Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

The next wave of feminism crashes on the FOSS shores

A new wave of women’s liberation is crashing on an unexpected shore, the world of free and open source developers. The FOSS communities might pride themselves with being the promoters of free, open and transparant. It is a world where a meritocracy rules, where you are judged by your skills and not by who you are of who you know. Right? Wrong! In the wake of the Gran Canaria Desktop Summit the grand master of free software, Richard Stallman, received a lot of flack due a remark that was considered sexist. This week Canonical’s Mark Shuttleworth, by most accounts the mr. Nice Guy in the FOSS world, found himself in the firing line because of a remark in his LinuxCon keynote which he no doubt considered to be funny but was condescending to women. The responses to Stallman’s and Shuttleworth’s remarks are no isolated incidents. The women in the FOSS community are making themselves heard. And the men should pay attention.

First, a bit of a reconstruction

Bruce Byfield wrote his article “Richard Stallman, Leadership, and Sexism” almost apologetically. He noticed that while blogs were accusing Stallman of sexism, the regular free software press remained quiet about it. Bruce found he had some difficulties reconstructing what RMS actually had said on the Gran Canaria Desktop Summit, but at least some in the audience took offense about Stallman’s remarks and found them to be sexist. Fortunately Matthew Garrett published a transcription of the presentation in question. The words that were regarded as sexist were part of Stallman’s Saint Ignucius routine:

And we also have the cult of the virgin of emacs. The virgin of emacs is any female who has not yet learned how to use emacs. And in the church of emacs we believe that taking her emacs virginity away is a blessed act.

Garrett drew a twofold conclusion. Is Stallman a sexist? Not really, but for someone with a proclaimed positive attitude towards women he showed a definite lack of introspection:

One of the frequent counterarguments against this being sexist is that RMS has often spoken out against sexism (see here, for example). It’s very easy to claim to be free of sexism. It’s much harder to perform the degree of introspection required to understand whether any of your actions are motivated by viewing genders differently. Do I believe that Richard is attempting to deliberately denigrate women? Not in the slightest. But I also don’t believe that someone entirely gender-blind would have made the above joke.

Stallman was tapped on the shoulder by David Schlesinger who first send him an e-mail and later published the response. The gist of Stallman’s position: ‘hey, it’s only meant as a joke’. Byfield also points to an earlier incident, this time in the presentation “Perform like a pr0n star” bu Matt Aimonetti at the Golden Gate Ruby Conference in April 2009. Matt did apologize for that presentation, though the following phrase is worth repeating here (emphasis mine):

Now that I have explained my view point as clearly as I can, I would also like to express my sincere regret that this situation has brought bad publicity to Rails and the loss of one of the Activism team members. I understand how people who are concerned about gender equality could have taken my presentation badly and misjudge my intentions, if they did not know me.

Kirrily Robert wrote an article about this way of apologizing and gave some pointed suggestions on how much better Matt could have handled this.

Byfield did an encore on September 9, 2009 in an article called “Sexism: Open Source Software’s Dirty Little Secret“. The direct lead for this article was the announcement of the Free Software Foundation sponsored mini-summit on Women in Free Software. This time Byfield brought some facts into the discussion:

  • in the proprietary software world 28% of those involved are women, in the free software world it is 1.5% (don’t miss the dot);
  • in Drupal and KDE 12% of contributors are female;
  • women hardly have positions on the boards of prominent FOSS projects. No women on the Free Software Foundation board, no women on the Linux Foundation’s board. GNOME and KDE each have one woman on the board.

