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Editor's Note: Sexism in FOSS

Sep 18, 2009, 23:27 (182 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

Let's begin with what this is not about. It is not about war, hunger, poverty, or any of the other evils of the world. It is not about racism, ageism, xenophobia, non-Free software, closed hardware, Microsoft, or any of the other problems in FOSS. I'm getting that out of the way up front because every time this discussion happens a bunch of folks drag in all these other woes of the world. Not because they care about them, but because the subject of sexism towards women in FOSS is too hot for them to handle. I care very much about a wide range of issues, as do most people. I'm not talking about them today.

Today is about sexism towards women in FOSS. It is about treating women differently, and poorly, just for being women. It is about doing harm to FOSS. There are a number of reasons why the participation of women in FOSS is so low, around 1.5%, and cruddy treatment of women is a big one. I don't know if it is worse in FOSS than in other arenas, and I don't care-- I'm not grading on a curve. One more thing I am not saying is that all men are horrible and all women are angels. Duh. I hate having to spell these things out, but if I don't someone will misrepresent what I said.

This is part 1 of a series. As Bruce Byfield said earlier this week, "A culture of denial". As a significant number of people can't seem to grasp that this is a real problem without having it spelled out in large letters, today's segment of this series is a collection of real-life horror stories. This is a very tiny sampling. Next week I'll talk about what is being done to fix it, and what more can be done.

Before you read any more please do everyone a favor-- if you're not willing to be honest, to read, and think, and take it seriously, and if all you want to do is post how wrong I am and spout all the usual stupid and wrong reasons why women are not into FOSS, and how you know better than us what our experiences are, don't bother. Go away and do something else. We'll all be better off.

Some of these are not work-safe. Very not-work-safe.

Conferences Are Fun!

This one is so graphic I'm not going to quote any of it here. Please read Prude or Professional? to learn about the amazing presentation at a supposedly professional Flash conference. Presented by Hoss Gifford, it included graphic drawings of male and female genitalia, and his talk included some foul language. There was a big backlash thanks to the publicity on Geek Girls Guide. Note to folks who think crudeness and juvenile sexual imagery is "edgy": it isn't, it's cliche and creatively bankrupt, and it shows you have no idea how to present your material in a genuinely engaging, interesting way. Just like dropping F-bombs because you can't think of something interesting to say. Mr. Gifford's "apology" is also on Geek Girls Guide.

Fun With Ruby!

I'm sure some readers are thinking "That was a Flash conference, who cares that's not FOSS." True, it isn't, though it is an essential Linux application. Here is one closer to home, Matt Aimonetti's infamous Perform Like a Pr0n Star presentation at the Golden Gate Ruby Conference last spring.

Thanks a Lot, Linux Journal

Linux Journal's publisher is a woman, Carlie Fairchild, which goes to show that lack of good judgment is not gender-related. This ad appeared in a couple of their 2007 issues, a dopey ad recycled from 2000. I had a hand in raising a fuss. The publisher never bothered to respond to any of my requests for comment, though I was bombarded with "Please lay off!" requests from the all-male writing staff, who might have been worried for their paychecks. There are still a tiny minority of women in any roles at Linux Journal. None on the advisory board, and no authors. Not a one. There is no shortage of great women tech authors; I wish I could hire all of them for LinuxPlanet. (Current LinuxPlanet regular authors are Akkana Peck, Juliet Kemp, Eric Geier, and Paul Ferrill.)

Fun on Mailing Lists!

"! Female syntax
I insist a 'female user' is simply anyone that isn't a professional (and indeed feels more like a child):"

This charmer referred to a female member of the list as "it":

">Please don't blame Lana for this thread.

Why not? It was *it* who made the first 'guys' comment (hijacking an unrelated) thread, leading to this current thread.

Anyway, my point is not personal but addresses a common attitude that I came across a few times. I do not 'blame' - I 'disagree', respectfully I hope."

Yep, that's real respectful.

Fun IRL!

