This Time Self-Hosted
dark mode light mode Search

On a totally different note — Sexism in Free Software

Note (2021-04-19): Read Before Proceeding

This is a 12 years old post. Yes, you read that right, this post is from 2009, and you’re probably reading it because WordPress re-shared it on socials because of a known bug with imported posts being edited (and I edited it to fix a broken link that went to a spammy parked domain, and now goes to Internet Archive.)

I say that not because I’m ashamed of the content, but because twelve years later I would probably have phrased it differently; spending most of those twelve years “living in English” would do that to you.

Or more likely, if I hadn’t written this already, I would not be writing this in 2021. I would leave that to more eloquent writers, and those who do have direct experience with sexism, rather than add my voice to a cacophony of bystanders.

Original Post

I don’t usually write about most of the philosophical issues that are discussed in so many planets, including the Mono/Microsoft problems and other stuff like that, since my expertise is usually limited to the technical side of the fence. I’d like though to write a couple of personal comments on the topic of sexism in Free Software; even if that does not really make much sense since it would be, once again, a man speaking about the problem.

As for my reason to get into the issue, well, I have to admit that most of the topics I write about come from me thinking about something under the shower (probably the only time during the day I have to think about something without being focused on doing anything). And tonight, just before entering the bathroom I was reading a post about an OSCON keynote that Lydia (Nightrose of Amarok fame) linked on

I would be lying if I said that there is no sexism in Free Software. Unfortunately there is one deep problem here, like some people said in the comments of that other blog: men and women have different ideas of what is sexist. I have been unable to see this point up to last year, but I had some experiences that let me see the actual difference between the two point of views, and change mine around as well. When you speak with your average man, he’d be probably considering sexism only what is explicitly said in front of women, done in their presence and so on; for women, I’d say that probably they see also the implicit actions and behaviour as sexism. And it’s not a matter of “who’s right” on this; is right whoever can see that there are two point of views here. And when you accept that, you have to admit that sexism as seen by women is a problem in general.

But there is one thing that really bother me: it seems like the problem is only in Free Software, but I’d say that’s not the case at all. At least, for what i can see here, the problem is still very much alive everywhere in our societies (note the plural); maybe it can be more easily seen in Free Software, but that shouldn’t be a good reason to single out the Free Software world. At least here in Italy, it seems to me like the majority of men also are quite sexist; and that both in and out of the net connections; just see who our Prime Minister still is (sigh; and no I didn’t vote for him, ever).

Okay so now, considering I really don’t have much experience on how to deal with women in general (otherwise I wouldn’t probably be still single and lonely; and yes I know that this remark is sorta sexist in itself), I don’t really have any solution to propose. I can just point out something I noticed: most of the talks and posts I find around are related to the lack of women in development of Free Software; by experience I’d say the problem goes beyond that and into the lack of women as active users of Free Software. This, I guess, is related to the fact that men in groups tend to form a very primitive type of “pack” that protects and increase sexism in general.

Stuff like dirty jokes, sex-based slide presentations (somebody said Rails?), and similar are obviously upsetting women, but sometimes they still feel right and fine for most people, in Free Software and in other venues, because there might be one or two women who get along with that to begin with. And people start to think that if those do get along with that, then the rest will have to, too. Because, let’s be honest here, there are women who even make use of the sexism presence.

Just as an example hear this: I went to a technical high school, with computer science as address, a known male-mostly school, since for each year there were fewer than 10% of girls among the students. Of that 10%, I’d say that just another 10% actually continued on the computer science area, but that’s not really surprising given that it’s probably in line with the male amount, I really don’t know more than six people that graduated with me (out of 17) that have continued studying the subject, of those, I think three are actually working in the area. Some were just curious to see what computers were about, others were forced by their parents, others were just filling time till university or work.

To be honest, I really feel like most of the people who had no interest in computers to begin with should just have drop out and changed high school, some did, but those were just a minority. Most really continued, and because the school in Italy is stupid, and that school in particular has a principal that just can’t seem to be up to the task, they also graduated, and not with the minimum points, but that’s another story.

Among those girls there were very technically skilled people, some of which I was able to met, some of which I’m still in contact with, and some that really were there just to make use of sexism. In a school full of adolescent boys, those girls got a quite easy life: they played the “blondes” (all respect to women and men with blonde hair by the way) with the male teachers when they hadn’t studied, the flirty with younger male teachers (I know that my first Literature teacher in high school gave good marks to someone just because she was the only girl in the class!), the poor lost girl with the female teachers and so on. And some blatantly flirted with classmates to get the homework done. This is not a movie or a TV series, this is the high school I frequented, not dramatized the slightest.