Katherine Noyes picked up on the Byfield article and wrote the piece “Is sexism rampant in FOSS?“. She collected quotes from various discussions on this topic, from the highly emotional responses to the more eloquent ones. In one of them the 2005 study by Yuwei Lin appears, entitled “Inclusion, diversity and gender equality: Gender Dimensions of the Free/Libre Open Source Software Development” (PDF). As main points from this study were mentioned:

  • “Strong long-hour coding culture
  • A lack of ‘mentors’ and role models
  • Discriminatory language online and/or offline (e.g. phrases in documentaries)
  • A gendered text-based environment
  • Lack of a women-centered view in FLOSS development
  • A male-dominated competitive worldview
  • No sympathy from women peers

Overall, the conclusion was that the FOSS world was too much a guy’s world where sexist remarks, foul language and sarcastic humor is part of -what one commenter described as- the ‘locker room’ culture.

The Mark Shuttleworth faux pas came to the fore in an open letter to him, written by Kirrily Robert. Robert takes offense at Shuttleworth’s remark that Linux is ‘hard to explain to girls‘. Kirrily knows what she is talking about, having initiated the Geek Feminism Blog and presenting a well-received part on OSCON about the topic earlier this year. Her main point? If Mark had kept up with events in 2009 he would have thought twice about a remark like that:

2009 is shaping up to be a watershed year for women in open source. We have seen numerous high profile incidents where men have made remarks in conference presentations which have dismissed, marginalised, or upset women; we’ve seen an increase in discussion on blogs, mailing lists, and twitter/identica; many conferences have invited speakers (including myself) to keynote on the subject of inclusivity and diversity; and a number of efforts towards recruiting and supporting a more diverse open source community have been launched. In light of the attention the subject has been getting of late, your comment at LinuxCon seems oblivious at best, and only serves to further damage the Linux community’s reputation.

The owner of Tuxmachines, also a woman, wrote the article “Boycott Ubuntu“. Her position against Ubuntu is partly based on the distribution itself, but the derogative remark by Shuttleworth triggered a for more interesting response. She was fed up with adapting to the masculine culture in FOSS, setting it aside as ‘boys will be boys’.

This attitude stayed with me throughout my life. So, when women were being insulted and treated like sex objects in FOSS, I accepted that’s just the way men are. They’ve always been that way and they always would.

But when someone of such prominence insults the intelligence of women, I think things have gone too far. Sure, I don’t like what he said, but I still defend his right to say it. But if he wants to act like a misogynist perhaps it’s time to enact a action I’ve always wanted to do here at tuxmachines.

Sam Varghese already shot some bullets back at the open letter, realizing that he isn’t considered the geek feminists best friend.

I’m sure I’ll be shouted down too – but it doesn’t bother me one whit simply because this whole argument is never rational, it’s overly emotional.

In defense he refers to an article he wrote on sexism in the Debian project. Roy Schestowitz, who has been attacking Ubuntu on the Mono issue for some time, doesn’t feel the call to boycott Ubuntu is justified:

In my humble assessment, the biggest problem Free software might be facing is software patents; womanisers, resistance to feminism and misogynists are true issues, but they exist in many aspects of computing; they are not exclusive to Free software or specific to particular distributions of software and there is nothing about “closed” or “open” in the software sense which implies openness or closeness when it comes to other religions, sexes, races, and nationalities.

Would I dare to transliterate this (and why shouldn’t I), it would be like: “Sorry girls, it happens, don’t fret about it, there are more important issues at stake”.

Is there an issue with sexism in FOSS?

The answer to this question should be ‘yes, there is an issue’, though disagreement might arise where the issue comes from. When going through the various articles that appeared in recent months and seeing the comments on those articles, the picture isn’t that good. The overall impression (and I am talking about a broad perspective here) is that two main responses dominate. One, the “there isn’t an issue with sexism, it’s only some isolated cases but nothing structural”- argument. And second, the “it’s an issue because the women make it an issue”-argument. This one is accompanied by the “We’re sorry they are so touchy about the subject, we’ll promise to do better”- response.

One proponent of the latter argument is Hans Bezemer. He took position on the issue in two articles, “Feminism’s dirty little secret” and “Succesful women in FOSS and IT“.

