performing a task or completing a goal due to the very nature of their gender ("Girls don't play sports," "Guys aren't in touch with their feelings," etc.) What exactly is the gender bias in relation to FOSS? It would help the reader a bit more if the author had posted more examples and less personal opinion. As of right now, I have no opinion on the matter because without any examples, I'm not sure if there's a problem or not.
  • Being Rude

    The nice thing about FOSS is choice. There are a great many projects that I could contribute to. I choose whether to contribute and where to contribute. If people make me cringe, I will not want to contribute. I am a woman. That's not because women are different from anyone else, but because anyone would be less likely to contribute if they feel unwelcome.

    I learned emacs over 20 years ago. One might think that I learned some things since that time which would make me a useful contributor.

    One does not have to believe that women, or any specific woman, is especially smart to agree with my view. In theory, the larger the pool of people we draw from, the greater the possibility that the person who come up with the next really great idea will actually do so, and in a way where the rest of us hear about it, instead of buried in some closed source or patented vault where nobody else can use it.

    My experience with colleagues in the couple of FOSS projects where I contribute is that my colleagues have been as pleasant as anyone could wish. I could accuse people of not always responding as soon as I might like them to, or not being as organized as anyone might like, but I have not had issues within the project of anyone being rude.

    However, I have seen other behavior which makes me want to say "Oh little boys, grow up! Your parents clearly did not raise you properly. Just because there is a place where no-one prevents you from being unpleasant does not make it a good idea to be unpleasant."

    Just because some women still choose to contribute to projects where some men make them feel unwelcome does not imply that women, or the smarter men who already understand what I have said, enjoy being attacked or enjoy rude comments at their expense, any more than anyone else would.

    Geniuses are in short supply. World-changing and good ideas are in short supply. People who give away these ideas to FOSS for free are doubly in short supply. Whether the originators of these ideas are male, female, or of indeterminate gender, it is in the interest of the rest of us to motivate them to share what they come up with.

    So, oh little boys, don't be rude.

    Sure, maybe some of us geek girls will overlook your bad manners. I've been known to say things which were taken badly when I did not intend to offend, and I was brave enough to apologize for them afterward.

    Denial just confirms that you have no social clue. Grow up!

  • Thanks

    Thanks, Bruce, for saying this. Most women I know in FOSS are just tired of bringing up the same dirty laundry, so we let it go, saying it isn't worth the grief (as you are finding out). But we need more folks (both men and women) to speak up -- if for no other reason than to keep all the flames from going to a few lightning rods.

    I am continually amazed at how simple statements about sexism (bolstered by facts even) are taken as so threatening by what feels like such a large fraction of the community, that they can't even carry on a civil discourse about it. This frightens me, not so much for women or for open source, but for our society as a whole.
  • "Gee, that's odd"

    It's been said the most important three words in science aren't "I've got it!" but are instead "Gee, that's odd."

    On Oct 13, 2009 12:12am GMT, Roxie wrote:

    So in places I've worked, and in my observations of F/OSS and other open projects, women are
    perfectly welcome, as long as they do certain roles. Test. Test Management. Ops. Program
    Management. Technical writing. Release Management.

    They're few and far between in design and coding.

    Why is that?

    I don't know, I've often wondered and it's a fascinating question. I would far prefer someone did some research on this and identified specific behaviors and dynamics which lead to this situation

    I'm glad Bruce is raising the issue, but using a loaded term like "sexism" isn't helpful. Pointing out specifics is something much more actionable.
  • Thank you

    Than you Bruce. I know many have said it but this is one of those things that cannot be said enough. Thank you.
  • Amen!

    Thank you, Bruce!! I quail at reading the comments herein, but I forge on. Thank you for speaking out!
  • Thank you Bruce!

    It's sad that people don't get it and that you were abused. You are part of the positive change that is making the computer field more welcoming to women. There's still lots of work to be done so that we women can contribute to the full extent of our abilities without facing unjust obstacles. Keep up the good work and thank you!
  • Thanks Bruce!

    Thank you Bruce. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
  • Feminists are the illogical ones

    What a lot of people in the whole "it's sexism" camp forget is that there are only two types of people:

    Those who are sexist
    Those who are idiots.

    See, the whole problem with "reducing sexism" means that you have to be an idiot. There is no definition of sexism that allows for someone to be a non-idiot and not be sexist at the same time.

    See, to be non-sexist we have to do one of two things:
    1. Ignore that there are difference between men and women:
    Wow, I guess men do get pregnant!!

    2. We can recognize that there are differences, but we must willfully ignore them.
    Well if I want kids I'll have just as much luck sleeping with Tom as I would with Betty.

    These two are "no-duh" examples, but that's the point. Either you are sexist, or you are an idiot.

    Really, I mean, comon! The whole "sexism" debate is all about saying men and women are interchangeable, which is patently false. Men and women are different, **ON A BIOLOGICAL LEVEL**, and the sooner Feminists realize this then they can stop trying to solve a "problem" which can't be solved.
  • But where's your proof?

    My criticism of the original article - which extends to this article - is that no facts are provided to support the claim. Saying women are discouraged from engaging in FOSS because there are so few women in FOSS is a logical fallacy. I've read two articles of yours claiming how there is a problem and you have yet to show that any problem exists. If you really want to be a champion of the cause, how about you do more than wave your arms frantically and claim martyrdom?

    (I am not taking one side or the other, I would just like to see fire to go along with the smoke.)
  • The wrong conclusion we should be coming to

    "What's _your_ explanation for the 10x under-representation of women in volunteer F/OSS projects - not just compared to society at large, but compared to commercial software development - if it's not caused at least _partly_ by sexist behaviour?" - Adam

    This is why I wrote my comments on this article. It is misleading to quoting statistics about gender participation and then jump to sexism, especially without a clear definition of WHAT sexism is. I'm not even part of this discussion but all of a sudden one side of it has put the burden of proof on the 'accused'. "What's YOUR explanation?" and if you can't satisfy the masses, then sexism must be at least part of the cause.

    Well, simply put, we HAVEN'T analyzed the cause. We've just pointed out a problem... and then jumped to instances of negative behavior which created a conclusion by exclusion of other possible factors. And as most such arguments go, now the discussion has come full circle and the audience trying to understand the point is left with the burden of proof to prove it's not correct.

    At this time, I'd like to move back to the idea of sexism. Consider for a moment two students studying at a University. One of them is male, one of them is female, both studying computer science. At the University, the computer science program wishes to develop more interest in women for their program so they create programs and give special attention to female developers. Meanwhile, the male developer, being part of a statistical majority, must face the rigors of the computer science weeding program designed to eliminate X% of the student body by the start of next term.