So for what I experienced in my high school, there are two kind of girls that survive in technical environments where sexism is the rule rather than the exception: those who are skilled enough to just shine, and those who are just bad people and live on sexism. Unfortunately human nature is such that what often sticks into the mind of people is the bad side, so those people who went somewhere without merit. Yes this happens. And you have to learn to look away from that and judge stuff objectively. And this also does not stop with women, but with any minority: the Venetian who finds the shameless Southern-Italian (or maybe the foreigner nowadays) who speak in his dialect (or hasn’t learnt Italian) and live on fraud will forget about those who do speak proper Italian and do work hard, the same goes for any other minority in any other group. I don’t like it, I do my best to fight it, but I won’t deny this happening because it wouldn’t make sense to deny that!

Okay so what’s the bottomline of this pretty inconclusive post? I guess it’s what I just said: let’s stop deny that problems exist. This goes for both sides of the fence; I have known women before that would deny that any woman would use her position of (false) “minority” for her own advantage, that’s wrong because they do exist, and they should probably be criticised from both sides. At the same time, developers who say that there is no sexism problem in Free Software, should really reconsider that and wonder if maybe what they wanted to say is that there is no increased sexism problem in Free Software, since the problem goes probably beyond that. And also please stop wondering just why there are so few women developers, wonder why there are so few women involved as users as well.

While I know there has been (and I think there still are) women involved in Gentoo (Lisa, Christina come to mind), we also are not giving a very good example. I know that the Italian Gentoo support channel in freenode is way too often place of dirty jokes and inconvenient situations; I know that there has been a blatantly offensive Gentoo developer there in the past (I think he learnt his lesson though); and I repeat (since I already said that a few times) that I find upsetting and disturbing that the documentation of how ebuild works, called Package Manager Specification, has been shortened to PMS everywhere, officially and not.

Okay just my two cents, because it really feels strange that there is no woman posting on Gentoo Planet, nowadays… And yes, no need to tell me that most of what I have written is not relevant, or that I haven’t considered this or that approach or point of view. I don’t really think I can help with getting a solution, if you have your own ideas post them, that’s what this is all about I guess.

Comments 17
  1. You got some points. The thing I just had to comment on was that sexism exists everywhere and that is so true, but also that women handling it different. I have been involved in some associations existing under a context of being very sexist. still they amount of girls being somewhere near ~50% is interesting. Also that it comes to roughly two kinds of girls, one seeing sexism everywhere probably because they expect to see sexism everywhere in this context. And those who do not. The funny thing is that among those who do not there is a group of women which I still have to see being stirred into the actions they take, making them into what the first group happily use as “the ones exploited by the sexist boys”. But the main difference between them seems just to be that they have different views in what are and what should be culturally allowed to do. The first group often being more or less moralists and the last group being more or less the opposite.Also I just want to make a comment about Package Manager System, or short PMS. It is a unfortunate naming collision, but as long as the abbreviation PMS was not taken with a allusion on the pain involved or it just being ‘girlie’ or anything involved with what many women I know have problems with but just (as it seems to me) being the natural abbreviation for a rather long and crude phrase I cannot see anything sexist in it. To me it says more about our views and fears around sexism that we even try to find it there.

  2. Just don’t go too far down the “equality” road. There’s a bigger problem when people find that a ratio of <=40% women is “unequal” and a ratio of >=60% women is “equal”.

  3. All that just to rag on PMS? Seriously?That’s the kind of attitude that leads to people banning ‘master’ and ‘slave’ devices because they think they might be able to construct some way in which people who look to find offence could pretend to be outraged by it.

  4. If that’s the only thing you can read on it, I guess you really are the perfect example of the problem FLOSS has.

  5. You’re looking for ways that people might possibly be offended, not for things that are genuinely offensive, and are in the process portraying females as being touchy and unable to take a joke.Also, by your own argument, you should change your nick, because it’s insulting to people who suffered eye injuries as a result of looking into the sun.

