FOSS’ Factious Gender Divide

There’s no denying that the FOSS community has many virtues, but gender equality doesn’t seem to be one of them.

Gender-related issues and tensions have plagued the FOSS world for as long as many of us can remember, and the problem has already been picked apart on these pages time, time and time again.

Well guess what? It’s still a problem — at least, if recent discussion in the blogosphere is anything to go by.

Groping, Insults and Harassment

“Breaking down the gender divide in open source and open culture” is the title of a recent story on TechWorld, and it’s a provocative one.

Focusing primarily on the Ada Initiative, the piece details some of the groping, insults and harassment frequently experienced by female members of the FOSS community. It also notes that women’s participation in open source is an order of magnitude worse than it is in the proprietary world.

That it’s a problem at least on some level can hardly be denied. Linux bloggers varied widely, however, in their opinions as to what should be done.

‘Blah Blah Blah’

“If women with families have any free time from working in the craziness of the tech industry, bet it wont be doing some more code in the evening — however interesting that may be,” wrote shephallmassive in the TechWorld comments, for example.

“20yrs + as a female engineer and I still see no advertising for permanent part-time/job share software engineers/programmers (UK),” shephallmassive added. “Till that changes, talk about gender diversity in this industry is just that blah blah blah.”

On the other hand: “WTF?” wrote Chris. “EVERYONE can contribute to Open Source. And if women want to invent something spectacular, that changes the world… Please. Feel free to do so. I’m waiting for Mamapedia, Femux or grrloogle…”

‘I Am Very Ashamed’

Alternatively: “I think most of the comments miss the point,” wrote Jacobus Erasmus.

“The problem is that the environment in the open source community is such that women feel uncomfortable.

“I am very ashamed of the situation and so should the whole community,” Jacobus Erasmus added. “This is one situation we cannot pull out the Righteous card; we are simply wrong.”

And the flip side: “The fallacy of the reasoning that the cause of the lack of participation of women is that they are ‘uncomfortable,'” shot back TheBeez. “The only ones that can change the current situation are women themselves. Go ahead, what’s keeping you? Or too busy whining like a spoiled kid?”

With sentiments like that ringing through the blogosphere, it’s no wonder the topic flew like a flash to Slashdot and beyond. Down at the blogosphere’s Punchy Penguin Saloon, Linux Girl knew it was going to be a long night.

‘The Hallmark of Geeks Everywhere’

“FLOSS is a meritocracy,” blogger Robert Pogson began. “Much development is generated on the web with no face to face interaction so sexism cannot be much of a problem.”

Many women do contribute to FLOSS, and “no one questions their contribution because of their sex,” Pogson added. “Others contribute in many ways other than code: documentation, promotion, education and bug reporting.”

So, is there sexism in FLOSS? “Certainly,” Pogson concluded. “Stupid social skills are the hallmark of computer geeks everywhere. You will find such stupidity in every walk of life from the churches to offices and boardrooms.”

Nevertheless, “FLOSS is a culture of software creation, not abuse,” he added.

‘Technical Points Rather Than Cup Size’

“We need to get better at policing our events,” consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack offered. “I can empathize with not wanting to be groped or harassed, and I wonder if we need to be better at ejecting people from the building.”

In any case, “I think the Ada initiative is the best idea since this whole debate got started,” Mack opined.

“Speaking as a guy, I have found the whole thing up until now rather frustrating since there has only been a lot of noise and accusations that we are doing something wrong without anyone actually telling us what exactly we are doing wrong and what we should be doing differently,” he said.

“I’m of course not excusing bad behaviors and, as much as I wish I could, I can’t force the FSF to see the light and stop putting RMS on stage,” Mack added. “But I have tried to have respect for other people and discuss technical points rather than cup size.”

‘There Is NO Gap’

The problem is part of what Slashdot blogger hairyfeet calls the “liberal PC fallacy,” he told Linux Girl.

Specifically, it’s a result of “treating everyone as identical, no matter what the evidence shows,” he explained. “To the liberal PC advocate, a woman is merely a man with an inverted penis and larger breasts. This of course is about as in tune with reality as dressing like Bozo to go to an Amish wake.”

In fact, “there is NO gap because the ‘gap’ only exists in the liberal PC mindset, not in reality,” hairyfeet added. “Women are simply better at certain tasks — and nooo, I don’t mean being barefoot and pregnant while making me a sammich, I mean areas like languages and communications, negotiations and other areas where the ability to read non verbal cues is an asset.”