    Is this not sexism? Remember, Sexism is simply making judgments based on one's gender. An accepted practice at most Universities today favors one sex over the other. It's curious that we should accept certain types of sexism, but not others. It's ok to judge another by their gender when it benefits that person, but when it doesn't, it's deplorable. The same consideration applies to FOSS. I'd agree that it would be nice if talented female developers contributed, but what is the real cause of the problem, and is there a solution?

    Let's spend more time on understanding the problem and less time arguing about conclusions that have not even been thoroughly analyzed.
  • Tip of the iceberg

    I think there is a bit more to the problem than just sexism in the F/OSS community specifically, although there is certainly a significant problem there as well, which I have observed in University classrooms, at Linux User Groups, and so on. But the sexist institutions within science, math, and technology are pervasive. As an example, my younger sister had the same (female) 4th grade teacher as I, 2 years later. And although this teacher was an avowed feminist, she was the textbook example of the stories you hear of teachers discouraging females from certain academic disciplines. Although when I was her student she found my inquisitive nature and determination to understand underlying concepts within science delightful and engaging, she complained bitterly about the very same characteristics in my sister. These attitudes exist (often, as in the case of my 4th grade teacher, unbeknownst to the perpetrator at all) at every level of academics. As a result, many women are turned off of the idea of engaging in scientific and mathematical pursuits long before they glean skills as a software developer or become aware of the opportunities of bettering themselves, their resumes, and the human condition generally by contributing to open source projects. Indeed, there is even a distinct difference in the values we seek, as a society, to instill in boys and in girls. Boys are taught to be unapologetic individuals who choose to do what is right for them at the time it is right for them. We are applauded for standing out. Girls, on the other hand, are instructed from a young age by every cultural medium around them in myriad insidious ways that they are to conform, not to make waves, to go quietly to their fate as housewives, mothers, secretaries, nurses. We've opened up the ranks a bit in the work force. Young girls are now presented with role models in more diverse fields on television in movies and literature. But I have yet to see a Disney flick where the protagonist is a plucky female engineer, striving to further the state of the art. I do not need to point out that women have made substantial contributions to scientific knowledge. But it does perhaps bear note that discouraging them from doing so may very well be depriving the world of significant energy spent on scientific inquiry.

    Nor do I mean to suggest that we need affirmative action style reinforcement for women in order to right age old wrongs. That may be a tempting solution to some (even though it is appalling to others) but I find it moderately disturbing on a couple of levels, primarily to do with my desire for my sons and daughters to grow up in a world where people's potential is encouraged uniformly, regardless of their genetics, as well as my concern that a daughter of mine who received affirmative action would never be free of the stigma. Instead, we must learn to recognize all manner of dogma instructing our children from a young age that their gender should dictate their role in society any more than their hair or eye color. We need to take every opportunity to point out these iniquities, lampoon the dated mores and social prescriptions. Until we can laugh at the foolishness of our forbears we cannot move beyond it. I applaud the author of this article, for holding up to the light a corner of our social construct that continues to be shamefully ignored.
  • Thanks

    Thanks for your post and your support, Bruce.

    I enjoy working in open source software communities because there are people like you.

    Over the years I have really appreciated how many men (and women) have stood up for women in free software and made us feel welcome.

    To those that deny there's a problem ... I don't even know what to say any more. Only 1.5% of the free software community is women. Don't they want more people involved in free software? Don't they want more supporters? I thought the movement was about spreading the word about the value of free software not saying "well, if they wanted to be here, they would."

  • @ricardo

    Look. Imagine you're a woman. You have some spare time, you want to find an interesting project to do with it. Maybe you've already dabbled in using Linux or Firefox or something, and you think about getting more deeply involved.

    Then you join some mailing lists and some IRC channels and come up against all the forms of sexism that have been so carefully documented by the geek feminism blog and linuxchix and so forth. Do you really think that's _not_ going to make you _less likely_ to contribute to F/OSS after all? When there's so many other things you could be doing with your free time? Learning a language, playing a sport, joining a political group, a neighbourhood organization...the options people have for using their free time, either for their own amusement or for the benefit of the communities of which they're a part, are _limitless_, and many of them have fewer problems with sexism than F/OSS does. If we want people to choose our community, we have to be good to those people, or they're just going to choose another option.

    Sure, there'll be (there are) a very few women whose desire to contribute to an F/OSS project is, for some reason, sufficiently burning strong for them to live with the crap they have to put up with to do so, rather than just picking something else to do with their time. And there are projects which are very welcoming environments and have good female participation already, I don't want to paint an entirely bleak picture here. But that's really not enough.

    Accepting sexist behaviour means losing all the women who'd like to join in but don't like feeling demeaned by other members of the community on a regular basis. I don't think that's an acceptable situation.

    What's _your_ explanation for the 10x under-representation of women in volunteer F/OSS projects - not just compared to society at large, but compared to commercial software development - if it's not caused at least _partly_ by sexist behaviour?
  • My diagram

    A <--- Adam

    As you can see, the point is not even on the page (that before is a comma ^_^)

    If you will attract women of dubious skill into FOSS at the expense of coders that are already there , that is bad. FOSS does not need WOMEN it needs EXCELLENT CODERS (male or female) but , as the old proverb says , the bad wheel is the one that squeaks.
    There is still an abundance of men that barely heard about FOSS!
    And remember, to make a record one needs a man who jumps seven feet not seven men who jump one foot.

    MikeeUSA - you are a strange fellow - you seem to alternate between reasonable anf idiotic posts
  • @Adams

    Then you are the one who's missing the point. She's not saying how to attract women to open source, she's talking about sexism. Sexism in FOSS exists, (actually too much), but if that's the reason why women are not attracted to Open Source, then the question of sexism shouldn't be raised at all, because if women really would want to do it they would do it, not blame sexism or men for keeping them away from Open Source.

    And I agree, and said it also, (if you would have read all the comment), not only open source advocates would be twice as many, but we would have a lot of things that we are missing from that part of the users' cake.

  • @Ricardo

    Here's a little diagram for you:

    . <---- THE POINT

    R <----- Ricardo

    Yes, in case you don't get it, congratulations, you're the Olympic champion in missing the point. You're thinking about situations in which a group is _actively and absolutely excluded_ from doing something that (at least some) women really want to do - voting, working in a particular profession, joining a military force, whatever.