Well, for the record: I’m not an anti-feminist. I consider myself to be a FOSS proponent and there is only one thing that counts to me: great code. I don’t care whether you are black or white, atheist or Christian, male or female. I don’t check the “About” boxes before I give my judgment. Great code is just great code. It’s what FOSS is all about: meritocracy. Because I’m convinced that is the real driving force of FOSS, not “sexism” as some are trying to make us believe.

In his second article he quotes women who disagree with the focus on the position of women in FOSS. Hans takes a shot at Carla Schroder, managing editor of Linux Today, who -he claims- is putting sexism in FOSS on the agenda without allowing for differing opinions. That’s quite an accusation.

But, Carla does describe a FOSS world that isn’t fun to be in:

Where to start…for me FOSS has been the best and the worst. Great people and great opportunities; and some of the worst twits ever. Being told I write great howtos for a girl, and that girls are naturally better at writing..not being able to get any Linux sys/network admin jobs when I know I’m way more qualified than the rude young white male twits that get hired…getting hit on, my body as a topic of conversation like I’m not even there, seeing rage flash in a man’s eyes when I stand up to him, and that rage is not there for men…being ignored and dismissed and having to push a hundred times as hard to get recognition…for a time I used a man’s name online because I was so tired of the garbage, and what a difference. Suddenly there was respect. If Linux and FOSS were not so cool and rewarding, if I were not so stubborn, I would have moved on to something else long ago. Because nobody should be expected to endure so much crap under any circumstances.

Is it unique for the FOSS world? Hardly, but does that make it acceptable? Schroder points to a more fundamental issue when see looks at the line-up for LinuxCon. The presenters make for a nice diversity of men.

I’m guessing some of my friends at the Foundation and at Linuxcon might be a bit upset with what I’m saying. They work hard and put a lot of themselves into the Foundation and Linux. That makes us even because I’m upset with them, because in this here year of 2009, well into the new millennium, it’s ridiculous to be this tone-deaf towards women in Linux and FOSS.

The next wave of feminism

One thing is sure, women in FOSS are making themselves heard all across the board, making use of opportunities to press forward the issue of sexism in FOSS. Kirrily Robert, she was mentioned a few times already, used her time on the O’Reilly Open Source Convention (OSCON) for the Standing Out in the Crowd presentation. Her presentation can be seen online. She is also responsible for the Geek Feminism Blog and the Geek Feminism Wiki. Her presentation at OSCON was well-received, I’ll mention a few main points:

  • in most technical communities women are in a minority, anywhere between 10% to 30%, 20% on average. In open source communities women are an even smaller minority, 1.5% on average (with Perl attracting 5% of women, Drupal achieving 10%).
  • 80% of women had noticed sexism in the open source community, 80% of men never noticed anything.
  • projects with an express diversity statement attracted a wider diversity of developers.

Robert isn’t simply banging a drum but provides quite simple guidelines to promote diversity, and thus a more women-friendly environment, in FOSS communities:

  • Recruit diversity, not programming skills (“You can teach programming; you can’t teach passion of diversity”);
  • Say it, mean it, either through a code of conduct or diversity statement (and stick to it);
  • Set up tools that provide information to the newer team members;
  • Transparency.

For each individual she has the following tips:

  • Don’t stare (i.e. women are normal human beings too);
  • Value all contributions;
  • Call people on their crap (“How do you tell if someone’s being an asshole? Well, if there’s a naked woman the project screen, that’s a good sign.);
  • Pay attention, to your own behavior and the behavior of others. Especially since 80% of the men aren’t even aware of the sexism in their communities.

Women in Free Software summit

Another key event that shaped the agenda of feminism in FOSS was the Women in Free Software summit of September 19. The summit was the initiative of three women: Deborah Nicholson (FSF), Stormy Peters (GNOME Foundation) and Hilary Rettig. As an aside, Sam Varghese -who probably wasn’t invited for the summit- cautioned us not to expect to much from the summit:

I’m not sure whether making this issue exclusively about gender will do much good. We might then end up with women joining FOSS projects in droves – only to be promptly pissed off by male developers who ask them about things like dress sense.