  6. Dicks should should be told to shut up, and dirty jokes are unprofessional everywhere. For people who truly value competence, genitalia shouldn’t The saddest example of the overly homogeneous work group is the all-male team. Women are obvious victims of the sports analogy: The same male establishment that excluded them systematically from team sports for so long now compounds the felony by insinuating that they’re probably bad team players. Of course women function as well on teams as men. Any man who has worked on mixed teams would find it hard to imagine ever again working in the all-male environment. That was our fathers’ sad lot.- Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister, Peopleware 2nd ed, p. 156

  7. Man, your comments about high school are so true… I never expected to hear that from someone living in Italy, because, well, I thought that it was basically kind of a measure of degradation of our society here in Nizhny Novgorod.I’ve also graduated from a male university department and I have to say that the 3% of girls that we’ve got there were like not studying at all. Well, I know one (out of two hundreds of the other students) who studied really hard and I never missed an occasion of cheering her up or like showing respect for the stuff she did learn unlike my male comrades.But the others were, well, horribly disgusting. They didn’t even try to simulate interest or hard work or whatever. They were like: “Hey, we are a minority here, you guys are all suckers who read books instead of having a good time, we don’t give a shit about radiophysics and we are taking for granted to get all this stuff for free.” And the most sorry part about that is that the professors actually *supported* if not encouraged this kind of behaviour.I just can’t get it. If I were one of those girls I would be terribly humiliated and offended if a professor said to me that I’ve got my mark because I’m dead stupid, but I’m a female.And as for the Open Source by the way, I’m actually involved in a support team of a Free CMS, we do have ladies on board and I have to say that we get along really well. Hopefully my behaviour was not offensive in any way to this point, but for sure she does not *seek* for something to be offended with. When we’re working together I don’t particularly think of her as of a female, but as of a competent colleague and I believe it’s kind of normal; nobody gets any preferential treatment, we’re just trying to be easy going and enjoy what we’re doing together.This PMS thing you mentioned is hilarious by the way. I’ve seen it before several times, but it never caught my attention. And I think it wouldn’t even if I were a girl. It’s just this kind of thing some of them (the bad ones) use to pretend that they’re offended with and that everybody around is sexist and nobody cares about them etc.

  8. > For people who truly value competence, genitalia shouldn’t matter.> The saddest example of the overly homogeneous work group is the all-male team.Huh? Which is it?

  9. flameeyes:”Stuff like dirty jokes, sex-based slide presentations (somebody said Rails?), and similar are obviously upsetting women, but sometimes they still feel right and fine for most people, in Free Software and in other venues, because there might be one or two women who get along with that to begin with.”Actually, I think it’s more insidious than that. Women often avoid speaking out about these things, even if they do find them objectionable, for various reasons. One reason is that doing so marks them as female, and it’s much easier to get along in male environments if you’re “just one of the guys”. Another is that it tends to result in arguments and having to deal with a bunch of other people’s more subtle sexism which otherwise wouldn’t have become an issue. Finally, there’s just too much of it… if they took on every example, they’d spend all their time arguing about sexism, wouldn’t get anything done, and would burn out within a few months.You’d probably have to ask a women about this, though; this is second or third-hand information.”But there is one thing that really bother me: it seems like the problem is only in Free Software, but I’d say that’s not the case at all. At least, for what i can see here, the problem is still very much alive everywhere in our societies (note the plural); maybe it can be more easily seen in Free Software, but that shouldn’t be a good reason to single out the Free Software world.”Oh, it’s definitely not a problem that’s specific to the Free Software world (or indeed to a few high-profile figures in it). The reason you’re hearing about sexism here more is because the people talking about it are part of the community, and therefore sexism in it is something they’re directly concerned with and are responsible for taking action against.ZYV:”I just can’t get it. If I were one of those girls I would be terribly humiliated and offended if a professor said to me that I’ve got my mark because I’m dead stupid, but I’m a female.”Yep, it definitely sounds like sexism, if it’s the way you describe it. (That’s a big assumption though; people’s views tend to be biased by their pre-existing opinions quite easily.) Apparently, though, it’s often a lot easier to make use of someone’s sexism than to actually challenge it – even (perhaps especially?) if you’re female.

