On the last day of EuroOSCON there was a panel discussing why there were so few women in the open source community. It turns out that the predictable claim that “It’s the same throughout the industry, it’s not an Open Source only problem!” doesn’t really stand up. Danese Cooper pointed to a study that found that 12% of all developers were women, but only 2% of Open Source developers are.
12% is bad, but 2%?
Bad enough that one man in the room stood up and made a “But girls are different!” argument, but looking at some of the responses to the Portland OSCON panel, it’s positively mild. How about this reply from an Anonymous Coward in a Newsforge thread
It would be good if the debian-women, whilst on a bus, got hit by a bigger bus (and thus perished).
Death To Women’s Rights
Women’s Rights activists and Feminists: I hope you die, whether by murder or by accidental occurrence.
Or how about this one from an unrelated discussion on the London.pm mailing list:
Aside from [your] obvious feminist brainwashing … I like the fact that most geeks are guys. I am far more comfortable coding and working with fellow men, and heaven forbid that gender equality should ever infiltrate our ranks.
And this guy didn’t even hide behind anonymity.
I didn’t have to look far for these examples, they are all too common. I would ask if their authors would be comfortable describing black people in a similar way, but if there’s one group that’s even less represented in Open Source than women, it’s black people.
Iterative Processes and Emerging Behaviour
Yes, girls are different. But apart from the obvious physical differences, how much is inherent and how much cultural? Reports from primary schools support the view that kids are just kids. There is no gender divide in ability. Boys are just as good at needlework as girls. Girls are apparently better at maths and science. The fun begins when they hit secondary school and puberty. Puberty hits back. As I’m sure we all remember, the implicit pressure to conform is enormous, both to the expectations of your peers and to perceptions of wider society.
My step daughter wanted to do technical drawing at school, and the school was, on the surface keen for her to do it, but both the girls on the course had dropped and switched to another subject by the end of the first year — the sniping from fellow pupils and the tacit encouragement of it by the teachers saw to that.
Western culture tends to put women in the ‘nurturing’ box, and breaking out of that is hard. As we grow up, we get our initial ideas of what’s the Right Thing from the memes our parents and the culture give us. And the “Women stay at home, doing the housework and raising the kids” meme is a strong one. There are exceptions to the stereotypes, but look how often they are cast as a ‘lunatic fringe’ by the mainstream. Or they become like That Bloody Woman1 – more like a cartoonish man than the men under her.
Women on the panel had similar stories to tell about those boxes. For example, Jo Walsh talked about assumptions that the technical bits of her work had been done by her boyfriend. I was rather uncomfortable during this portion of the talk – acutely aware that in previous conversations with Jo I had tended to lump her in the ‘Girlfriends of hackers’ category. Jo, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. I’ll do better next time.
Being part of the solution
I grew up with the assumption women were tall company directors who drive fast cars very well and earn more than their husbands. That’s what my mum does. Okay, she had a leg up by being a director of a family firm, but she did the job as well as anyone and helped see the company through some very tough times (and no, she wasn’t the HR or marketing director). Mum doesn’t really do explicit feminism; she just gets on with it. In fact, she can take delight in telling stories about unconscious sexism she’s been on the receiving end of: the firm used to be a main dealer for British Leyland, which that meant occasional sales conferences and product launches. Mum was often the only women there. In those days it was apparently common for presenters to slip the occasional naked lady into the slides – “just to keep everyone awake”. When this happened, there’d be slightly embarrassed laughter and a few heads would turn to look at mum. Who ignored it. It doesn’t happen so often any more2.
People like mum are great role models. Visible, but not strident, just getting on with it. The Open Source movement needs people like this; people like Allison Randal – one of the technical leads on Perl 6. We men need more ‘“But she’s a girl!":http://www.rousette.org.uk/’ moments. Only by having our expectations confounded can we realise how silly those expectations were in the first place.
We also need role models like my dad. On the day that mum started to earn more than he did, he took her out for a meal to celebrate. Being married to a woman who earns more money and drives a nicer car isn’t a challenge to his masculinity, it’s something to celebrate.
The problem isn’t Women in Open Source, it’s the Men in Open Source. It’s not really about being ‘women-friendly’, it’s about being friendly. As geeks, we tend to be terrible at it – I know I am. Don’t tolerate the bearpit. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been part of too many poisonous ‘communities’ – places that were actively newbie hostile. No matter how often you have to do it, the right answer is almost never “Read The Fucking Manual” – even if the answer can be found there. Be polite. So what if the person asking you is clueless – they’re not the only one listening to you; maybe you just scared a listener who would be an asset to your community away. Maybe they’re afraid to ask a question that will help you nail down and fix that bug that’s been troubling you for weeks. Be polite. Be an angel not an arsehole. There’s a place for acting like a 13 year old gamer, and that place isn’t your project’s mailing list, IRC channel or other public place. Save it for Xbox Live or something.
Traditional roles are a trap for men as well as women. I sometimes think that ‘Feminism’ is a misnomer – what we want is humanism. It’s not about women having the right to have it all, it’s about everyone having that right.
1 Margaret Thatcher
2 Well, there were a couple in that one keynote at EuroOSCON this year.