January 6, 2011

Women And Open Source

Filed under: a/b,digital,documentation,fail,future,interfaces,linux,losers,vendetta — mhoye @ 10:16 pm

Rainy Day

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.


  1. You both make excellent points. Unfortunately so many people can’t explain or quantify *why* there should be more women. I saw a good retort – why aren’t more men involved in knitting groups? If you can’t quantify why a change should come about then I think you stand almost no chance of figuring out how to make it happen. Certainly you stand no chance in convincing other people to care.

    I’d add another question besides Violet’s “why” – What have you done to help a(nother) woman get involved/be more successful in open source? We’re both parents of daughters, seems like we’re in a better position than most to experiment. ;)

    Comment by Majken "Lucy" Connor — January 6, 2011 @ 11:11 pm

  2. I don’t think you’ve made the point you think you have. It’s an argument for having other types of people join these OSS groups – but why do those have to be women to fulfil your goal? The definitive characteristic is not singularly ‘male’ – it’s a particular type of male. The whole OSS gene pool needs to be expanded and just adding women is just one part of that.
    It’s also just a subtly changed version of the old ‘diversity is good because society is diverse’ view. You need to show what women bring to the party that helps (and for that matter what anyone else beside the current participants brings and how it helps).
    I don’t think you’ve addressed Violet’s point at all.

    Comment by Clayton Nash — January 7, 2011 @ 3:52 am

  3. FOSS is filled with the people that are there because the mix of personality that leads to someone who wants to be a programmer and is a complete zealot leads to what you see.

    They don’t just drive out women; they drive off anyone who isn’t dedicated to the cause to the extent of everything else. I blame Stallman for this. He started the bullshit all or nothing mentality back in the early days, and it’s never been shaken off. That and I just can’t stand the man for various reasons. I’m sure if I’d ever had to actually interact with him instead of just seeing his bullshit at a distance (the closest being Usenix), I’d suspect I’d have an even lower opinion.

    Comment by Jamie — January 7, 2011 @ 8:41 am

  4. You’ve probably seen this, but a talk about two open-source projects that are succeeding in getting a lot of women involved by, gasp, being good projects to work on:

    Comment by Kate Nepveu — January 7, 2011 @ 10:37 am

  5. Clayton: I don’t think you’ve made the point you think you have.

    That’s definitely possible. Fire departments are composed overwhelmingly of men as well, and (though there’s a difference there, I know) it’s hard to argue they’re not a broad social good as well. I don’t really think I have a strong standalone argument here, so much as I just have a moderately-well-articulated fear. Maybe I’m arguing in favor of inclusiveness for inclusiveness’ sake, sure, but your argument has a chicken-and-egg problem in it as well, hidden in the argument that I would have to show what this group, which has not been permitted to show what it can do, can do.

    Jamie: They don’t just drive out women;

    Man, I am telling you, this isn’t just a True Believer problem. I’ve seen, over the years, some of the mails the women I work with receive. It’s some seriously pernicious bullshit to have to put up with.

    Comment by mhoye — January 7, 2011 @ 10:54 am

  6. Kate: In that link, near the end, is the line “We’re not far enough along in our plans for world domination that we can afford to turn anyone away.”

    Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.

    Comment by mhoye — January 7, 2011 @ 10:58 am

  7. I blame Stallman for this. He started the bullshit all or nothing mentality back in the early days, and it’s never been shaken off. That and I just can’t stand the man for various reasons. I’m sure if I’d ever had to actually interact with him instead of just seeing his bullshit at a distance (the closest being Usenix), I’d suspect I’d have an even lower opinion.

    He gave a talk here last year, and asked to be put up in a faculty house rather than a hotel, then appended a faintly ridiculous list of requirements for any house he’d be staying in (would prefer pets over no pets, but only small dogs, and no birds…). So, yeah, I suspect you’re right.

    Comment by Chad Orzel — January 7, 2011 @ 11:56 am

  8. I guess I don’t really get that article; it’s pretty obvious that any field or endeavor without specific physiological requirements being extremely gendered is a broken state of affairs. I don’t really give a damn about corporate profits or whatever, so trying to justify it in those terms seems silly. There should be more women because their absence is itself a sign of wrongness.

    Insofar as her point is against the idea of looking at the tech field as a meritocracy: well, sure. It isn’t. But then, nothing really is, and meritocracies are overrated anyway.

    Comment by Mike Bruce — January 7, 2011 @ 3:59 pm

  9. I’ll give you a couple of tangible reasons why there should be more women in Open Source software: Usability and Retention.

    If FS is going to be adopted widely (and thus, save the world) it needs to be usable and as is pointed out in Unlocking the Clubhouse, women are often more interested in computing problems when the solution results in helping people and less interested in, say, just making computing faster for computing’s sake. I see this as demonstrated by the numerous contributions women make in periphery of open source not only as documentation writers but as evangelists, users, educators and then also in the 1.5% or so in the technical areas. I think women are more likely to question whether something is usable enough for non-tech folks and that they are equally more likely to have non-tech people in their lives (children, seniors) who they consider when developing solutions.

    In my experiences with open source I find that I tend to fall into usability “holes” on a regular basis that are generally caused by (largely male) authors who leave things at a ‘good enough’ that falls short of where I would leave it if it were my project.

    Now if we get a woman or two working in open source and helping save the world, then how do we retain her and her wisdom/experience/enthusiam unless we have _other_ women around? It can wear a person down to be a minority in a group _all_ the time. I’ve worked in largely female staff environments (and even all female) and have enjoyed the privilege of never feeling out of place so I suspect that my feeling of comfort and never-questioning that I enjoyed then is what it must be like for men in a male-dominated workspace. Comfortable, nothing wrong with this picture at all. It’s nice isn’t it? You know what’s even more nice? Knowing that everyone you work with feels connected and content in their community/work space, not just you. Seriously, once you get a feel of that, the enthusiasm is contagious. It doesn’t even mean giving something up! It just means taking other people into consideration and providing everyone with some comfort.

    I’d better stop there.

    Comment by Lukas Blakk — January 26, 2011 @ 7:56 pm

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