Did you smile in reading this title? Maybe you did just like I did when I read Linus' post launching Linux for the first time:
Do you pine for the nice days of minix-1.1, when men were men and wrote their own device drivers?
Hackers' culture is fun, right? No big deal either if French Linux Magazine has a tradition of offering a "Calendrier Debian" (a Debian calendar, commented here in Fr) to its readers at the end of the year. And yes there is a naked woman on it albeit not a full Playboy-style double page.
And yes, if it's not a biggie, then why fussing about it?
Imagine that you're a little person and a hacker. Imagine further that you've just released a great piece. Your server is stressed by the success, you're happy. Then a guy who noticed that 3 years ago you mentioned your size in a post on you personal blog decides to congratulate you and at the same time winks at you because you know, he made this tremendous effort of googling you and he wants you to notice; so here he goes, writing a post or a leaving a comment on the download page: You're a great man! :-)
How do you think you would feel if you were that hacker? The intention of a message never matters more than the effect it has on the recipient. And this smiley above: can you really stand it? Here is another example (see the comments) where developers defend ad nauseam the good intentions of one of their peers.
It often bugs me that the FOSS community is usually very careful not to make remarks -even funny ones- about the nationality of a contributor: anyone who tries will be usually promptly shut up. Yet, when it's a matter of joking about women, the same restrain simply doesn't apply. The difference might lie in the fact that FOSS nationalities are all over the world map.
Paraphrasing Winston Churchill:
Why you may take the most gallant team OS gurus, the most intrepid band of bug busters, and ONE audacious she-hacker, put them at a table together-and what do you get? The sum of all the males' sex biases.
It's not just a funny quote: FOSS is a universe almost exclusively male; in such universe, the sheer number makes sexism almost unavoidable, structural. One might argue that It has more to do with crowd effect than with personal ethos but this is hardly an excuse. Moreover, the numbers suggest that their must be a deeper reason.
Three weeks ago MTG published Why hackers FLOSS, the summary of a sociological study focusing on Hackers' motivations. One of the most troubling result didn't even raise a commenter eyebrow yet it's a pretty astounding number: 97.5% of hackers are male.
Worth mentioning is that specialized literature shows at leisure that in most Western countries, women are generally grossly under-represented in sciences and computer sciences is no exception. Gender-biased upbringing is to blame.
The most convincing demonstration might be the situation in Malaysia, the opposite situation in fact, where 65% of CS students are women. Mazliza Othman, head of the CS department at Universiti Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, says: (from this article in French)
see, civil engineering or even geology, these are things people see as
being male. Unlike computer sciences. I don't see anything masculine in
She presents the following reasons: CS jobs are clean
jobs and they don't require much physical force. It's a typical
tertiary activity that can even be conducted while staying home!
You see, civil engineering or even geology, these are things people see as being male. Unlike computer sciences. I don't see anything masculine in computer sciences!
What's interesting is that the arguments used are well, sexist. It shows that a gender bias can easily determine who is destined for a given profession, CS is in this case. Maybe Malaysian guys are sometimes accused of having a woman job; who knows, when people are gender-biased?
Yet, If 15-20% (28% in EU as of 2005) of women are computer pros, they should be represented by the same ratio in the FOSS community. Instead, they represent about 6% of Linux Users Groups in Europe and constitute about 1 to 1.5% (EU and US) of the developer population (i.e. as found on global FOSS repositories). More information and numbers here..
Why is the FOSS community more open to software than it is to women? Why are developers so proud to announce that their mother (or their girlfriend) has a sub-standard I.Q.? Indeed, why is Ubuntu so simple to use that even your mother could use it?.
The main problem is that of a confusion between intention and perception. We will develop this a little bit further. But before, let's indulge into a few numbers.
From this EU report a key finding:
Women are actively (if unconsciously) excluded rather than passively disinterested. The effect lies within F/LOSS cultural and social arrangements. The exclusion happens among people who often do not mean to appear, and who do not interpret their own actions, as hostile to women. The effect is an outcome of the importance given to the individual as the sole carrier of agency.
It could also help if the scarcity of women would not systematically lead to companionship solicitation. And to the ladies out there, please try taking it with a pinch of salt: men find your brain sexy. That's a progress: objectifying code is a lot better than objectifying people. ;-)
However, the extent of the problem is not funny: imagine that on a project with 1,000
contributors, 3% of them are lonely guys (and I'm really conservative).
