Sunday, May 19, 2024

State of Sexism in FOSS

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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.”

Networking and Teaching Opportunities

According to the FLOSSPOLS surveys done in 2004-5, only 1.5 percent of the FOSS community is female. That amount has probably increased since then, particularly if you count non-coding roles such as technical writing and marketing.

However, given that coding is central to FOSS, it makes sense that one of the first efforts to correct the imbalance would focus on teaching more women to code and providing mentoring and professional networking for women in programming careers.

Such groups have existed for years. Recently, though, they seem more numerous than ever. They include such groups as Code ‘n’ Splode, Geek Girl, Girls in Tech, Hacker You, Ladies Learning Code, PHPWomen, RailsBridge and Women Who Code. Some of these groups operate nationally or even internationally, but much of their work is done at a local, grassroots level.

No doubt these groups vary in effectiveness. However, one of the most successful has been the GNOME Outreach Program for Women, which re-emerged several years ago.

Under the leadership of Marina Zhurakhinskaya, the GNOME Outreach program has offered internships for women with all aspects of the GNOME project. The program takes several steps that help insure its success, such as helping applicants to gain necessary skills before applying, pairing successful applicants with mentors, and teaching such cultural aspects as peer review and version control systems. In the first round of internships, fifty percent of participants continued to contribute to the GNOME project — an unusually high rate for such programs.

Availability of Resources

In some circles, the Geek Feminism Wiki is seen as a movement. In reality, as the name suggests, the site’s primary purpose has been to write and collect resources on women’s issues, both in general and specifically for sub-cultures such as science fiction fandom, gaming and FOSS.

One purpose of the wiki is to act as a kind of group memory, recording incidents and individuals so that sexism is remembered. However, an equally important purpose is to analyze sexism and related forms of discrimination, and to suggest responses to them.

Look up “tone argument,” for example, and you will find that the phrase refers to the common suggestion that women would advance their goals better if they were more pleasant. The article identifies this argument as an irrelevancy to any discussion and suggests how to refute it.

Articles on such topics as evoking political correctness and free speech follow a similar pattern.

This kind of analysis apparently unsettles some people. In conversation, I have heard several people refer to the Geek Feminism Wiki as “scary.”

However, I suspect that part of such criticism lies in the fact that, at its most effective, the wiki analyzes topics most people never think about. Probably, too, the anticipation of counter-arguments, while based on experience, can be read as arrogance.

Yet, overall, the wiki rates as one of the highest intellectual achievements associated with both recent feminism and FOSS. Just as importantly, it not only tells supporters what to expect, but makes clear that they are not alone. You can judge its importance by the fact that, sooner or later, almost every women’s group in FOSS borrows resources or ideas from it.

Increasing the Number of Women Speakers At Conferences

Around the time that the Geek Feminism Wiki began, speakers like Skud and Angela Bryon managed to keynote conferences talking about women in FOSS. More recently, topics such as diversity have become common at conferences.

However, the efforts to encourage more female speakers on other subjects have met with only limited success. According to the Geek Feminism Wiki, women speakers at conferences have averaged between 8-15 percent in the last five years, although Ohio LinuxFest reached a high of 35 percent in 2010. In the last three years, the percentages at several events have been noticeably higher than previously, although still far below the fifty percent that random distribution would predict.

One tactic groups have used to help increase the number of female speakers is maintaining lists of women available to speak, such as LinuxChix’s somewhat outdated Chix Who Speak page or DevChix’s list of upcoming speakers.

Several women, including Skud and, more recently, Courtney Stanton, have also used suggested concrete methods of seeking out and encouraging female speakers

However, following such tips requires considerable effort and can create a backlash. Talking about her experience with trying to increase the number of female speakers at the 2012 Ohio Linux Fest, Moose notes numerous complaints, largely by men who assumed favoritism without knowing anything about the selection process.

Often, these critics believe — on no evidence — that a quota system is in place, and papers by women are judged with lower standards than those written by men. Frequently, they assume that the event has accepted all papers submitted by women. The idea that there could women in FOSS with interesting expertise who only need encouragement to submit a paper never seems to have occurred to such critics.