‘You Will NEVER Get a 50/50 Ratio’

So “why would women WANT to take a job they don’t like, don’t have an advantage in, and where there are plenty of other opportunities for advancement?” hairyfeet asked. “For every ‘geeker girl’ there are probably 100,000 that only want to use a PC long enough to get the job done and get away from the stupid thing.”

In the end, “as long as there is a decent workplace so if little Sally wants to be a programmer she can, that should be all that matters,” hairyfeet asserted. “You will NEVER get a 50/50 ratio of women to men in that profession, same as I don’t think you’ll ever see a 50/50 balance of women to men in nursing.

“We are just two completely different creatures that happen to have the ability to speak the same language,” he concluded.

‘Your Abilities Will Be Discounted’

Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site, saw it differently.

“After years of sexist presentations at open-source IT events, organizations such as the Apache Foundation have adopted the geekfeminism anti-harassment policy,” she began. “I don’t know which is worse — that it’s taken so long to acknowledge the problem exists, that many men are still in denial, or that an official policy is even needed.”

Women who have been in the business for a while all have their stories, Hudson said: “Guys sharing — loudly — their latest porn sites…. Overhearing the boss agreeing with marketing to call back a potential hire ‘because she has a great ____’ — and they weren’t talking about her resume.

“Guys speculating about their chances of ‘scoring’ with sales reps, customers, and the women in the next office,” Hudson went on. “Having other women come to you when the boss isn’t looking because they were given objectives without either guidance or resources, and they’re too afraid to ask the boss because he’ll just criticize them in front of everyone for ‘not knowing their job.’ Knowing that your abilities will be discounted in job interviews because of your gender, same as your wages.”

‘A Warning Sign of Deeper Problems’

All this “erodes trust,” she explained. “And then men complain about the dearth of women in IT and try to blame it on women leaving for family reasons?”

Sexism in I.T. is “a warning sign of deeper problems,” Hudson concluded. “Studies show that gender inequality is ‘a salient feature of most delinquent and criminal subcultures.’ Think about the implications for a minute: street gangs and IT … who would have thought they had so much in common?”

Last but not least, Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, had some specific ideas for solutions to the problem.

Hobby vs. Employment

“This is something that gets talked about a fair bit, but having talked a fair bit with women in open source, there are a lot of things which are often missing from this discussion,” Travers told Linux Girl.

“One friend characterized it as on one hand being hit on by armies of desperate geeks, and on the other being very annoyed at being constantly asked what we have to do to get more women in open source,” Travers explained. “Like many things, many attempts to address the issue actually reinforces the barriers or erects new ones rather than solving it.”

That said, Travers had a few observations:

1. “A significant number of men I know in open source entered open source as a hobby; of the women I know in open source, virtually all entered open source via employment. Historically and today, women have tended to adopt lower-risk economic strategies than men, meaning that they also tend to be more economically conservative (the wild west had a gender ratio similar to that of open source today for a long time, as did the early days of the internet), which suggests to me that the gender ratio in open source is likely to be perpetual in some areas — especially those which are not independently economically viable — but temporary in many others.

2. “Projects where contribution is more closely tied to economic opportunity tend to have much higher numbers of women contributing than those which do not provide that link.”

An Economic Problem

Based on those observations, “I come back to the idea that the single biggest barrier to entry is that open source is still seen very much as a higher risk strategy, a niche market, etc., and that we aren’t bringing in the sorts of opportunities in the community that women find appealing and attractive,” Travers suggested.

“This means that in my estimation, the biggest piece of work to do is to show how economically viable open source business applications can be and create economic opportunities around that area,” he concluded.

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter.


  • There’s too much bother about this. Great programmers/coders, etc. exist with both genders.

    (Carla Schroder is my hero on this.) Just get on with what you do best. Skip the details about how many of each gender exist. Just carry on. YOU know what you can do, so just do it! Eventually the world will catch up to you.

    The world changes when unexpected earthquakes floods or fires happen–a happening that puts man in better perspective to what’s important–life, live, charity, faith, family. Please stop sweating about the small stuff.

  • I feel bad for those guys because they are prey and they will cost their companies a lot of money until they get their hormones under control. Sales reps have a knack for smelling weakness and they *will* exploit whatever they find to make more money.

    Years ago we used to have a sales rep stop buy our office to make sure we were happy with our fiber optic and co location. The girls all hated her because she had a habit of undoing her top two buttons before coming into our office and flirting with the decision makers. I estimate we over payed $70 000 to $80 000 before they stopped staring at her chest, finally realized how much we were being overcharged and switched internet / co location to something more reasonably priced.

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