    That's not the situation here at all. Like some other people I replied to already, you're looking at things all wrong. You're looking at it as if F/OSS was some awesome Thing that all women really want to get, and you're thinking that the 'feminist' side of the present debate is arguing that men are trying to stop women from getting it. Hence your vivid little word picture of the tough-yet-ultimately-successful struggle for liberation on the part of women.

    But, um, that's not really what the situation is at all. F/OSS needs women, not the other way around. Yes, it's something of a problem that we directly hurt the (relatively few) women who already want to get involved in F/OSS when we do sexist things, but the much _bigger_ problem is that we make it much less likely any other women will become at all interested in getting involved with F/OSS. And hence we hurt our own talent pool.

    Bluntly, if F/OSS keeps repelling potential women contributors, F/OSS loses out a lot more than the women do. That being the case, why - not even as an _ethical_ question, but just a _practical_ one - would some heroic cadre of revolutionary women spend years of time and effort to bludgeon their way into the male bastion? They'd just go 'hmm, that looks like an awful lot of work' and go do something else instead. Which is our loss, not theirs.
  • Ricardo's comment is a great example of the kind of guy she's talking about

    See the subject line.
  • Foss & Sexism

    It's called geektosterone happy

    So in places I've worked, and in my observations of F/OSS and other open projects, women are perfectly welcome, as long as they do certain roles. Test. Test Management. Ops. Program Management. Technical writing. Release Management.

    They're few and far between in design and coding.

    Why is that?

  • @tactule

    Perhaps a useful way to look at it - F/OSS isn't a super-popular private members' club, it's one of many groups at a school or university trying to attract students to get involved. There's lots of options for the students, and the groups need the students more than the students need any particular group. If the F/OSS Development Club President stood up and told people what the club did, during which speech he made a sexist remark and a poor hooker joke, don't you think women might be somewhat less inclined to pick that club out of all the choices they have available?

    And do you think the most sensible response from the club would be 'yeah, so we're politically incorrect, deal with it! If you grow a thick skin and contribute lots of code, maybe we'll let you join our club!' Yeah, shouting that at the rapidly-retreating backs of the prospective female members would be a *really* good way to convince them they wanted to join your club after all.

    It seems from this thread that some people would say, hey, we have enough club members anyway, we don't care if they're all men. I think that's frankly sad, but it's one perspective, I guess. If you truly don't _want_ more women to be involved in the F/OSS world, it'd be correct not to be swayed by this argument. You can just go on sitting in your treehouse with 'NO GIRLS ALLOWED!' written on the door. But I'd really want to hope that's a minority view in this community...
  • Anti-Feminism.

    I'm a man and I'm an anti-feminist. And I'm an anti-feminist like the two persons I admire the most: Voltairine de Cleyre and Emma Goldman.

    Voltairine said: "I never expect men to give us liberty. No, women, we are not worth it until we take it."

    Emma said: "In the darkest of all countries, Russia, with her absolute despotism, woman has become man's equal, not through the ballot, but by her will to be and to do. Not only has she conquered for herself every avenue of learning and vocation, but she has won man's esteem, his respect, his comradeship; aye, even more than that: she has gained the admiration, the respect of the whole world. That, too, not through suffrage, but by her wonderful heroism, her fortitude, her ability, will power, and her endurance in the struggle for liberty. Where are the women in any suffrage country or State that can lay claim to such a victory? When we consider the accomplishments of woman in America, we find also that something deeper and more powerful than suffrage has helped her in the march to emancipation"

    Feminism is women asking something from men, you ask about respect from the developers and from "a leader of the Open Source". Who did it name him the "leader of the open source community?", did men in their infinite sexism?. Face it, men are using more FOSS than women in a disproportionate way. Women are not programming FOSS in the proportion they should, and it would be great if they would. Not only we would have twice the people supporting FOSS, but also we would have a piece of the cake of the users pie that would make open source better.

    You don't ask the FOSS community to give you the right to be equal, you just take it.

  • A question

    Plenty of you have said that there are not much women in computer jobs, and some leave because the enviroment is not right (i do not mean active behaviour of the men now)
    Now to ask - !is there anything intrinsically good about having women involved in something?! There are still plenty program capable MEN who DO NOT WORK for FOSS - plenty of recruiting opportunity.

    What if after changing the situation, the enviroment was unsuitable for some male coders, and they would just leave for other projects? Would that be any good for FOSS ?
  • @Rev Tactule

    You're looking at it exactly the wrong way around. You assume that F/OSS development is some sort of amazingly awesome private club which everyone wants to get into, and women are whining that they're not being let in.

    Um. No. That's not how it is at all. The correct perspective is that F/OSS development is a world which has an ongoing need for more input, and is losing out in a big way by not behaving in a way which encourages women to come and contribute to it. Getting more women involved in F/OSS would be a much bigger net benefit to F/OSS than it would be to the women in question. They can always choose to find another type of project to which to contribute their valuable time. It's F/OSS that loses out when women choose not to get involved because it appears an unfriendly environment.
  • Agreement, support

    Congratulations on an accurate, well-written article. As someone with a liberal arts background who studied comp. sci and follows the FOSS world (contributing a tiny, tiny bit) I have to agree with you more or less entirely. Hopefully, slowly the community will take the time to deal with this issue with knowledge and scrutiny, and things will slowly get better.

  • FOSS/OS leaders need to speak up

    Great article, Bruce. I think leaders in the FOSS world need to do their part by making it clear that discussing sexism in FOSS is part of growth and being defensive about discussion of sexism is not constructive.
  • You can't whine your way to respect

    While it is fortunate that a few enterprising women have attempted to build an FOSS community, their accomplishment is overshadowed by all those liberal assholes, male and female, complaining about sexism. The sexist problem perceived by these whiners stems from blowing too much hot air instead of writing code. While FOSS has its share of politics, it is fundamentally a meritocracy. The more lines of code women write, the more respect they will get.
  • Tempest in a teapot

    "Grow some balls, lady" Oh excuse me, was that sexist? or just crude? What I actually said to my co-worker was "Lisa, you have very good insights, but you need to be more assertive in the meetings to have them heard. Otherwise those guys will drown you out." Is that sexist? Should I go counsel all the guys to sit quiet and listen whenever Lisa speaks?