Implementing Anti-Harassment Policies or Codes of Conduct

(Disclaimer: I served briefly on the advisory board of The Ada Initiative. I resigned in November 2011.)

Feminists were not the first to try to establish community standards of behavior norms in the free software. Carla Schroder credits Ubuntu for its all-purpose code of conduct, which she calls “a radical departure from the dominant ‘freedom to be a jerk’ ethos that prevailed before.” As a result, Schroder adds, “Ubuntu has also attracted large numbers of contributors and users from more diverse walks of life than other distros.”

However, in the last two years, FOSS feminism has paid special attention to anti-harassment policies for conferences. Most of this work has been developed by The Ada Initiative, an offshoot of the Geek Feminism wiki, which has developed templates for policies that can be used either unmodified or as starting points for discussion.

The rationale offered for this emphasis is that anti-harassment policies can be a starting point for changing other aspects of the community.

Cynics, though, might argue that anti-harassment policies are implemented in the same spirit that mission statements once were — as a move that looks progressive yet requires minimal effort.

This possibility was shown by the recent debate at Readercon, a science-fiction convention, when the organizing committee at first ignored its anti-harassment policy, then only enforced it after considerable public outcry. The fact that dozens of conferences, not only in FOSS but also in the skeptic community and science fiction fandom, have such policies is promising, but the policies are too new to obtain any sense of how well they are enforced.

All the same, anti-harassment policies have proved popular, especially after a number of incidents over the last few years in which speakers gave pornograpic presentations. Deb Nicholson notes that such policies announce that a conference might be relatively safe and might have, if not a greater percentage of women than most, perhaps unhostile men.

“Obviously, it’s not a guarantee,” Nicholson says. “People are still going to do stuff and say stuff. But I think it does put at least the speakers on notice.”

Yet to Come

How much permanent change will result from these developments remains uncertain. While some grassroots support for women’s issues exist, FOSS feminism still sometimes appears to be a top-down phenomenon, supported more by community leaders and influential people than by average FOSS contributors.

The problem may be that the most active FOSS-based feminists have been unable to articulate more than general principles. Skud and Mary Gardiner, a co-founder of The Ada Initiative, once attempted to express the values behind the Geek Feminism Wiki and could only state that the site was focused on documentation, logical analysis and women in minority environments. They have never offered answers to such basic questions as whether contributors advocate hiring quotas for women regardless of expertise.

Probably, given the diversity of wiki contributors, such position statements would be difficult, if not impossible. However, without them, Geek Feminist contributors leave themselves vulnerable to being defined by opponents. For example, I have frequently seen opponents assume that Geek Feminist contributors advocate hiring quotes, then accuse them of reverse sexism. In the absence of any policy statements, others frequently believe such claims all the more because they are stereotypical.

This problem was highlighted in July 2012 when a blogger writing under the pseudonym of Nice Girl used quotes from the Geek Feminism wiki to depict contributors as an organized movement whose members harassed other women for not thinking or acting in ways they approved.

Moreover, the fact that Nice Girl’s comments were quickly echoed in milder form by Endsley and long time community contributor Leslie Hawthorn, shows that she is not the only one who believes that the characterization holds some truth.

In response, Skud stated that “no feminist group is ‘the opposition’ to another. ” And to some extent, she may be right — change often is introduced by radicals, then integrated into society by moderates.

But the problem is that more moderate feminists do not always extend the same tolerance in return. Such depictions could not only derail FOSS feminism as radicals and moderates feud, but also create negative impressions of women’s issues by depicting the best-known advocates as straw feminists — parodies of themselves.

However, the women and men addressing women’s issues in FOSS are stretched thin and are mostly volunteers. Under these conditions, expecting them to address all the implications of their subject at once is unrealistic.

The fact remains that women’s issues are now raised regularly in the FOSS community –no matter how imperfectly or incompletely — and that is an accomplishment that few could have expected from the unpromising perspective of 2008.

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