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Me in a FLOSS community

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Jono asked about thoughts on why women are such a minority in open source communities. I already talked with him and Matt about the topic during GCDS, but I would like to write down my thoughts and experience.

From my point of view, there isn’t just one reason. I will talk about the reasons why I don’t feel completely comfortable in the FLOSS communities. I cannot generalize, extrapolate and conclude that those are the reasons why women are a minority, but I can offer my experience as an example.

ONE MERIT – Meritocracy is one of the greatest things (and one of that I love most) about free software communities. At the beginning you don’t need to be someone, or know someone or know someone who knows someone. You just do and get credit for it. Theoretically no matter who you are, your gender, sex orientation, race or origin. Problem is that normally only one merit is taken into account: hacking hours. “Show me the code!” is the motto here. Nobody says: “Show me your strategic plan!”, “Show me your documentation!”, “Show me your funding efforts!”. Although it is now changing a bit (a great example would be the Ubuntu Hall of Fame, which gives credit not only to developers, but also to translators, PR people, and the alike), the motto is still “Show me the code!”. All-night-long hacking? 95% of the times that person would be a man.

SEXISM – Maybe is not that relevant, at least for me, because there is sexism everywhere. We have to fight against it, but we have to continue with our lives in the mean time. But it does exist. Oh, really it does. Let’s transcript a conversation I had during GCDS as an example (my thoughts while it was happening, in brackets):

Guy: Mmmm, it only took me two days to realize that chicks from Barcelona are way hotter than those from Gran Canaria
Me: Yes? Only two days to arrive to that conclusion? That’s fast! (What???? Why is he telling me this?? Talk to me about weather, please)
Guy: Yes. I pay a lot of attention.
Guy: So, what did you study at university?
Me: Computer Science
Guy: What??????? Since when *chicks* are starting to study Computer Science?
Me:(Mmm, people like you make me think that I made the wrong decision)

LACK OF AFTER-WORK BEER SPIRIT – When I worked for software companies outside the free software world I used to love Friday after work beer. We’d go to a pub, have a couple of beers and talk about anything but work. OK, sometimes we talked about work, but it was more in the sense of complaining about the bosses and things like that. Normally conversations were about love, life, future, past, present, etc. When I go to conferences now, after all day hacking, listening to new technologies, plan new projects and/or collaborations, which is great, what I need at 6pm is a break. Sometimes I feel that the only way to have that break is just going for a walk on my own. Going to a pub for a beer and keep listening to conversations about CouchDB, GNOME Shell, Clutter, OpenGL, pro Mono rants, against Mono rants, etc. does not seem like a break for me.

OH, IT’S A GEEK WORLD – It is a pity that free software communities are so geek. Not in the sense that I don’t like geeks, I would consider myself a geek, but in the sense that if you’re not, it is difficult to enter (or if you enter, to survive). It is a pity because free software is great. It is great because of the technology, it is great because is open, it is great in the sense of libre. People should be willing to know more about it, but I understand the entry-level barrier. I consider myself a geek, and I find difficult to survive because I am not *that* geek. For a non-geek it has to be even harder. And, let’s face it, men are geekier than women.

I guess these are the main reasons why I don’t feel 100% happy about being in an open source community. And that’s a pity, because I love the spirit and theory about software libre. I should feel like I was in the best job ever.


Written by Ara Pulido

July 16, 2009 at 8:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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34 Responses

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  1. I’m a guy and i can totally empathize with a your two last comments. When I go to conferences I feel quite isolated because I’m not perceived as geeky enough – despite a decade of interest in open source software.


    July 16, 2009 at 9:19 am

  2. I think the “Guy” was me but I really was just teasing! Did not mean it in a sexist way! Oh well, Sorry if I offended you!

    Seif Lotfy

    July 16, 2009 at 9:48 am

    • Seif what have you been up to since Barcelona, you scoundrel πŸ˜›

      Seriously though, sexism is a problem and while there continues to be unfair treatment towards groups, all people are charged with being more sensitive to the problems.

      Most of the time I see it’s a cultural thing, men I know are brought up to behave like that and they find it offensive that there would be an alternative view.


      July 16, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    • Seif, it’s a natural impulse to want to defend and explain yourself, but it also makes it hard to see the real issue here. It isn’t about you, or whether you were joking, or whether you meant it this way or that way.

      What matters here is how your remarks made Ara feel (which she shared in this post).

      It’s a crude analogy, but think about when you step on someone’s foot on the bus, and they say “ow!”. You don’t waste your time explaining to them that you were just trying to pass, and that you weren’t trying to hurt them. You apologize, because you obviously did hurt them, and hopefully you try not to step on anyone’s foot the next time.