    After reading the article and links to the history, the only sensible conclusion I can draw is that a lot of energy is being wasted whining instead of being put into making better software.
  • Disagree on the Reaction of the FLOSS Community

    First, I take issue with your description of the reaction of the FLOSS community. Yes, there are those that are seemingly in denial. But many of these developers react this way because they are actually not aware of sexism in FLOSS. Remember, not every developer works on GNOME, KDE, Ubuntu, or the Kernel. Probably the vast number of developers are hacking away on much smaller projects, sometimes where there are only 2-5 developers. Now, since often times those other 1-4 developers are friends, or people that you have randomly meet over the course of development, it is understandable that these developers would have no idea what the overall ratio of male to female developers are, that there are sexist comments made on mailing list of other projects, nor do these developers have any reason to think that there is something wrong with the fact that the 4 people they work with are all male, since that is such a small sampling. It is also understandable that these developers are not up on the current state of the largest FLOSS community happenings, since again, they are working with their small group on code, instead of reading the mailing list gossip.

    Now, I am not condoning the sexist behavior of anyone or the purposeful ignorance of others. But it is a clear Non Sequitur to assume that almost all developers should be aware of sexism, since it exists in the largest FLOSS projects. Again, not all (probably not even most) developers work on or pay the smallest bit of attention to what goes on with the large projects. Thus, attacking the multitude of comments from developers that seem naive and ignorant is a broad generalization, because many developers really do not know about sexism in open source, and hence their reactions are understandable, since in their open source world, sexism might actually (probably) not exist.

    Also, I have not seen the same levels of denial that you characterize in your post, from spending time in forums and on other websites. Most discussions, while they often start as you describe, have quickly boiled down to the some of the root problems in open source, most of which have nothing to do with sexism:

    1. Yes, there are sexist developers.
    2. Many developers do not have the greatest social skills, which leads to a lot of misunderstandings.
    (flame wars, RTFM, , general jerkish behavior, etc.)
    3. There are few good role models. (This is a problem for both genders)

    So, as a whole, I would have to disagree with your characterization of the debate thus far. As for your experiences that you detail in this article, yes, if you go around implying or our right calling people sexist, it is going to hurt some feelings, period. Besides, name calling is not going to get us any further toward a better community, which was a big problem with all the initial press....but not many people have covered that part of the story.
  • Just look at the nubers

    How many What percentage of contributors to FOSS are women? Try and find a project where women are more than 25% of the contributors. Heck find one where they are more than 10%.

    Find a female friend involved with computers and ask them what they think.

    I know many female systems administrators that have left the field. And in talking to them the common theme is that they get tired of the macho environment.

    Anyone who says FOSS is not a sexist environment is kidding themselves.

  • Quit trying to change behavior

    The real problem is you are complaining about boys being boys and you want them to stop it but what about girls being girls? If guys stopped acting like guys will girls stop acting like girls? And then where will everyone be?

    Stop trying to control behavior. It has never worked and it never will except in a demon society.
  • Good article

    Congratulations for these two articles. It's refreshing to read somebody who knows how to put a couple of words together in a coherent and intelligent way. I'm as of lately a bit dissilusioned with the open source movement (at least that surrounding linux, which is what I'm exposed to). It seems to attract endless numbers of juvenile characters who behave incredibly aggressive towards anything that it's at odds with their narrow minded world view. The mechanics of power and group thinking generated even in the most obscure forums and mailing lists are really depressing; you have to look hard to find views that are not replicas of old adages repeated ad infinitum. The backslash you got for this was predictable, but I honestly didn't expect the levels of ignorance reached in Slashdot, where all the typical answers to the questions you raised were rigurously present and appropriately modded up as if they were the ultimate revelations on the topic.
  • Sorry

    Should have read the original article before posting.

    So two questions, why is sexism worse in computer science than the other sciences, and why is it even worse still in the FOSS community?
  • What is Sexism?

    "Sexism, a term coined in the mid-20th century,[1] refers to the belief or attitude that one gender or sex is inferior to, less competent, or less valuable than the other. It can also refer to hatred of, or prejudice towards, either sex as a whole (see misogyny and misandry), or the application of stereotypes of masculinity in relation to men, or of femininity in relation to women.[2] It is also called male and female chauvinism." - Sexism, Wikipedia

    1. attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of sexual roles.
    2. discrimination or devaluation based on a person's sex, as in restricted job opportunities; esp., such discrimination directed against women.


    Multiple definitions to a word that is so aggressively used, very similar to Racism in that regards. It's the kind of word that puts someone on the defensive and stirs up a lot of attention because it is often used as an accusation. Unfortunately, due to that fact, it is often used as little more than a trigger or a weapon, very similar to the methods used in Witch hunts.

    Consider that for a moment. What does Sexism really imply? That someone is being judged a stereotypes based around their gender? Dictionary.com adds the words traditional to their definition. Does that imply that judgments based on stereotypes using modern thoughts on the topic aren't sexist?

    Unfortunately, as all important as these questions are when using words like Sexism, few really think about them, and even fewer still consider what they are really communicating when they use the word. Today we might laugh at the idea that someone could write an article in a local newspaper claiming someone is a Witch and anyone would take it seriously. Take some time considering the sorts of reactions people have to words like Sexism in today's culture and one might find the humor fleeting.

    I think it's apparent that I don't much care for this article or the articles it references. It's not due to the topic that is brought to light, as I think it is a very interesting one. Instead, it is because it dwells too much on knee-jerk reactions to a word and not enough analysis of WHY women are so rare in FOSS. Men and women are different. How much of this issue is due to those differences? Yes, differences can be overcome, but the further one needs to step from the norm, the less likely it is that one will take the journey.

    Would this article and the original article that spawned it much better serve it's purpose, assuming it's purpose was to bring to light the discrepancies in percentages of female FOSS developers and female interests in FOSS, if it reviewed these topics? We already know people of ill intent will exploit others but I highly doubt their is a serious issue with it specifically in FOSS. It does exist, no doubt, but it exists everywhere and discussing it with relation to the percentage of women in FOSS seems misleading.

    However, if your purpose was to point out Witch's in Salem, then you should have expected the reaction you got. Simply pointing a finger at a community and calling them a condemning name tends to lead to aggressive banter back and forth. And why not? I tend to fight back when someone attacks me, it is a natural response.

    In the future, when trying to write about a sensitive topic, I'd recommend using less aggressive language. You have a good topic and I think it needs to be understood, for everyone's benefit.
  • Brave, very brave

    I found this article interesting.
    I'm not involved with FOSS myself except as an end user and bug hunter on launchpad.
    However as a psychologist I'm very impressed with the awareness shown of institutionalized sexism by default. Sexism does not have to be verbal abuse or inappropriate behaviour or limited opportunities - that sort of sexism can cut both ways. However just the way that meetings are
    conducted and conversations held can represent an inherent form of sexist behaviour - and is something of which men tend not to be aware. This *is* a problem in most organizations.
  • There is a difference between personal and institutional sexism

    It strikes me that the reason you're getting all this flak is that you've failed to identify how institutional sexism is operative in the FOSS culture. You cite three examples of overt personal sexism -- some comments by Shuttleworth, some comments by Stallman, and a FOSS presentation referencing "pr0n". These are indeed unfortunate examples, and I hope that anybody involved in such a snafu would backtrack very quickly.