  10. My dear makomk, don’t even get me started. If you don’t believe my stories you are very welcomed to take my place here in Nizhny. You will learn a lot about how shitty is this place and what kind of survival skills you’re lacking at the moment (e.g. living w/o hot water for a month in summer? how tempting does it sound to you?)I tell you what, there have been much more repulsive situations during my studies at NNSU. For example, I’ll never forget the jerk who taught us mathematical physics.He started our classes by questioning us whether we already know from the previous generations of students how he’s used to call the female students. When nobody replied he said: “Bitches?! Who’s just said bitches? I call them blondes!” And started laughing his ass off… And you know what? Not a single male student laughed with him. How funny is this dare I to ask you?Another time one of the girls in our group had her birthday the day we’ve got those goddamned MP classes. And by very surprising coincidence this old drunken bum decided to ask her to show the class how she solved the assignment for today. She started writing on the desk, but after some time it became evident that in a hurry she did a copying mistake and her whole solution was screwed as a result.So he asked her like: “What’s this bullshit you’re writing is all about?” and then she realised how terribly wrong was her copy and she said like: “Gosh, I did a copying mistake…” (“Ой, я описàлась…” in Russian, please note the stress, this is important to understand this incredibly witty word play!). And guess what did he answer? “Оп`исалась? Писаются только груднички…” (“You urinated in your pants? That’s surprising, only small babies do that…”). And of course he laughed like mad as usual.And I can go on and go on… Am I biased?! Of course I am! But who wouldn’t? Thanks God I’ve already graduated from this scamhole and I can actually write this w/o fearing that the IT dept. guys will find out and tell the dean etc.

  11. re: fhqwhgadsThe first is a belief about values in a perfect world you’re supposed to strive for, and the second is an observation about real life.One says that you should value your colleagues by their competence rather than by how much you’re attracted to them, and the other says that when men spend time together with no women around their “culture” perceives women differently than they would have if they had a woman present in the room.You know how people act differently when they’re alone and when they’re with their friends? Well, if the group of friends are a balanced group the difference is not as big as if the bunch is mono-gendered.It’s why single gender educational facilities are a problem, and it’s why women in the military is a good idea (if you can make the organization bend to make it work).

  12. Nice work flameeyes – your posts are always thoughtful and address problems instead of punting them, and this is no exception.

  13. Hello!One question that usually comes to my mind when this topic is put on the table is: Where is the line? What are the criteria that distinguish this singled out problem “sexism” (which still exists, I am not denying that) and general difficult/unfairness of the world? For example, in the linked article we are told that a woman in the open source community feels like a man who gets his nails done at a salon. Can we therefore, from the general tone of the discussion, infer that these women were sexist, too, and should be educated about male customers’ sentiences? Or might we just conclude – free of morale judgment – that coming to a new group, where you stand (for whatever reason), can be an awkward situation?And where is the sexist when it comes to the shorthand “PMS”? The one who choose an obvious three letter acronym without any further thoughts or the one who always thinks of “Premenstrual Syndrome” when seeing “PMS” and additionally gives it a negative connotation and gets upset by it? I’d like to point out that the article doesn’t state that it were the PMS-related jokes that were upsetting.

  14. Sorry, little correction:”where you stand (for whatever reason)”should be”where you stand out (for whatever reason)”

  15. I agree that the problem goes beyond Free software, still since the high school and education in general, as was rightly pointed out in the post.I don´t know if it is genetically or historically dependant but what we can see is that there are some fields of study (like the more technical ones) which traditionally guys choose and girls not (or only in minority) and other fields of study where the contrary is true. So couldn´t it be that men are more technically skilled than women and therefore they outnumber girls in IT and all related matters like Free software?Probably this view is sexist itself, but as a girl with an humanistic background and very poor technical understanding I see it this way..

  16. Amanda, while I agree with you that *in general* girls tend to be less skilled in technical subjects, I don’t think they are less technically skilled because of their inability to learn, but rather because most of them don’t see it as a subject of studies of their choice.(Actually I know a girl who graduated two ears earlier than me from the CS dept., and her thesis was related to high-performance OpenMP implementation for GCC, does it sound enough technical to you? I wonder how many of male students who graduated at the same time could take up and successfully complete something as challenging as this…)So the interesting question is why most of them don’t deem it interesting / worth studying etc. I admit that sexism might actually play a negative role here. But I don’t think of it as of a major cause. Probably stereotypical thinking of their own or their parents’? And finally, is it really all that bad and unnatural and we really should try to challenge that? Who knows, who knows…

  17. ZYX i think you are right , its not because girls are not lesser skilled, but becuse its not subject of stuidies of their choice.I mean girls still tend to keep feminine ways , and to raise their femininity and though society maybe changed there is still lots of pressure about what people think is feminine or not….

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.