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 identi.ca.

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.