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Sexism is Alive and Well in Linux/FOSS - page 2

A Culture of Denial

  • September 15, 2009
  • By Bruce Byfield

However, since then, about the only thing that has changed is that every FOSS conference has a panel discussion on the topic. The community acts as though giving the subject limited recognition is sufficient; everyone can get on with ignoring it.

Instead, when the subject comes up, everybody goes into a frenzy of rationalization. They may say that women are less technologically oriented than men, or lack the confidence or socialization to participate in the free-for-all discussions in which FOSS is developed. They may say that women lack role models, or are less likely to become obsessively devoted to an idealistic cause. A favorite comment is that FOSS is a meritocracy, and only a few women measure up to the standards needed for contributors (although more might if everyone is just patient).

Some of these rationalizations may even have some truth to them. Yet the fact that the same problems do not stop proprietary development from having greater female participation shows that they are not enough to explain what is happening. Nor is explaining the problem a substitute for taking action.

Yet, if anything, the situation is getting worse. The front page of LinuxChix is still active, but its mailing list and chapter pages show little activity in the past few years. Debian Women is much the same, while KDE Women appears entirely inactive.

Typically, such groups are active for a while, encourage a few women to participate in FOSS projects, then settle down to a core of a few members who keep loosely in touch with each other. Occasionally, activity flares, but the groups are largely isolated in their communities, and do little to affect the overall culture.

Meanwhile, the culture of denial continues. When obvious examples of sexism occur, such as Stallman's keynote -- or, much worse, Matt Aimonetti's "Perform like a pr0n star" presentation at a Ruby conference last spring -- provoke outrage, the complaints are too often dismissed.

Aimonetti's presentation, for example, was defended as part of the edginess of Ruby culture. Similarly, defenders of Stallman claimed that those who took offense were attacking Stallman's character because of his anti-Mono comments. Although these examples are extreme, they show just how far some of the FOSS community will go to pretend that sexism doesn't exist.

Looking for solutions

Part of the reason for the sexism in the culture may be that FOSS arose on the Internet. The anonymity that the Web allows has always encouraged flame bait, and no doubt some of the sexism is simply an extreme example. The aggressive language in FOSS development probably comes from the same source. Nor is there much doubt that online culture was originally male-centric, because historically men tended to get connected sooner than women, and that is what they created.

Yet none of these origins are insurmountable. What would happen if the women's groups became part of the power structure of projects, instead of being primarily self-referencing sub-groups? Or if women's mentoring programs were established that both brought individual women along and actively recruited them to act in the mainstream of projects?

Perhaps the most useful step might be a code of conduct with zero tolerance for sexism. A code of conduct assures that the development of Ubuntu and several other projects is conducted politely and constructively, and seems to have no ill effects. If sexism was outlawed as strongly as rudeness or personal attacks, and people were encouraged to speak out against it, perhaps the atmosphere in FOSS projects would become more friendly to women.

But all these measures depend on admitting that sexism exists in FOSS. While I don't expect miracles from the upcoming summit, if nothing else perhaps it can start to put an end to the denial. FOSS is such an idealistic movement in other ways, I suspect there must be thousands like me who prefer not to see it disfigured by sexism any longer -- especially when a united effort could cure the problem.

Article courtesy of Datamation

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