    From this, we go to the presumption that the 1.5% - 12% female population of FOSS developers is a direct result of sexism. I guess that's where I lose you. You start down the path: "institutions and customs can be sexist simply by what they value or how they operate, that even something like a discourse developed by men talking to men can institutionalize sexism"... so, what *are* these institutions and customs? What values are hostile to women? How are their operating procedures hostile to women? How is the discourse in FOSS projects hostile to women? I honestly have no clue, but you seem to think that everybody in IT secretly knows that it is true.

    Did you talk to female FOSS developers, current or former, to ask them what aspects of the culture are hostile to them? Did you talk to females in the broader IT community? Did you identify any characteristics of the FOSS culture that are hostile to women, and establish that those characteristics are absent from proprietary software development or the IT community at large?

    If you've written about these things, I'm having trouble finding any reference. Your original article cites a possibility, "... listen to the horror stories female developers tell about sexist remarks or being asked out for dates. Look at the constant trolls on the mailing lists for female developers." But I don't have any sense of how frequent or serious these problems are, except for the assertion that they are "horror stories". I've certainly sifted through development boards and mailing lists myself looking for bug solutions, etc., but I've never seen anything like what you describe. I don't deny that it could exist, but your articles leave me with no leads.
  • Larger than FOSS?

    This is definitely a problem that the FOSS community needs to address. I'm curious, though, how much more or less prevalent this is in FOSS than the wider developer/tech community. ACM had some interesting articles a couple months ago about how the gender disparities in Computer Science were much larger than the other sciences. We need to address it everywhere, but at its root is this a FOSS problem or a Computer Science problem?
  • There's a lot of sexism in the software industry

    I've been in this industry for over two decades, and I've seen it over and over again. Most of the sexism isn't blatant, and much of it is unintentional. But, it certainly does exist.

    Some of it might simply be due to old boy networks. You tend to work with people you know. You hang out with a bunch of guys, and that's who you tell about upcoming jobs. Some of it is due to the belief that someone with two "X" chromosomes can't really be a developer. I've seen it in job interviews where women were grilled more harshly than men. I've seen people tell me that someone who displayed obvious talent couldn't be that good a developer because they didn't act like one.

    Don't think sexism exist? Take the very comments on this and the original article and run them by your HR department. See what they say. Some of these comments will cause an immediate firing. Many others will put you on probation or warning. If people made public remarks they made here at my company, I would advice them to update their resume and look around for another opportunity.
  • @human being

    Keep flailing away at that straw man, why don't you?

    No-one in this entire post or comment thread has used the word 'special' before you did. Or suggested that women should be given any special treatment.
  • @mike, @ad0nis

    Mike, ad0nis - this article isn't supposed to be a complete explanation of Bruce's position, all by itself. That's made fairly clear in the first paragraph: "A month ago, I wrote an article about sexism in the free and open source software (FOSS) community.", where 'an article' is a link to the prior article. That ought to make it pretty clear this article is a continuation of an existing discussion, not meant to be some free-standing comprehensive discussion of the entire situation.

    In other words - read the post Bruce references in the very first sentence, then some of the other posts discussed there, and you'll understand the context. Bruce wasn't writing a list of cases of sexism, in this post. He was talking about what happened *after* he wrote about instances of sexism.
  • Be honest...

    ...this is all just an elaborate ploy to get laid.
  • It's bigger that just sexism

    I think sexism in our field is a serious problem. And further, I think one of the biggest causes is another discrimination, that between people who are "tool focussed" and people who are "problem focussed". I think that we cannot solve the problem of sexism without solving this other discrimination first.

    OK, I don't like those names, but I haven't been able to come up with better ones yet. I can caricature the relevant dimension by describing two people. The first doesn't care at all what problem they're working on as long as they get to build or use cool tools to do it with. This person dreams in code. The second doesn't care at all about what tools they're using as long as they're working to solve a cool problem. This person dreams about what meaningful problems they can solve. My decades of working in and studying technical fields have led me to believe that a random male is _somewhat_ more likely to be the first than the second and a random female is _much_ more likely to be the second than the first.

    I saw some interesting statistics at an ACM conference several years ago. The speaker gathered statistics from all the computer science programs in the USA. She found that the mean percentage of women among computer science majors was about 20-30%. (I don't remember the precise numbers anymore.) Interesting. Then she dug deeper. She found that there were almost _no_ individual schools with that number. There were a few schools with about half and half. Then there were a bunch with around 10% women.

    What was different? One big difference was that the departments with few women were full of people focussed on tools. The departments more balanced in gender were also much more balanced in their focus between tools and problems.

    (BTW, I used to call the two caricatures "code-heads" and "problem-solvers". I couldn't convince anyone that I meant those as descriptive terms, not pejorative ones. What names would work for you?)
  • Thanks for your article, but I'm surprised you are shocked by the response

    I am not surprised by all the attacks aimed at you for pointing out the sexism in the FOSS community. I am an openly gay man. So I am not at all surprised that you were called a "homosexual" for reporting about sexism. Many people in the FOSS community also seem to be anti-gay too.

    Maybe it is due to the anonymity of the Internet. People write horrible things online which they would never say to someone's face.

    But maybe the attacks are part of a more broad based phenomenon in the FOSS community. The desire not only to be right about something, but to also put everyone else down about it. I would see forums for Linux newbies where people would attack the newbie because he or she had been using Windows. If Linux people want someone to use Linux, why on Earth would they attack someone just because they are familiar with Windows or because they don't know something that the Linux person claims to know? That defeats the point of trying to welcome someone to Linux. Someone who is a Linux newbie and just wants help with a problem or to learn something about Linux doesn't need other people who are so self-centered to attack them.

    I also see sexism, racism, and anti-gay attacks used in some games. I guess that is supposed to be "cool." Hatred and stupidity are not "cool."

    Thank you for writing about a longstanding, pervasive problem. Truly mature and intelligent people take the criticism as a constructive way to examine themselves for the better. Immature, self-centered people take it as an attack and attack back in the nastiest of ways.
  • bwbb

    Well, it's an interesting mission you've taken on, whether that was your intent or not, but just try putting down the flag now that you've picked it up. Best of luck to you and illegitimi non carborundum and all that.

