Noted sex and technology blogger Violet Blue has written a bit here calling 2010 “The Year of Whining About Women In Tech”. In my erstwhile role as an obscenely overprivileged white man and freestanding meritocracy I’ve been giving this some thought recently. I feel that you should pay attention to my opinions on the subject. It’s pretty much what obscenely overprivileged white men do, you know? We just expect that, it’s kind of our thing. You should just go along with it; it’s not like you have a choice, right?
Everyone, every single one of you who have whined about women in tech this year are full of it until you can tell me one thing. And then, I will believe you are of a worthy cause. Like so many women in tech, I will no longer avoid attending your “women in tech” events. I will stop despising this cultural segregation for being female. I will stop hating your pro-women-in-tech posts that single us out, all cloaked in goodwill that always feels like it has a darker agenda.
Tell me why we should have more women in tech.
If you’re telling me we should, then tell me why we should. Why it is better. What benefits it brings to business, to profit, to innovation. To development. To leading companies and advising them.
I bet you can’t.
I’ve whined about women in technology this year, and I bet I can.
I don’t know about “better” or “profit” or “innovation” but I can definitely tell you why it matters to me, particularly with respect to the free and open-source software communities where I spend most of my time. The gender disparity there is wildly worse than it is in the private sector; the numbers I’ve seen suggest that while women make up slightly less than thirty percent of proprietary software development, in free and open-source software the number is maybe a twentieth that: 1.5%, give or take.
Look at the boards of prominent FOSS projects. No women sit on the Free Software Foundation’s board of directors, nor the Linux Foundation’s board. KDE e.V’s board has one woman, and GNOME’s board one. If anything, the number of female maintainers in Debian is probably lower than 1.5%. The figures don’t change much, no matter which FOSS organization you look at.
Or, if you prefer, listen to the horror stories female developers tell about sexist remarks or being asked out for dates. Look at the constant trolls on the mailing lists for female developers.
I’ve seen those emails, and if you think that’s not the case let me disabuse of that idea right away, because that’s the situation, for real; pervasive denigration and alienation of an entire demographic, resulting in communities that sit in their self-imposed isolation and call themselves meritocracies, that lack the self-awareness, honesty or introspection to wonder why everyone at the meetings, conferences and “camps” looks a lot like them or whether that might be a problem.
There is, of course, nowhere to file a bug on systemic cultural issues. But Ms. Blue’s question is: so what? There’s virtually no women involved in open-source software. Who cares, and why does that matter?
I can’t speak for everyone, but it does matter to me. Let me tell you what I believe about free software.
I’ve said this before; I believe free software is really important. In this shiny modern world of ours software makes decisions on our behalf, individually and collectively, and not being able to inspect or control those processes, to understand who they report to back to and how they interact with you and the rest of the world is fundamentally antidemocratic. Relying only on black boxes from vendors who may or may not have your best interests in mind means that real issues of justice and fairness and general human decency are being ignored or swept under the rug.
I think free software empowers us to be a free people, in short. Sure, that’s a gross oversimplification, blatant sloganeering and lots of other things, but as a view from 1000 feet goes it’s not bad.
But here’s the thing: what if I’m wrong about that?
What if all this idealism of mine is just so much bullshit, and the Free Software community really is nothing more than the poorly-socialized-boys club that it so often seems to be? You’d think that a group that prides itself on being open and meritocratic would be able to take a good hard look at its overwhelmingly white, almost 100% male self and respond with something other than the predictable macho posturing from self-diagnosed aspies jockeying for the alpha-chimp position, but that just doesn’t seem to be happening.
If anything, it’s getting worse.
I don’t want to be wrong about this. I really think free software is important, fundamentally important, to all of us. Not just the people developing it, but to the citizens of a just and functioning democracy. Free software is transparency, accountability, education and trust. But if we’re really trying to make the world a better place, then we should be trying our hardest to lower the barriers to participation and contribution, to bring more people on board. Today, right now, the technical barriers to participating in the Free Software community are as close to zero as they can ever be – you need an internet connection and a computer – but somehow a full half of our potential contributors have looked at the real cost of participating and said no, this is just not worth it.
That’s why I think women’s participation in technology, in Free and Open Source technology, is so important. Because however important I believe Free software to be, if participation, diversity and growth are a rough approximation of future relevance, then gentlemen, we are in a lot of trouble.