      You don’t say “I’m sorry if I stepped on your foot”, or “I’m sorry if you think it hurt when I stepped on your foot”. You say that you’re sorry for stepping on their foot. You recognize that it hurts when people get their feet stepped on, and you try to avoid doing it.

      I’m sure you didn’t think “this is a good opportunity to make sexist remarks!” You didn’t realize the effect that your remarks would have. They still did have that effect, though, and if you don’t understand why, you’ll probably make someone else uncomfortable in the same way.


      July 18, 2009 at 9:32 am

  3. I’m sorry to heard this but I agree that it’s true. And like Adam, even me that I’m not an hardcore programmer can empathize with “one merit” argumentation.

    About the after work-beer spirit: Next UDS join us in the LoCo’s Beer or Dinners. In Barcellona we had a so nice dinner and we talked a lot about everythings but technology. I remember interesting conversation about our countries, our experiencies, our hobbies… just because we came from all around the world, it’s a mixing of different cultures, and It’s an amazing aspect of our community that sometimes we forget. I think you would love it. Ask Mackenzie or Laura, they also attended to it.


    Paolo Sammicheli

    July 16, 2009 at 10:15 am

    • Wait, are you talking about when 20 of us went to a vegan restaurant? That was fun! Except they were out of sandwiches 😦


      July 16, 2009 at 1:37 pm

      • I was forgiving your troubles with sandwiches, you made me laugh πŸ™‚
        Yes, it was that dinner and I think it was really nice πŸ™‚

        Paolo Sammicheli

        July 16, 2009 at 2:13 pm

  4. I gotta say, I think those comments you listed under Sexism are a bit silly. I mean let’s take the first one. I have, in the past had girls tell me “that guy over there is hot”. How is that possibly sexist? Surprisingly people are attracted to other people.. funny eh?

    And the second comment, well, pretty much anywhere in the world, the male/female ratios for Computer Science are totally skewed. The ratio is probably the same the other way for courses like Beauty Therapy. I’m not being stereotypical here, of course some men will do a Beauty course, and some girls do Computer Science. But making a joke about such unbalanced numbers is hardly sexist.


    July 16, 2009 at 11:58 am

    • Luke, it might be sexist or not, but having girls hearing that conversation so many times is what makes it sexist (or at least, they feel uncomfortable to hear that kind of comments as the 1st thing a guy tells them). It is as if you were jewish, for instance, and when you told someone that you studied computer science, that person said “oh, I didn’t know jewish studied computer science”. Maybe it’s not racist, but I’m sure you (or I) wouldn’t like that kind of comments.

      Rodrigo Moya

      July 16, 2009 at 2:49 pm

  5. Luke, the first comment isn’t “silly”, it’s a good example of how poorly men can judge what is and what isn’t acceptable. It’s made worse by overreacting to the fact that you’re talking to a woman and trying to trivialise it. But lets face it – “chick” is a bad way to start to start a conversation, let alone in the context of how good looking “chicks” are. Although I agree that the last joke was clearly a joke. Could have maybe used a smilie there though, just to be sure.

    As for the ratios, they are skewed because of these poor attitudes in the community itself (and by community, I mean, IT in general, not just open source). Such ratios don’t just “exist” without reason.

    Beauty therapy isn’t a great example of other jobs with such skews, because in computer science there shouldn’t be any sex-related reason to NOT chose it as a career. Whereas, men don’t wear make-up (usually), therefore, women are less likely to be comfortable letting a man do their makeup. So less men in Beauty Therapy.

    Neil Broadley

    July 16, 2009 at 12:42 pm

  6. Ara, this is a much needed perspective, thank you for sharing.

    As far as the geekiness, it definitely is a double-edged sword; we have so many talented and enthusiastic people who drive our community, and they eat, drink, and breathe technology. This same intensity presents an often insurmountable obstacle to joining the community for people who are non-geeks (or geeks only during working hours). The tragedy is that we sorely need the contributions and perspectives of all people, especially non-geeks, to be successful.

    I attended a UDS meeting to discuss what was blocking women from joining our community. During the meeting I shared that in my experience the major blocker was not sexism in particular, but the geek culture in general.


    July 16, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    • I remember that πŸ™‚ Any idea how to tone down geek culture?


      July 16, 2009 at 1:39 pm

      • Part of the relevance of geekiness in these things seems that it is the only (or one of the few) universal bonds in the conferences. Once you have enough known shared interests in other stuff, they will take their place in social interactions. For example, it seems that the technology-to-other-topics ratio on planet Ubuntu is very low, even compared to planets like Gnome and Debian. Personally, I prefer talking (non-geek, mostly classical) literature, music, or fine arts after hours but there seems to be a drag towards talking tech when socializing with peers at those meetings (but then my meeting career abruptly ended after only two smaller ones).


        July 16, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    • See my comment on stigma below.