    Free as in "fuck you if you can't take a joke" isn't free, it's intimidation. If you feel free to use intimidation and bullying -- either for real or just pretend -- as a form social interaction, then you're most probably a boy who mostly hangs out with other boys and rarely wonders what happened to the losers who don't come around any more.

    The NYTimes Magazine had an article a few weeks ago about middle schoolers coming out of the closet. One thing that they mentioned, almost in passing, is that schools with Gay-Straight-Alliances had a reduction in all forms of bullying, not just the gay-bashing they were formed to oppose.

    Maybe we need some kind of Human-Cyborg-Alliance to enforce some standards of civility on the parts of the interwebs we care about? We can just tag everything #bwbb (boys will be boys) to file it with the stolen copies of Playboy hidden in the garage.
  • lefty

    Mr Lefty, the famous guy who calls out sexists in the free software community is guilty of the same thing.
    The pot calls the kettle black. http://www.pwnage.ca/?p=158
  • gmail is at google

  • Equal rights for men!!!

    Seems like men need equal rights these days!

    No really, I don't care, and I have respect for women, but not women who need to "add a tag" to who they are by saying they're "special".

    You're not special, I'm not special, stfu.

    Equal rights means being equal.

    I don't know of any self-righteous groups out there named 'malenists'...
  • Ubuntu 9.10 "Karmic Koala" to be released to men

    Canonical, Inc. has announced the release later this month of Ubuntu Linux 9.10, “Karmic Koala,” to men.

    Project founder Mark Shuttleworth explained that “this stuff is difficult to explain to girls” and thought they’d have gotten the hint when he called 8.04 “Hairy Hardon.” “Worrying about sexism in open source just detracts from the battle for Linux. So we’ve put the tits back into the default desktop. And arses.”

    Crime-fighting geek Shuttleworth, who dresses as a billiionaire playboy by night, swore that plenty of women liked him lots and that he obviously wasn’t unable to get laid or anything, having gotten seriously rich in the dot-com era, not to mention having gone into space. “Chicks dig that stuff. Trust me, I’ve met lots of girls. More than five!”

    Canonical Community Manager Jono Bacon echoed this sentiment on his blog. “We just don’t understand how come women are 15% of all computer programmers but only 1% of open source programmers. It must be a bit complicated for them. That’s why I’ve written this spontaneous blog post, completely unrelated to anything my boss may or may not have said, on all the fantastically talented women in free software, even if none of them seem to work much on Ubuntu any more. Also, I’m absolutely confident that saying I’m in a computer geek heavy metal band will get me lots of chicks too, even if their pretty little heads can’t understand Linux.”

    A special women’s edition of Ubuntu 9.10 will be released on a bright pink CD. “It doubles as a makeup mirror!” said Shuttleworth.

    Blog rant: http://notnews.today.com/?p=690
  • beam in your own eye

    Well, Bruce, I have no idea why the number of female FOSS developers is so low. Nothing you have said indicates that there is any more sexism in FOSS development than in proprietary software development. I think you may need to do a bit more research first before pointing fingers.

    However, before you do that, perhaps you should worry about your own level of insensitivity towards minorities; after all, you made it perfectly clear that you consider "homosexual" a term of abuse.
  • sexism is not that bad

    In fact, the very problem of sexism is a false one. Men and women can be equal only in terms of law and in practice of legal relations.

    But the brains of men and women are quite different. As well as the bodies. And hormones that regulate their activities. So, we can make everybody equal just by making everybody a hermaphrodite.

    And yes, it is true that math and programming is not quite a womanish kind of professions. And not because of prejudice - but because women are better at other things. Why nobody outcries that there are so little miners among women?

    I think for FLOSS it is quite a false topic. Nobody cares what your sex is and what your gender is - you can conceal it.
  • Corrected email address

    at GMAIL not at google. sorry
  • Sexist terminology in computer programs

    The other day, my female friend and I went to the grocery store, and she drove the car.

    As she was backing the car out of the driveway, a young child ran directly behind us -- in our path and in danger -- my friend immediately aborted.
  • Bob

    Bob: I'd actually never come across him before, or forgotten about it if I had. Also, I had quite a few beers last night. happy

    rikki: in view of the above, please feel free to delete my prior comment too, if it seems appropriate happy

    brandon: just take a look through the comment threads on any of the posts in this debate so far. You will find such gems as:

    "No wonder why europeans consider americans oversensitve, retarded zealots..
    Dealing with americans online through free software projects is something I find very.. “demanding” already, if their women(!) are even worse as this extremely poor blog post grasping for straws to find something new for these “feminist sisters” to nag about, more than indicate, I can only hope that such harsh “sexism” remarks as this will scare ‘em off for good! ... When the subject is feminist oversensitivity with a lot of other erratic chicks joining in, it also DOES make other women look stupid as well.. oh.. someone, PLEASE! Think of The poor american women…"

    There's a big long list of vaguely high-profile 'incidents' here: http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Timeline_of_incidents for your reference. Few of them happened at conventions.
  • Assumed Sexism

    I think your original article presents only half of a proof. You show that women are poorly represented in OSS, and then decide that this must inherently be because of sexism. Where is the proof of the connection? A few anecdotes about girls getting asked out (is that sexist? It's generally considered to be a compliment to ask someone out in most community settings. Remember, open source projects are a community, not a job) are presented, but nothing is done to show that this is behavior is rampant, or women's voices are not being heard.

    To connect your conclusion to your data, you need some idea of how many women programmers want to work in open source and have been rebuffed by sexism in the culture.

    Personally, I would argue that of all the women I have met in commercial computing (including my wife), none have had any desire nor taken any steps to introduce themselves to an open source community, let alone been rebuffed by one. The open source contributors I have known have been the sort of person who lives and breathes tech and open source - I have never met a female programmer meeting this description, either.

    People respond harshly to accusations of sexism because they are harsh allegations, and in this case, they were presented as fact when your data only gives you a theory. It is entirely possible that the lack of women in OSS is caused by sexism, but you need more proof than "there are few women in OSS" before you start calling an entire community sexist. It would be more useful to attempt to look for a root cause, or convince someone to survey their communities, than to start yelling "sexism" at the top of your lungs.

    My dad used to work as the only full time employee of a non-profit organization. Being white, middle-aged, and male, his company was raked over the coals during every request for state funding for being racist, sexist, and non-diverse. Eventually he convinced his board to hire him a secretary - the woman hired (due a nice bit of nepotism by one of the board members) happened to be part African-American, part American-Indian, and a woman. Suddenly he was the poster-boy for reform.

