State of Sexism in FOSS

Women's issues have become accepted concerns in open source. What is there to show for all the effort?
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In May 2008, Alex Bayley (Skud) founded the Geek Feminism Wiki. It wasn't the first site concerned with women's issues in free and open source software (FOSS) -- since the founding of LinuxChix in 1999, dozens of such sites had sprung up. However, the wiki members were the first to treat women's issues politically, rather than as a matter for individuals or particular projects.

Over four years later, the effects have been felt throughout the community. Although opposition to women's issues remains fierce on sites like Reddit and many private blogs, a growing number of community members are showing support for women's issues, and dozens of groups have sprung up to deal with different aspects of feminism.

As Carla Schroder, freelance writer and veteran feminist says, "It used to be a few lonely voices getting shouted down and threatened. Now, a lot more people are comfortable discussing [such matters], and a lot more are speaking out. The biggest difference is that men are speaking up. I think the trolls are outnumbered at last."

What makes this change particularly surprising is that it has occurred against a background of growing conservatism in society as a whole. Not only do female executives continue to be judged more harshly than their male counterparts, but in the United States, so many pieces of legislation have been introduced to restrict women's access to health care that it has been widely termed a "war on women."

Yet somehow, against this hostile background, FOSS feminism has managed to survive and expand. Today we see many obvious signs of the growing influence of FOSS feminism: greater reporting of incidents of sexism, networking and teaching opportunities for women, the availability of related resources, women speakers at conferences and the adoption of anti-harassment policies or codes of conduct.

Such gains are far from complete, and some raise their own questions and challenges. Just as importantly, other important issues are not being addressed. Yet while  much remains to be done, these key areas do represent a promising start.

The Outing of Sexism

The most visible change in the last few years is that the FOSS community criticizes public displays of sexism almost as soon as they occur.

Whether this criticism reflects an increased willingness to challenge comments and remarks that previously went unchallenged is hard to say. Geek Feminism's Timeline of Incidents does show more events in recent years, but that may simply reflect the fact that they developed the timeline was only recently.

However, Moose, chair of the 2012 Ohio LinuxFest, suggests that social media sites have made responses easier. Certainly, responses are more immediate: when incidents of sexism involving Sqoot and Geeklist occurred in the first months of 2012, the first responses came on Twitter, several hours before the first media coverage.

Sexist incidents in FOSS are also starting to be noticed outside FOSS or even IT circles at such investigative magazines as Mother Jones. However, this interest may be a sidelight of the discussion of brogramming and might diminish when trend reporting finds other subjects.

Rikki Endsley, who used to blog professionally about women in FOSS, worries that the outing of sexism can sometimes be as damaging as useful. In responding to the viciousness of sexist opponents, people can easily respond in kind, especially given the immediacy of social media. They can become a kind of justified troll, less concerned with resolving the issue than accusing.

"It can become blame wars," Endsley says, "and that kind of coverage actually scares off new people, because it makes it seem that our community isn't inviting."

Even so, outing sexism has been an important first step. The immediacy of the responses and the legitimacy lent by mainstream coverage has gone a long ways toward rebutting claims that sexism is not a problem in the community.

As Deb Nicholson, one of the organizers of the Free Software Foundation's Women Caucus, says, "we're moving into a situation where you have to be willfully ignorant to say you don't know there's a problem."

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Tags: open source, FOSS, Women in Technology

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