This means 30 different conversations where our she-hacker would have to explain
that sorry, she already has a life thanks.
Deep blue: Yes, quite often
Light blue: Yes, but seldom.
Almost half of the women have been asked out. Not that the question does not even encompass casual flirting.
Still from the same study, this interesting finding about the time developers spent FLOSSing:
The reliance on long hours of intensive computing in writing successful code means that men, who in general assume that time outside of waged labour is ‘theirs’, are freer to participate than women, who normally still assume a disproportionate amount of domestic responsibilities. Female F/LOSS participants, however, seem to be able to allocate a disproportionate larger share of their leisure time for their F/LOSS activities. This gives an indication that women who are not able to spend as much time on voluntary activities have difficulties to integrate into the community.
A few other aspects are rarely mentioned in all of those studies about FOSS and women.
The first one is that since many Western countries have equal opportunities laws, it's difficult to measure what would be the prevalence of CS women in the absence of such laws. Therefore the amount of the observed gap between workplace and FOSS might be partially attributed to the lack of specific data.
The second one is a remark about the prevalence of Asperger syndrome within developers, the so-called geek syndrome. One of the most preeminent characteristics of Asperger is a certain inability to pick up on social clues. From a well publicized Wired article:
Nick's father is a software engineer, and his mother is a computer programmer. They've known that Nick was an unusual child for a long time. He's infatuated with fantasy novels, but he has a hard time reading people. Clearly bright and imaginative, he has no friends his own age. His inability to pick up on hidden agendas makes him easy prey to certain cruelties, as when some kids paid him a few dollars to wear a ridiculous outfit to school.
The Wired article goes on to suggest a correlation between geekiness and Asperger:
At clinics and schools in the Valley, the observation that most parents
of autistic kids are engineers and programmers who themselves display autistic
behavior is not news. And it may not be news to other communities either.
Last January, Microsoft became the first major US corporation
to offer its employees insurance benefits to cover the cost of behavioral
training for their autistic children. One Bay Area mother told me that
when she was planning a move to Minnesota with her son, who has Asperger's
syndrome, she asked the school district there if they could meet her son's
needs. "They told me that the northwest quadrant of Rochester, where the
IBMers congregate, has a large number of Asperger kids," she recalls. "It
was recommended I move to that part of town."
At clinics and schools in the Valley, the observation that most parents of autistic kids are engineers and programmers who themselves display autistic behavior is not news. And it may not be news to other communities either. Last January, Microsoft became the first major US corporation to offer its employees insurance benefits to cover the cost of behavioral training for their autistic children. One Bay Area mother told me that when she was planning a move to Minnesota with her son, who has Asperger's syndrome, she asked the school district there if they could meet her son's needs. "They told me that the northwest quadrant of Rochester, where the IBMers congregate, has a large number of Asperger kids," she recalls. "It was recommended I move to that part of town."
This suggests two interesting things.
On the one hand, the apparent insensitivity of some developers to sexism might just be another side-effect of their condition: bright, highly functional nerds, are often somewhere on the Asperger spectrum. (Here is a not-so-serious test).
On the other hand statistics also show that Autism and Apserger are 4 to 5 times more prevalent with boys than with girls. This might be another indication that being "just" a smart woman is not enough to be accepted by the community. You've got to have it too: the double-sided syndrome which -depending on its extent- is a curse or a blessing.
To summarize on a less speculative note, here is another key finding of the European study which graphics are displayed above:
F/LOSS participants, as in most scientific cultures, view technology as an autonomous field, separate from people. This means that anything they interpret as ‘social’ is easily dismissed as ‘artificial’ social conditioning. Because this ‘conditioning’ is considered more or less arbitrary, in their view it is supposed to be easily cast aside by individuals choosing to ignore it. F/LOSS also has a deeply voluntarist ethos which values notions of individual autonomy and volition. As a result participants largely do not believe that gender has anything to do with their own individual actions. The situation is thereby perpetuated in spite of the expressed desire for change.
So let's start by making what seems to be a small effort:
What about avoiding all sexist jokes or remarks for a while and see how it goes?
Note: Other blog posts or docs of interest addressing the issue of open source and gender