    Statistics don't show close to everything when you're looking at people. Find (or convince someone to do) a study showing that women are being driven away from open source instead of naturally avoiding it, and quite a few more people will be willing to jump on your bandwagon.
  • Please stop the nonsense

    It truly is amazing how people can raise a fuss about nothing. Firstly, all of the sexism talk is frankly nonsense. Women have same legal rights as men, sometimes extended (such as maternity leave, this is indeed sexism, and perfectly justified, since you see, men do not get pregnant and bear offspring!)
    Anything else is pretty much unimportant, as long as those are being carried out (if someone was for example physically preventing a woman to vote that would be a problem,) there is no problem no matter what someone says.
    You folk live in capitalism, bear with it. The reason why some jobs have more men than women are often simply because they are more interesting to men, and the converse is also true.
    Also if somebody does not hire a woman for a job just because he thinks they are worse, it is his decision - you seem to acknowledge private property, and well, he is paying the job place from his pocket.
    IF it is a stupid decision, that person will lose on it, because he employs a suboptimal workforce.
    Also, i like the fact that if a man is paid lower salary or has worse conditions than his equivalent workers. it is all ok, but if it is a woman, it automatically is the !hurrah word 'discrimination'. Get over yourself. everyone discriminates along some lines - there are people i would not be near for a thousand $ but others get along with them just fine, and for everyone it is the same but with different ones.

    Also i have read all of the supposed FOSS controversies - if anybody gets offended by this kind of thing. they are either being overly sensitive, or intriguing in politics. Somebody clever said that if you hear an insult, top it, if you can not top it, laugh at it, i you can do neither, ignore it, and if you can do none of previous, it probably is well deserved.

    Also there is a tremendous mixup of goals, in FOSS the idea is to get more PROGRAMMERS (any gender) not more WOMEN (exclusion) to say otherwise means that you have your objectives wrong.

  • Next article on sexism

    Maybe next we should write about sexism plaguing gas stations, or sexism and chess.
    Or maybe sexism and bird watching?

    Sexism is caused by individuals, it's only indirectly associated with activites. There is not causal relationship.
    If you really want to attack sexism, go after the cause, not the symptoms - especially not unique and unrelated scenarios where it manifests itself.
  • Thanks Bruce

    It's unfortunate that you're getting beat up over this. While I have not participated much in FOSS aside from using it, I do work for a tech giant, and I sexism is always around. Hell I and other women are even guiltiy of it sometimes. Sometimes its hard to catch yourself making incorrect assumptions. I once got a phone call that really ticked me off. It was from a woman engineer from a different group, she had a phone list of our group and assumed that since she found the only white/female name on the list that I must be the admin. She didn't ask me if I knew who the admin was she just started in with her question about whatever. I told her, hey man I don't know about that stuff I just write code, she then told me how she had come to the conclusion that my name looked like the most probable admin name, and I was pissed until I realized that I probably would have done the same thing... but I wouldn't have said it out loud.
  • I think I must have missed the issue here...

    After reading your well written article, I just have one question: What was the problem? Nowhere in your post did you ever address what you actually felt was wrong. You simply stated that there was sexism in the FOSS community. If you have no examples to back this up, then what are we to think? Is there a lot of sexist banter between developers? Are you being ignored, or undervalued because you are a female in a male-dominated community? I am sorry, but I cannot take this seriously if there is no actual issue being posted. If you said, "I was told that because I am a woman, that I am not able to code," then I would have to agree with you that there is something to be angry about, but at the moment, you have simply stated that there is sexism in the FOSS community, and not bothered to back it up.
  • don't feed the trolls, send them to therapy

    Adam, the rest of us agreed to stop responding to Mikeeusa (the only person banned from the Debian BTS) years ago and instead point him in the direction of a therapist where he can address his many issues, why haven't you?
  • response

    I've been using foss for ages, like 7 years now, and writing gpl software for about the same time. i've never noticed any sexism, but maybe its because i don't go to conventions, or hang around with other nerds, so i dunno. I did once go to a perl-mongers meeting, that was pretty nerdy, but there was no sexism, least none that i noticed. iirc, there was even a woman there.

    this leads me to believe that there is no sexism in foss, and that people are only saying there is to:

    a. scare off the few women we have,
    b. cause some kind of kerfuffle that causes media outrage and takes us mainstream,

    now im not for a, its not cool. but b sounds good.
  • Comment moderation

    Hi all! I love seeing conversation and debate around our articles and blogs, but you might notice that I've deleted some comments. We want to keep it friendly and professional on our sites, so comments from known trolls, comments that make personal attacks, and comments with language that's obviously inappropriate in a professional setting will be deleted.
  • Emotionalism and irrationality where?

    You provide no evidence of your accusation: "Raise the subject of sexism, and you are met with illogic that I can only compare to that of the tobacco companies trying to deny the link between their products and cancer."

    Maybe it would help if you provided an uncontroversial definition of sexism, then showed how those in the free software movement fit that definition. I imagine the typical male free software developer will take any help he can get. As long as the contribution is useful, he's not likely to care about race, gender, or whatever people typically get hung up on in the real world. Because of this, he's going to think, "how am I sexist?"

    The socially awkward interaction of these people in real life at these silly conventions may be another matter. But those conventions are hardly representative of the community. I doubt most contributers to free software have much interest in such things though. The majority of social interaction in free software and open source is over email, instant messaging, IRC, and blogs like this. If you want to show sexism you should look there rather than these conferences. I imagine these online interactions are mostly business though, denuded of the aspects of social interaction in which sexism, racism, and the like usually come up.

    "Similarly, I assumed that, in the FOSS community, if you were a free software supporter, you were concerned about social justice and would therefore be against sexism as well."

    You recognize this is wrong now, but I don't understand why you ever thought it in the first place. If anything, I would expect free software advocates to be libertarian minded. Free software developers, from what I see, are typically opinionated and stubborn.

    One other thing. The Internet is full of trolls. It's easy to get caught up on the low hanging fruit. You lose credibility if you get caught up responding to trolls and miscreants rather than the more reasoned responses to your accusations.
  • Thankyou

    You have earned my respect and made me realise that I am a part of this institutionalized sexism simply because I let it be acceptable (which is what enforces it), I even thought this whole flare up was an over-reaction before.

    Thank-you for opening my eyes and I hope next time I see negative behaviours for individuals, groups and cultures in the same way.
  • The problems of seeing discrimination

    "That brings up another point I've learned: people who are not consciously sexist themselves tend to be unable to see institutionalized sexism around them."

