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Is Sexism Rampant in FOSS?

Is Sexism Rampant in FOSS?

The question of whether sexism is the open source world's "dirty little secret" has stirred up the Linux blogs of late. For some, it's a matter of how few women there are among FOSS ranks, while for others, the debate centers on how female participants are treated by their male colleagues. Some people "just think it's clever to be sexist," observed Slashdot blogger drinkypoo.

By Katherine Noyes
09/21/09 4:00 AM PT

Sex is a sensitive subject in virtually any industry or profession, and FOSS, it appears, is no exception.

Indeed, a recent article by Datamation's Bruce Byfield, "Sexism: Open Source Software's Dirty Little Secret," has set off a conflagration on the Linux blogs. It's been difficult to see any other topics, so high have been the flames and so thick the smoke.

"Sexism is systemic in FOSS, and has been for years," Byfield wrote.

Further, "women's participation in FOSS development is over 17 times lower than it is in proprietary software development," Byfield charged. "Proprietary software is inferior in so many ways to FOSS that the fact that it is more successful in recruiting women highlights, more than anything else, that FOSS has a problem."

Repairing the Damage

The GNOME Foundation and the FSF, in fact, reportedly held a mini-summit this past Saturday on increasing women's participation in FOSS, Byfield noted -- possibly to help smooth over some of the furor that followed Richard Stallman's controversial keynote at the Gran Canaria Desktop Summit this summer.

Now, there is certainly no disputing the thin ranks of women in FOSS. On virtually every other point, however, dispute abounds -- not just in the many comments on Datamation but also on Linux Today and LXer, among many others.

The range of opinions was, let's just say, breathtakingly diverse.

'Waiting for Evidence'

"I was waiting for some evidence that women are discouraged from participating ... still waiting for something a little more compelling than 'women are discriminated against because women aren't interested or don't demonstrate interest,'" wrote Matthew Graham in the Datamation comments, for example.

Even more so: "Sorry, but I thought that gender and race weren't relevant anymore. Unless you want special treatment," opined Pyperdown.

Then again: "By 'special treatment' do you mean request to show parts of your body naked before support requests will be answered?" shot back Melissa. "Or maybe you mean the constant XKCD #385?

"Or maybe 'special attention' refers to 15yrold girls being pointed out by certain prominent community members immediately before a skit that encourages people to take ... virginity from females," Melissa added. "We want less of this 'special treatment.'"

'Tux Is Male'

Similar contrasts in opinion were in evidence on LXer, where bloggers launched three separate threads to pick apart the topic.

To wit: "Someone got offended because they think that Tux is male," quipped Bob_Robertson. "Fact is, it's almost impossible to tell the gender of a penguin unless you see them lay the egg."

To which tuxchick responded: "Reading articles before commenting often helps prevent looking like idiots who comment without reading articles."

And further: "Women need a hundred-times thicker hide than men to make it in most FOSS communities," tuxchick later added. "The only reason I stuck around is because I am perverse and enjoy sticking it to the creeps who tried to run me out. And because Linux and FOSS are so cool I wasn't going to let herds of jerks deprive me of them."

'Culture of Denial'

Bottom line? Linux Girl's debate-o-meter was screaming. It was time to hit the streets of the blogosphere for some more insight.

"My friend and excellent author Bruce Byfield must have wanted a tan by flameroast" when he wrote the piece, said Carla Schroder, managing editor for Linux Today and LinuxPlanet and author of books including the Linux Cookbook. "As is always the case when this issue is raised, the reader comments validated the points he raised, especially the 'culture of denial.'

"It's endlessly fascinating to see how many men think they know what women experience better than women do," Schroder told LinuxInsider.

'Nothing Sexist About IT'

On the other hand, "this has nothing to do with sexism," blogger Robert Pogson countered. "Women make their own choices. Few choose 'crunchy' professions. They have other choices they prefer. Does FLOSS, IT or physics need to do anything to stop women from choosing what they want? That is silly."

Byfield's thesis "assumes too much," Pogson told LinuxInsider. "There are only so many women to go round. If they prefer other areas, there is no way to get them to go into IT."

Further, "there is nothing sexist about IT," Pogson added. "Women who have chosen to go into IT have done very well. I used to use the OpenMosix project code; five women from India contributed the shared-memory feature that made it more useful for PC clustering."

'The Least Sexist Environment Ever'

A better treatment of the topic than Byfield's "puff-piece," as Pogson put it, is Yuwei Lin's "Inclusion, diversity and gender equality: Gender Dimensions of the Free/Libre Open Source Software Development."

Among the factors uncovered there, Pogson noted, are the following:

  • "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

"There is not a lot in there about sexism," Pogson said. "It is about how women get into the business and function in IT."

In fact, "FLOSS could be the least sexist environment ever in which women can work because most is online," he asserted. "Working on FLOSS does not require sharing workplaces with men and being subjected to harassment. They can do their own thing and produce software they like."

'I Don't Know Why'

Not everyone, however, was so sure.

"I don't know why there aren't more women in FOSS," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider. "I only know most of the reasons people use are crap.

"I really doubt it's socialization; I know it's not a lack of aptitude," Mack added. "Every once and a while I hear some idiot tell me that computers are marketed more towards men than women, but in my extended family the girls tend to use their computers more than the guys do, yet for some reason none of them want to learn any more than what they need to operate the thing."

Rather than finger-pointing, what's needed is "a more solutions-oriented approach," Mack concluded.

'Locker-Room Culture'

"I don't see [sexism]" in FOSS, "except in a few cases where it seemed _incredibly_ subjective," Slashdot blogger David Masover said. "I've never been called sexist myself, and I suppose I'm the wrong gender to have been the brunt of any of it. What I have noticed is what's been described as a 'locker room' culture -- that since it is traditionally mostly guys, there's a lot of off-color humor, cursing, etc.," he added.

Is foul speech, for example, sexist? "I don't think so, unless you want to make the argument that women need to be protected" from it -- "which implies that women are somehow more delicate than men," Masover asserted. "That implication strikes me as an insult to everything the feminist movement has worked so hard for."

On the whole, "I don't think this is specific to FOSS," Masover concluded. "I think, if a problem exists, it applies to _all_ software development, and it's just easier for management to force people to behave in a corporate setting: behave, or you're fired. If you tried that in FOSS, people would just fork the project."

'Sexist Comments Are the Standard'

If nothing else, sexism is systemic on Slashdot, drinkypoo, a blogger on that site, told LinuxInsider.

"The female readership is reputed to be high, but only a few women comment regularly and are almost celebrities as a result," drinkypoo explained. "Sexist comments are the standard."

Some people "just think it's clever to be sexist, but even more of them think that their sexism is so clever that it's transcended somehow into pure humor," he added. "Unfortunately, they are very wrong."

'We Can Do Better'

There are clearly problems in the community that need to be addressed, Schroder concluded.

"The FOSS world is a wonderful place but it has its flaws, and pretending they don't exist doesn't work," she said. "Sexism and other hostile behaviors, and an unwillingness to deal with them, are real problems. We can do better."


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