      It’s more acceptable for guys to be geeky, and guys are accepted into the existing guy-filled groups.
      That doesn’t mean that there aren’t just as many girls who want to be in on it…


      July 20, 2009 at 7:42 am

    • Specific example of the reverse: I’ve encountered more girls willing to be blatant ‘weeaboo’. I find both male and female weeaboo equally distasteful, but the girls dress like Japanese comic book/cartoon characters in everyday life, dye their hair to match, use poorly-pronounced-and-misused Japanese in english sentences…

      Guys tend to hide the comics they were just reading, or pretend ‘Yeah, I pretty much like that and Death Note…’

      Go back 10 years and that was reversed. Much of the material itself that made it to the US was pretty misogynistic, though (Dominion Tank Police, BubbleGum Crisis, Tenchi Muyo) Then stuff for kids came over, and then Gundam Wing(talk about a male minority in social group)… but now I’m veering.

      What I’m saying is that it’s an issue of stigma. Remove the stigma of being in that group and don’t actively exclude them and then things will either balance out or perhaps even flip.
      Once upon a time, programming was ‘women’s work’.


      July 20, 2009 at 7:53 am

  7. OK, the term “Chick” isn’t something that I would use personally, but I would say “Hunk” was a fair opposite term and I wouldn’t be offended by that in a similar context.

    I just worry that if the term “sexism” is attributed to every minor non-PC comment it’ll actually cause more damage because everyone will be scared something they say will be misconstrued.


    July 16, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    • Not sure where you are, but in the Twin Cities, ‘Chick’ is the opposite of ‘Dude’.
      Slang is weird, and INTENSELY unstable and regional.

      In Northern England ‘faggot’ is a food item, and ‘queer’ still means ‘strange and unusual’.

      In Japan, ‘doofus’ and ‘retard’ switch places between the two main regions…

      Basically, I’m agreeing with the principle of this comment, but not the specifics.

      Personally, I think people should stop being offended by words, and start paying attention to meanings again. People are so damned busy avoiding offending others they can’t even state anything without being ironic and saying the opposite of what they might possibly mean, just in case you like what they hate/hate what they like…

      MAN I’m an angry person…
      At least I have convictions.


      July 20, 2009 at 7:25 am

  8. I agree with you on the after work beer. Being a guy myself, I also feel exhausted of hearing always the same conversations about technology and geeky stuff. That’s why I tend to go out after conferences with people that talk about other stuff, not all in life is technology, even if we like it, there are lots of other stuff that are great to talk about.

    You see, you should have come to the GNOME Hispano dinner πŸ™‚ There were 30 people, so not sure about the kind of conversations all people had, but the conversations I was involved in (as the other nights with the GNOME Hispano crowd) were about lots of things (travels, skiing, cultural differences with the crazy Chileans, jokes, etc, etc). So next time, please join us after the conferences πŸ˜€

    Rodrigo Moya

    July 16, 2009 at 2:45 pm

  9. Can’t edit my previous comment, so sorry for adding one. Just wanted to say that the real problem with many geeks is precisely that the live, breathe, etc too much technology, and so they don’t go out with girls too often, and so, when they meet one, they just think in terms of “chicks”, “hot” and other stuff I can’t really write here πŸ™‚

    It was really nice to have at GCDS that hobbies lightning talks, hope it makes mega geeky people go out and find some nice hobby out of technology. I’m sure if we all got some free time away from technology once in a while and met some new people (girls included), part of the problem would just go away, since people would know how to behave in front of girls.

    Rodrigo Moya

    July 16, 2009 at 2:55 pm

  10. LACK OF AFTER-WORK BEER SPIRIT – […] Going to a pub for a beer and keep listening to conversations about CouchDB, GNOME Shell, Clutter, OpenGL, pro Mono rants, against Mono rants, etc. does not seem like a break for me.

    This isn’t just a gender thing.

    I’m male, and I can’t stand this about open source culture. I’ve quit jobs to escape these boring rants. Needless to say, the last thing I want to do is head out to a pub to discuss the latest VMs, etc.


    July 16, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    • Ever hang out with professional musicians? All they talk about is music, the latest gear, vintage gear, ‘wasn’t that musical trend funny?’…
      It’s a product of people with narrow interests(That is to say: geeks. All great guitarists are HUGE geeks. Most guitarists want that to stay a secret…) doing what they love for a living. They want to talk about it whether they’re getting paid or not.
      Hell, they’d be _doing it_ whether they were getting paid or not.

      I gotta tell you, this might not be the line of work for you. Find something you love, find a way to make money with it, do it until you don’t need to do it any more. This is totally possilble in any 1st-world country. Well, unless you really want to work in a factory…


      July 20, 2009 at 7:16 am

  11. By the end of the week I also tire of the geek conversation after “work”.

    What I did this time is spend a bunch of time on Friday by myself and just walking around enjoying the city – great way to recharge.