    I think this is the main point. I know that it is almost impossible to see institutionalized discrimination if you are not the target. You only see it when you have a serious conversation of someone who IS the victim.

    To get to sexism, it is easy to come up with countless examples (as many have done). The main point of these examples is that the "opposition" seems to be unable to acknowledge that the judge of an insult is the RECEIVER, not the sender.

    Saying that they do not intend your words to be condescending is irrelevant. They should have taken notice of the feelings of their audience. If they do not believe that (eg, some of the above commenters), take can a "recognized" minority and try their favourite "non-discriminatory" joke on members of this minority (knowing well that women are not a minority).

    What I do see as a problem with the current action against sexism is the in-fighting between people who actually all try to help women in technology based on weighting individual words. Furthermore, those who might have chosen the wrong metaphor (RMS with his Catholic satire of EMACS, Mark with his choice of life companions) could have simply been informed about their bad choices. It is not that they actually try to discourage women from entering software technology in ANY way.

  • gah.

    Annie Brach: "You know an open wound heals best if you stop re-opening it and I feel some people just won't let this "over-issue" die." We've been not opening it for twenty years now, and that's been working just _stunningly_ well so far, hasn't it? Just look at the prevalence of women in F/OSS development, and how well-treated they all feel.

    Oh....um. Wait.

    mikeeusa: you really need to reassess your contact with reality. "they even want them jailed." - um, what? "Like all aspects of american and western society, the Free Software movement is slowly being co-opted by women's rights activists" - here, I have some tin foil hats for sale. Only five bucks a pop.

    Brent Dunnaway: "Stop beating up on open source and contribute. Either that or get out of the effin way. " I took the liberty of Googling you. apparently, you've commented on two Launchpad bugs. Good lord, the extent of your contributions just fucking ASTOUNDS me.

    Anon penguin: "Maybe people should just stop being so bloody silly." Oh, believe me, I agree whole-heartedly.

    Secretlondon: "A place of safety and community where you don't have to be careful what you say." Um. If you don't take care not to say things that make you look like a gigantic freaking asshole to other people, that would appear to make it not a very communal or safe community to said people, wouldn't you agree?
  • Microsoft FUD

    This is nothing more than F.U.D.

    More B.S. to try and segregate the Open Source Community and weaken the sense of harmony that open source is romanticized to have.

    Some of the most innovative pieces that I have read on open source development were written by women. [small example: Read the ChunkFS article when you get the chance. I like the way she thinks.]

    I can cite several very important projects in open source which have females as major players. I am sure most people who read this crap article can too.

    Stop beating up on open source and contribute. Either that or get out of the effin way.
  • to a (wo)man with a hammer

    I've been reading some of the blog firestorm surrounding supposed sexism in open source software communities though I haven't really bothered commenting. I'm sure there is sexism and it probably does cause problems for some people some times. People who choose to call themselves feminists don't really aid the supposed cause by going out inventing reasons why things are sexist (honestly one more lecture on the redefined "privilege" and I'll just go berserk).
    There is an old saying "To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail." Perhaps to a feminist with an agenda everything looks like sexism.
    You say:
    "For instance, I am currently part of an email conversation with a prominent FOSS community member who has been pilloried who is hurt and baffled that I (or anyone else) could apply the word "sexism" to them. Their reasoning? They did not intend to be sexist, so therefore they can't possibly be. Therefore, labelling their behavior as unacceptable is unfair, they argue. The fact that, in context their actions and remarks could not possibly be described in any other way honestly does not seem to have occurred to them. No matter what I say, they remain hurt and baffled -- and, as I said before, deeply in denial."

    From the other side of that conversation it may (I cannot speak for the actual other party but roll with it for now) look something like:
    "For instance, I am currently part of an email conversation with a prominent FOSS community member who has been insisting I am sexist. Their reasoning? They chose to apply a sexist interpretation to what I said, so therefore I must be. They interpreted the words so they insist it must be true regardless of the original and intended meaning. The fact that, in context my actions and remarks could not possibly be described in any such way honestly does not seem to have occurred to them. No matter what I say, they remain hurt and baffled -- and, as I said before, deeply in denial."

    Maybe people should just stop being so bloody silly.
  • thanks Bruce

    It is exhausting, Bruce, just try living it happy. The same old denials, the same old recycled excuses, the same old whines about "political correctness", which don't even make sense. The same incredibly convoluted theories and "proofs" that sexism does not exist, all because some people simply can't face the issue.

    It shouldn't be a big deal. People of good will try to work things out. Say "I'm sorry" and move on, and try to do better. What makes it a big deal is the stubborn refusal of some people to ever admit they might have stepped on someone else's toes, all the crazy over-the-top shouting down and attacks on anyone who ever raises the issue. What makes it a big deal is all the kneejerk headline-readers who don't even bother to do any reading or thinking, but put all their energy into flaming. That's who keep any specific incidents alive and won't let them drop.

    I've been dealing with this guff all my life, and it's been an issue since I got involved with Linux and FOSS. Progress is slow, but there is progress, and I am pleased to see more people in FOSS speaking up, both women and men. Social justice, simple courtesy-- what's so hard about those?
  • Not a progressive space

    I think it is about freedom - many contributors are very much on the right where they see FLOSS as a free space away from liberal constructs like political correctness. It is also a space to escape as a man. A place of safety and community where you don't have to be careful what you say.

    I find that I get more abuse in the less technical areas of FLOSS so don't subscribe to non- technical lists any more. The Mark Shuttleworth incident was bad because there was a presumption that he was okay it was just some of his staff who complained about "extreme political correctness" when people countered sexist jokes. I think some felt if Mark knew what was going on he'd stop it. It's clear that he's part of the same system and that it's institutional.
  • Healing wounds

    I've seen heard the comments made by Mr. Shuttleworth. And, while I don't agree with them, I feel that the comments weren't that bad and many people are over-reacting. So Mr. Shuttleworth said what he said. Does that make it fact? No. Are the comments the opinion of Mr. Shuttleworth? Yes. Opinions are like toes.. everyone has them. You know an open wound heals best if you stop re-opening it and I feel some people just won't let this "over-issue" die.
comments powered by Disqus
Subscribe to our Linux Newsletters
Find Linux and Open Source Jobs
Subscribe to our ADMIN Newsletters

Support Our Work

Linux Magazine content is made possible with support from readers like you. Please consider contributing when you’ve found an article to be beneficial.

Learn More