Journal of Omnifarious - Sexism in the FOSS movement...

Oct. 13th, 2009

12:08 am - Sexism in the FOSS movement...

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This question, generalized to the software field as a whole has been of great interest to me for a long time. And the main conclusions I've come to are that the whole topic is very complex and nuanced and there aren't a lot of simple answers.

Most interesting to me are the knee-jerk reactions, many of which are in evidence in this articles on Slashdot titled "FOSS Sexism Claims Met With Ire and Denial".

I will address a few of them here...

Your race or gender shouldn't matter on the Internet since everybody is just text.

Well, that's true, to a point. But the real truth is that everybody uses pronouns for themselves or others. And we have one set of names we usually use for girls, and another set for boys. Gender is a deep, built-in aspect of almost any communication.

It is, of course, possible to convincingly fake being a boy, or fake being white. But why should you have to? Why should you have to hide some important part of your identity in order to be taken seriously?

Open Source is a meritocracy.

Well, yes and no. Women in Open Source stick out like a sore thumb because there are so few of them. One source I read quotes a figure of 1.5% for the percentage of women involved and given my observation that figure is completely believable. If you are a girl, you will be treated differently simply because you are such a novelty. Anybody who denies this is denying a basic fact about how people act.

Feminists ate my dog!

Well, OK, not exactly. But I see a large class of comments about how some random (often academic) feminist said some really awful thing, and how now their whole view of feminism is tainted.

First, open your eyes. I agree that statements like "All men are rapists." are pretty hateful and certainly not at all helpful. But for many statements of that ilk it's difficult to tell if a particular feminist actually said that, or if someone just put words in his or her mouth after misinterpreting what was written. Also, in my experience, most people who identify themselves as feminist do not hold views that are even remotely similar to statements like that. Most are reasonable people who just think women should have the same opportunities and rights as men.

Secondly, the issue isn't even related. So, some random feminist said something you find really distressing. What's that got to do with sexism in the FOSS movement? Are you trying to say it doesn't exist (if that's true, why only 1.5% women?)? Are you trying to say that your perception of people who identify themselves as feminist justifies mistreating all women? That's pretty messed up. Really, this is just a distraction so you can avoid thinking about the actual problem.

Women should just buck up, take it like a man and stop whining!

Well, many of them do. But not pointing out a problem doesn't help deal with the problem now does it?

And the problem exists. The 1.5% figure isn't a lie. While I'm willing to entertain the idea of a biological difference of some kind generally predisposing women or men towards different things, I'm not willing to believe that any such difference would result in such a profound split. Maybe, just maybe a 60%<->40% split. Maybe. But most definitely not 1.5%<->98.5%. Only cultural and social forces could create such a profound split.

My favorite mental picture here is the overlapping bell curves. Sure the averages may be a little different, but many more people live in the place where the bell curves overlap than live in the place where only members of one distribution live.

Those, I think, are the major knee-jerk responses I see. None of them are particularly helpful for actually confronting the issue. They are all evasions or denials of one kind or another.

Among people who recognize the problem, there are a number of knee-jerk solutions I see proposed. Many of them have the effect of banishing sexuality and gender identity from increasingly widening spheres of human interaction. I don't think the answer lies that way at all. I think it is both bad for people, and not very workable.

People are sexual, and that is a core part of who we are. Men and women exist and are different in important ways. Banishing sexuality or gender identity is a denial of both of those facts.

One technique I wish women used more is table turning. Men are not frequently depicted as sexual objects and women are. If you notice that professional presentations are depicting women as sexual objects, create some of your own that do the reverse. If you're called on it, point to the other presentation and ask why it was OK for them.

I don't think that kind of objectification is to be encouraged in professional presentations. It detracts from the subject matter. But men will have a tendency to ignore it or tut-tut about it without doing anything. Once men are at the uncomfortable end of things, maybe we'll get it.

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From:hypatia_j
Date:October 13th, 2009 05:13 pm (UTC)
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Yes, thank you.

re: Feminists ate my dog - the usual term I hear for 'making the conversation about something other than the real problem someone has brought up' is Derailing. Calling people on it when they do it can be a powerful tool.

On your last point, are the 1.5% in a position to make those kind of presentations in the community? Will they just get accused of overreacting if they do?
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From:omnifarious
Date:October 13th, 2009 06:06 pm (UTC)
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On your last point, are the 1.5% in a position to make those kind of presentations in the community? Will they just get accused of overreacting if they do?

I have seen exactly one presentation given by a female computer scientist at a convention I've attended, so this point is well taken. Interestingly presentations by biologists (the DIY biology and biohacking presentations at CodeCon) have a 3 to 2 ratio of males to females.

And I'm certain it will be called an over-reaction if it happens, but I also think that almost anything women do to highlight sexism in the field is going to be met with some kind of objection.

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From:catenoid
Date:October 13th, 2009 05:43 pm (UTC)
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I agree that sexism is playing a prominent role here.

Re: cultural vs social forces: Your argument that only cultural and social forces could create such a profound split is symmetrical to the argument that only biology could create such a profound split. I rank these positions about equally - I find it hard to believe that either is sufficient or even dominant.

If you peruse Wikipedia's "List of programmers", you will find a very small number of women, which would follow from the overall proportions and possibly underrecognizing of women's accomplishments.

About half of them are transgendered. That is profound. I don't know what to make of it.

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From:omnifarious
Date:October 13th, 2009 05:58 pm (UTC)
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Well, if you look at the studies of mental differences between men and women I think you will find that all of them exhibit the double bell-curve effect that I mention. The averages are different to varying degrees, but the bell curves of the distribution lead to there being a lot of overlapping territory.

There are hard biological differences, like the ability to bear children for example. But I think that other physical differences (ability to build muscle mass) often exhibit a double bell curve type distribution, even if their overlaps are not so great. And I think mental differences are definitely not very profoundly different. And I think the evidence in controlled studies bears that out.

Regarding the prevalence of transgendered women in computer science.... that boggles me too. It's something I've already noticed. My strong suspicion is that this has more of a cultural and social origin than a biological one as well. But it is really interesting and something I would like to see researched.

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From:catenoid
Date:October 13th, 2009 06:00 pm (UTC)
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From the Bruce Byfield article that the Bruce Byfield "wow, there sure was a lot of flaming" article that the Slashdot article that this article is about:

"... women's participation in FOSS development is over seventeen times lower than it is in proprietary software development."

(There's probably an article to write about autism spectrum disorders and FOSS as well. ASDs apparently have a 4-1 male-female ratio. I'll stop digressing now.)
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From:omnifarious
Date:October 13th, 2009 06:08 pm (UTC)
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Actually, the ASD spectrum disorder sex difference is really interesting and a plausible source for an argument about biological differences.

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From:cooncat
Date:October 13th, 2009 11:39 pm (UTC)
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It's been my experience that in the absense of very stereotypically-girly behavior, most internet forums assume posters are men. Since it does greatly affect the quality of responses to any inquiry ("did you check the oil level" vs. "let me tell you what a dipstick is and what it's used for") I rarely choose to asset my gender online, and don't really feel that I have to self-censor or write differently, anyway.

The proprietary software comparison is interesting. Most women I know in software development who are not primary breadwinners for their household are academics.

Edited at 2009-10-13 11:43 pm (UTC)
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