    July 16, 2009 at 3:54 pm

  12. “And, let’s face it, men are geekier than women.”
    Are you being facetious?
    If not, that’s just as sexist as anything else. It’s that kind of attitude that has non-lesbian tomboys ‘dressing up’ if they don’t want to, women who want to lose weight fail because they refuse to lift weights(“I don’t want to look like a guy” “You won’t.” *she looks as weights like a live eel and walks away*) and so on. Spreading any pre-concieved notion, no matter how statistically accurate at the moment is truly harmful. Well, unless it’s something like “Don’t go to North Minneapolis, or you will be killed.” I’ve known girls who were geeks in every way but outward appearance and initial action/conversation. And that’s just the ones brave enough to admit it at all. The only acception is weeaboo girls, but they have no social graces whatsoever.

    I read L.M. Montgomery, but I’m a kind of a ‘tough’ (to use dated slang) in other ways. I need to have a long conversation similar to this comment every time I say ‘I love that movie/book/comic book’. Totally annoying.
    I’ve had girls think I’m totally gay because I’m straigtforward, but still nice. I’ve had guys think I’m not interested because I don’t watch LOGO. The fact is I don’t care about gender, and I want all gender-based generalisations to go out the window, and let fashion be called fashion.
    Shit, I want gender to go out the window…

    In any case, I hope you were joking, and I know this post was insanely long.


    July 16, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    • You’re right. I said I wasn’t going to generalize at the beginning of the post, and I did with that sentence. I apologize.

      Ara Pulido

      July 20, 2009 at 6:28 am

  13. Wow this blog is really on fire. Again I don’t consider my remarks sexist at least I did not mean them in a sexist way and for that I apologized. I was kinda stating the fact that one does not encounter a lot of *geeky chics* (still don’t consider it sexist) in a retarded way (I am entitled to my stupid opinion). Yet again what I think is funny is that we are talking sexism here and somehow people try to make it sound less harmful by blaming it on cultures. Now is this not racist. On another thought why is it not considered sexist that more women work in beautyshops than men. And I still stand to the observation that women in barcelona are hotter than gran canaria! :p

    Seif Lotfy

    July 16, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    • Seif, I’ve met you and I think I can say you were not doing a sexist comment and that you are much more clever than that, but some girls have to hear this kind of comments several times, which is what upsets them, I think.

      And yes, I agree with you, women in Barcelona are much more beautiful than in Gran Canaria πŸ˜€

      Rodrigo Moya

      July 16, 2009 at 4:58 pm

      • Aaarrrggghhh…


        July 18, 2009 at 11:44 am

  14. […] Me in a FLOSS community « Let’s test Ubuntu NOW! […]

  15. This blog post provides many logical arguments – of why men and women are not equal! in life or free software!

    Of course only a woman defending her gender could be politically correct as she says such things. I feel the need to stay anonymous, as everyone saying the emperor has no clothes gets stoned, even by otherwise good people.


    July 16, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    • “I feel the need to stay anonymous, as everyone saying the emperor has no clothes gets stoned, even by otherwise good people.”
      The same attitude that kept women from speaking out, incidentally.
      The attitude of the ‘good people’ throwing stones.
      Also why people watch murders and allow people with box cutters to hijack anything more than a minivan.

      “Hey, I don’t wanna be the first one to say anything! People might give me funny looks! Let’s go to A&F after this! That’s still where people shop when they want to be the same as other people that want to be the same as *infinite recursion*”

      People that stand by while bad things happen, then once it’s over talk about how horrible it is truly sicken me.
      If one teacher’s assistant had had the guts to stand up to a teacher they worked with, rather than ask to be re-assigned I might not have PTSD.

      You are a gutless snake.
      Stand up for your beliefs without hiding, or your statements are meaningless.


      July 20, 2009 at 7:07 am

  16. A week ago webchick (current Drupal co-maintainer) shared an excellent presentation on the same topic, you may want to have a look at it: http://www.webchick.net/presentations/women-in-open-source-owv-09


    July 18, 2009 at 1:05 am

  17. I’m not sure that I understand your comment about “all-night hacking”. Are you referring to the fact that perhaps 95% (or more) of free software hackers are male? Or were you saying something else?


    July 18, 2009 at 9:06 am

    • I meant that it is not common that women want to spend all night in front of a computer. I don’t know why, as I am not a sociologist, but it is normally less likely.

      Ara Pulido

      July 20, 2009 at 6:16 am

      • Or perhaps they just don’t want people to know that they do it, for fear of stigma.
        Won’t know until the stigma is gone.

        I’m just sayin’…


        July 20, 2009 at 6:56 am

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