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Editor's Note: Sexism and Other -isms Hold Back FOSS, part 2

Sep 26, 2009, 00:04 (67 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

Last week I wrote about Sexism in FOSS and much to my surprise, received more supportive comments than I expected. Maybe we are moving forward. Maybe more people are getting braver and more willing to confront the issue. As I see it, the problem can be roughly defined in three parts, something like a steep bell curve:

1. There is a minority of vocal and dedicated bad actors in FOSS, who are disproportionately loud and destructive.
2. There is a larger number of ordinary people who, for whatever reasons, are unwilling to call the jerks on their bad behavior, and find it's easier to pretend there are no problems. Or worse, tell anyone, especially women, who is bugged by it to go away.
3. Then there are a small number of people who speak up and try to do something about it.

For all of the talk about "community" and "freedom" there is an awful lot of cliquish and exclusionary behavior. A good step would be re-defining "freedom" as "the freedom to be welcoming and supportive", rather than the freedom to be the most unpleasant person. Is there a trophy for that? There must be some reward, given the energy and passion some folks devote to being horrible.

Not Exactly a Community

I'm using the word "community" rather loosely here because it's a convenient shortcut. Of course Linux/FOSS is complex and varied; some projects are models of professionalism, some are self-indulgent dysfunctional little grouchpits, some are middlin', and so on. Something for everyone.

Toxic People

Some people are just plain poison. No one is so brilliant and indispensible that they can be excused from treating other people with courtesy and respect. One "brilliant" but obnoxious person will chase any number of good people away, and you'll never know how many because they don't all make parting announcements. Some never even show up in the first place because they see ToxicPerson and go looking for a healthier project to support. How to Protect Your Open Source Project From Poisonous People is a good video produced by GoogleTechTalks. A related news article if you don't have time for a 54-minute video is Google defends open source from 'poisonous people'.

It's a slap in the face to the good people in your project to excuse a chronic troublemaker. Is it so hard to understand that a pleasant, supportive atmosphere is better than a contentious one full of insults and personal attacks? It is a failure of leadership, an abdication of responsibility to let any one person get away with bad behavior. The video and article have a number of specific suggestions for dealing with difficult personalities, such as having a code of conduct, and if necessary kicking an unrepentant offender from your project. Hopefully it won't come to that and you can work things out, but with some folks it's all take and no give, and there is no working with them.

What is Offensive?

Whatever an offended person says it is. "I'm just joking" is a lie-- a lot of hostility hides behind "humor." Listen, think, have some compassion. People of goodwill and mutual respect work at getting along, with give and take. Say "I'm sorry" and move on. Defending to the death one's right to be obnoxious really isn't worth fighting for, especially when bigger and more important goals are at stake.

A lot of folks seem to think that public forums and mailing lists are like little private clubhouses. Um no, they're not, you're onstage for the world to see.


Women get targeted in special and icky ways just for being women. Often it is subtle; tone comes through even in plain-text communications. It is a look or a posture; some men are creepy just saying "Hello." We all have our own lifetimes of experience in recognizing and dealing with this crud. Sometimes it's blatant and crude. Either way it is real. It is rooted in disrespect and contempt, so I've never seen any particular reason to tolerate it.

Kirrily Robert's OSCON keynote "Standing out in the crowd" is so good I wish I'd written it. She gives a great summary of the issues and is a lot nicer than me, but she still doesn't pull any punches:

"This is a normal sort of open source project. I'll give you a minute to spot the women in the picture. Sorry, make that woman. She's on the right. Can you see her?...You walk into a space, and you feel like you stand out. And there's enormous pressure to perform well, in case any mistake you make reflects on everyone of your gender."

All women in FOSS need to be more visible. There are a number of women's groups to provide help and support, such as Linuxchix.org. Linuxchix has been around for several years, and is for women who like Linux and for anyone who wants to support women in computing. We have a nice mix of women, men, and other from all over the planet. Check out Other groups for Women in Free Software to learn about some other groups as well.

Pulling Together

All of this is such a silly sideshow. Step back and look at what FOSS is about, and what is good for it. It needs good people in a multitude of roles, because coding is just the beginning: community leadership, marketing, documentation, artwork, education, reaching out to girls and boys, reaching out to adults considering career changes, fundraising, law and politics, and dozens of other important jobs. We need everyone with useful skills and the commitment to hang in and get things done. We need to get better at turning users into contributors. There are a lot of competing opportunities for good people with good skills, and being nasty is not going to win them over.

I think we're at a crossroads right now. I think if we devote real energy to community-building and attracting a new generation of contributors Linux/FOSS will develop unstoppable momentum, and progress beyond what anyone else can do. If we don't, if we continue to fumble along the same old way, corporate contributors are going to dominate and take it in a direction we may not like. Progress will slow and the community contributors are going to be stuck out in the weeds. An especially thorny issue that is has never been seriously addressed is how can people make a living writing code, writing documentation, designing great artwork, leading strong projects? It's not good enough to say "Service and support" because those do not apply to everything. Are corporate funding or advertiser-supported the only options? You know the Golden Rule: "The one with gold the makes the rules." I think the question of money is going to become more acute as more businesses make money off FOSS code.

Like Kirrily's OSCON presentation says, new contributors are not going to replace old ones-- it's additive, and they will make us stronger and better.

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