"Svaksha" is a developer:
"The usual personal mails asking for personal details under the guise of "I want to volunteer" or guised as a personal interview (since when did marital status become relevant to FLOSS contribution?). Another peculiar one was a guy writing emails in 5 different scripts despite my requests that I didnt understand them. It was when I requested a friend to translate them that I realised why -- personal questions in a non-English script meant fewer people would know he was asking personal questions."

Fun in the Workplace!

"I could tell plenty of stories about sexism and incidents but here is one over-arching pattern that has affected me over the last 20 years of work in the industry.   During nearly all interviews for  programming jobs (with one exception) I've been interviewed by all male teams. Somewhere in the course of the interview, often more than once, my gender comes up in the context of them being surprised, bewildered, curious that I am a woman who "likes computers" along with questions about how I got into computer geekery, programming, or whatever.  I've tried different strategies of response, earnestness or casualness or light humor, but it remains that my future teams have exposed that they think of me as a kind of talking dog.

"This goes along with being told in interviews and then after being hired that their expectation is that I will as a woman provide some mystical motherly or girly quality to their team that they lack, often of warmth, social cohesiveness, being nicer and making everyone else be nicer, emotional support of the team or nurturing connections with people outside the team.  

"Meanwhile, women who are outside my all male teams react with their own bundle of expectations and more or less talking-dog treatment; my having some technical expertise is often seen as threatening, they can't stop mentioning it, putting themselves and their skills down, and in general acting as if I am freakishly outside my gender role.

"It also goes along with social isolation from work teams and being assigned to projects no one else wants.

"I have mostly gone into jobs wanting to work on cool projects, not be the "angel in the office."

"Adapting to this attitude by trying to de-emphasize traditionally feminine traits or characteristics, fitting in, being "one of the guys", sometimes has some success and leads to more acceptance by a team of guys. But it also can lead unpredictably to hostility because being non-gender normative has its own bundle of associations and bigotries.   Guys are ready to point out any time a girly characteristic and they often freely use "like a girl" as an insult among themselves. There is also a problem of, if people want you to be the Angel in the Office, and you refuse that part of a job and aren't a smiling provider of warmth and light, there can be a backlash."

More Fun at Conferences!

"It was the end of a conference where I had been a speaker. As my husband and I sat down to join a bunch of conference goers at the pub, the gentleman next to me asked, in all sincerity, whether I was one of the partners (spouses).

"I was so surprised I couldn't work out what to say, other than "no", but I wanted to say something else. My husband chimed in with "She was an award winner last year", which made no impact, and I eventually said, "No, I was a speaker". Oddly this didn't make things better, and he continued to talk on about the partners' program and how he wish he'd known about it in advance so he could have brought his wife. Perhaps he didn't believe me, because I still couldn't answer his questions about what they got up to."

Natalee Thompson shares these gems:

"# MemCache Store â€" MemCache is a program designed specifically for high performance memory caching. It’s not written in Ruby, but it’s damn fast and it’s what all the big boys use."

Ok. Some context: language that is exclusive to females and inclusive to male developers has got to go. Each time I come across this exclusion-jargon, I die a little inside, and lose a little respect for the source of the material. I feel like it is almost an intentional barrier put in place by the groups who continue to try to keep 'us' out, like an unspoken right of passage you can only get to if you are male.

"Our company outsources the majority of our Rails application to a Belarussian company. When one of their team moved to the States to work in our office, he willingly told me that his boss didn't hire girls because they were too emotional, and he hasn't hired any to this day, despite qualified applicants, 'because they might cry if they don't get the job'."

Fun With Getting Numb

"Many women IRL also tend to play down sexual  assaults and similar incidents of harassments in the work space. Its when I ask them about specific examples that the skeletons keep tumbling out. I am wildly speculating that the frequency of sexism makes women (and maybe men too?) develop a mental immunity which helps them get on with their work/task at hand. I hope that does not sound like an excuse but just maybe the human brain is wired to forget the negative stuff after some time in order that we can get on with life."

My Own Fun Adventures

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.

I shall end with one of my favorite quotations: "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people." Come back next week for a roundup of projects that are trying to make things better, and more things that need to be done.