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Sexism in FOSS Rears Its Ugly Head Again... and Again

Sexism in FOSS Rears Its Ugly Head Again... and Again

"Refusing to take a job because of being the first woman in an organization is just silly. If rights are worth complaining about, they are worth fighting for. Get on with it," said blogger Robert Pogson. "It is sad that we continue to have these issues," said Google+ blogger Kevin O'Brien, "but they will continue to happen until we take them seriously."

By Katherine Noyes
05/05/14 11:33 AM PT

It seems there's always some kind of conflict at work in the FOSS community lately, whether it's based on race, on gender or something else.

Most recently, it's the gender issue that has been felt most keenly. Not only have we seen the whole GitHub debacle unfold and explode, but then a certain post appeared on The Linux Works blog.

"Last month I went through an interview process with a large company in a nearby state," wrote respected IT pro Caitlyn Martin. "I turned down what would have been the highest rate of my career as a Senior Linux Engineer. It paid about (US)$10K more than I earned in a contract in Texas last year.

"Why did I walk away from an offer like that?" she added. "I was told there are 400 people in IT, all male. I would have been woman #1 in 2014."

Martin's explanation made her rationale clear. So why did the Linux community get so upset?

'She Has Preconceptions'

Linux Girl

"I really don't understand why Caitlyn turned down this job; the fact that she got the job offer clearly shows that the company has no preconceptions about hiring women," wrote linux4567 on LXer, for example. "Her 'chickening out' on the other hand shows that she has preconceptions about working with men. So Caitlyn seems to be the one with the prejudice here..."

Even more preemptively, "The Interesting LXer Article I Decided Not To Read," was all kikinovak had to say .

Was it all in Martin's "pretty little head," as she put it? Is it really just a small, happy IT world after all?

'Some People Need to Grow Up'

"It is sad that we continue to have these issues, but they will continue to happen until we take them seriously," Google+ blogger Kevin O'Brien told Linux Girl over a fresh round of duly warranted triple Tux Tequila cocktails. "And that won't happen by telling people to 'lighten up, it was just a joke.'"

The Internet encourages "a particularly evil form of sexism," in fact, "because it can be anonymous, and that allows some misfits to do things they would never do face-to-face, such as threaten physical harm or rape to a woman who speaks up," O'Brien added.

Even the milder forms are a problem, though, "such as the idea that 'this is our culture, you need to adapt,'" he said.

"There is a reason fewer women participate in open source than work in IT in general," O'Brien concluded. "Where I work -- a large IT organization -- there are standards of behavior that are enforced, and that is a good thing. Some people just need to grow up."

'Sexism Exists'

The subject is "extremely touchy," began Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone.

"Sexism exists," he went on. "If you take a cross section of a predominantly male industry, you're probably going to find more sexism than you find in industries that are not predominantly male. That goes doubly for an industry that has been founded by individuals who aren't known for their social adeptness."

At the same time, "I've never seen it anywhere I've worked in the last 20 years," he added. "I suppose that means I just fall into the handy little catch-22 Caitlyn built into her article and prove that it's a pervasive problem and I must be part of it. How convenient."

'In the Eyes of the Beholder?'

Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C. had a similar take.

"The evil... is it in the eyes of the beholder?" Gonzalo Velasco C. began. "Regarding technology Visit the VMware Tech Center or science or whatever, I tend not to think first about sex, sexual preferences, race or other things that might create a trench between people. But I'm am not the average citizen, it looks like."

Today's society is sexist, "because our history has not changed yet," he added.

"In the case of Caitlyn Martin, you could think, 'hey, I'm the first of many women to get into a man-only group, but many should come after me,'" Gonzalo Velasco C. suggested. "The answer from the boss -- 'I'm the manager. I'm in a position to make sure you have no problems' -- could be understood in another way. But, of course, I was not there to look the guy in the eyes."

'It Is Not a Healthy Situation'

Speaking of that, "what a patronizing attitude on the part of the would-be manager," said Chris Travers, a blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project. "No wonder the IT department is all male."

As for the GitHub saga, it's striking "how hard it is to talk about the difficulties of women's interactions with regard to gender in the workplace," Travers noted. "The narrative that men victimize women in this regard makes it impossible to frame this in a way in which women have agency to cause problems in their own right, and floating such a view raises the perception that it no longer becomes a gender issue, but both these are sexist in their own right too and so the whole incident becomes impossible to discuss with the level of rigor that it deserves."

Then, too, "another problem we don't like to discuss regarding a company like GitHub is systemic sexism in startup culture, not with regard just to founders but also venture capitalists," he added. "I am not talking about attitudes here, but practices.

"Women are differently situated to family and hence formal employment than men are, and when you have a setup which demands very large hours per week with low pay on the theory that a large payout might be around the corner, you are going to select against women, except for those who later go on to take two weeks off for maternity leave," Travers explained. "It is not a healthy situation, but that is an issue that can't be fixed without significant change to what we expect from the economy."

'We Are Not the Worst Cases'

Martin's "slapping down of a company trying to do the right thing and feeling proud of herself is just perpetuating the problem," consultant and Slashdot Gerhard Mack told Linux Girl. "The manager had no way to guarantee no one would cause trouble since they had not had a woman there before.

"I also don't get her comments about how she thinks a boss should not be 'authoritarian' -- that's his JOB," Mack added.

"I once worked at a place where the Web devs were loudly commenting that one of the girls from the graphics department had 'nice boobs,'" Mack recounted. "He got dragged into the boss' office within the hour and told his behavior was unacceptable. Think he did it again? Nope."

On a side note, "I wonder why IT gets singled out for this when we are by far not the worst cases I hear about," Mack mused.

'It's Much Ado'

Indeed, "show me some hard data showing that there is a single percentage point higher abuse in the IT realm than in any other? THEN we'll talk," SoylentNews blogger hairyfeet told Linux Girl. "Until then, frankly, it's 'much ado.'

"Could things be better?" hairyfeet went on. "Yes, but that is true of ANY profession, and considering how far things have come, it's actually pretty impressive."

On the flip side, "some of these shrinking violets really need to grow a spine," hairyfeet added. "Are we really gonna get to the point where you can't even tell nerd jokes without checking first to make sure nobody with a vagina is within 500 yards? Really?"

Much of the problem would be solved "if people would stop being cowards and stand up for themselves," he concluded. "You'd be surprised how often telling someone to 'cut that crap out' would actually work -- but then again, the person having the fit couldn't take a spin at lawsuit lotto, could they?"

Last but not least, "I think all this complaining about sexism in IT has gone overboard," blogger Robert Pogson agreed. "I know IT departments that are all women, for instance. Refusing to take a job because of being the first woman in an organization is just silly. If rights are worth complaining about, they are worth fighting for. Get on with it."

FOSS is "the least sexist thing on the planet," Pogson went on. "It's apolitical, race-free and gender-free. Nothing prevents women from forking the code and making of it what they will, for instance. The barrier to entry is minimal, just a PC and a connection to the Internet."

There are "sexist bastards everywhere," he added. "Deal with them where they are and skip carpet-bombing the county in which they reside. Targeted attacks are much more profitable."


Katherine Noyes is always on duty in her role as Linux Girl, whose cape she has worn since 2007. A mild-mannered journalist by day, she spends her evenings haunting the seedy bars and watering holes of the Linux blogosphere in search of the latest gossip. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.


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