Anyway, we can find the minutes of the summit online, which gives everyone ample opportunity to draw his/her own conclusions. The opening statement is clear enough, it’s a simple battle cry to end sexism, period!

Our objective is to increase women’s participation in the free software movement and work to make sexism in person or online unacceptable within our community. Women represent less than 2% of the free software movement, yet our participation is a pre-requisite for the movements success. Having more women in our community advocating freedom will enrich our movement.

Then we find a straightforward SWOT analysis and list of short-term and long-term goals. There is already a mailinglist on women in free software. And yes, men can subscribe too. The quote on the mailing list is telling:

“Why aren’t more women involved in the movement to maintain and secure freedom for all computer users?” There is nothing particularly male about either computers or freedom — and yet women account for fewer than 2% of our community.

One of the short-term goals is a larger summit in the spring of 2010 where free software and the role women should play in it is put in the context of a social justice movement. There is to be a list of women willing to give presentations on the subject. The group also wants to launch various initiatives to promote the use of free software among girls and coach them to become developers. What I personally like is one of the long-term goals, namely to look into the under-representation of other groups in the FOSS world based on race, class, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

Stormy Peters wrote an article following the summit which basically dealt with the “We’re sorry they are so touchy about the subject, we’ll promise to do better”- response (mentioned above).:

When talking about women in free software or political correctness in general, we seem to focus on saying things that “don’t offend” the minority group. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about saying things that encourage people to join your group, that send the right message and represent our values. While not saying things that send them away. The focus should be on making the message welcoming, not on making the message “not offending.”

Peters is simply encouraging us men to think before we say or do something we consider funny:

Showing a woman in a bikini in your ad may not offend any women, but will it encourage them to join your project? If you are looking to bring women to your project, not showing the woman in a bikini is the first step. The next step – and the much harder one – is figuring out what to do to show them they are welcome.

Is this a radical movement?

The free and open source movement, especially the free software movement, always prided itself in being more than about novel technology. FOSS has a strong moral and ideological component that attracts developers, artists, scholars, writers and such, but -as is evident- not women. The extreme under-representation of women in FOSS should make us concerned and spur each one of us to action.

When I look at the women who carry the banner and who want to create a more women-friendly environment in FOSS, I don’t see a group of radical feminists. They raise an issue that needs raising. Kirrily Robert’s presentation throws out the ‘society is unfair’ argument, since it exposes the fact that where women find their way in technology, they hardly find it in free and open source software. The opening statement of the September 19 summit isn’t something radically new, it’s something we have come to accept as normal in the world outside of FOSS and is incorporated in key articles in constitutions all over the world.

The suggestions made to improve the situation in projects are not earth-shaking, they simply point to skills that we need in society anyway. True, the FOSS developers’ communities may have been masculine, aggressive and meritocratic (i.e. I can code better than you) in nature for most of their existence. But we also know that the behavior shown in the on and off flame wars is totally unacceptable in any other kind of environment, short of your average cage fight.

What is disturbing is the attitude of some male proponents in this debate, as shown in the two main arguments used. Both Varghese and Bezemer, for instance, feel it is necessary to point out they have nothing against women or feminism in particular, before continuing with the ‘there is nothing wrong’ argument. It reeks too much as a ‘I have the utmost respect for women. Go grab me a beer’ attitude. If one thing should radically change it is this downplaying of a serious issue. Strange enough, while the FOSS world is developing technology for the 21st century, based upon a moral philosophy focused on freedom, the dominant male attitude has more in common with the 19th century.

No doubt the debate will rage on for some time. No doubt there will be highly visible mistakes by the prominent alpha males of the FOSS community. And no doubt the geek feminists will hammer on each one of them. As well they should. Men of the FOSS community, this is no longer only a guy’s thing, time to show proper respect in all we say and do.

Retrieved from earlier website, though the original comments were lost.

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