So not even 3 months out from RMS's sexist Gran Canaria “virgins” remarks, we have another powerful leader in the Free Software Community making sexist remarks in a talk to developers (this time, it's Mark Shuttleworth). It's a shame that these two people have said stupid things that hurt their causes and their communities by perpetuating an unfriendly environment for women. And it's a bigger shame that neither leader appears to care enough about their community to issue a sincere public apology for their screwup (if i'm wrong about this, please point me to the apology — i've looked).
These guys are in a situation which is nowhere near as hard as writing good software or managing complex technical projects: if you make a stupid mistake, own up to it, apologize, and try not to make similar mistakes in the future.
Perhaps worst of all, are the remarkable number of unreasonably fucked-up comments on the blog posts discussing these unfortunate events. If you're in the habit of defending remarks like those made by RMS and Shuttleworth on the 'net, please take a minute and ask yourself a few questions:
- Do you think that the Free Software community today is overwhelmingly male (even by the standards of the male-dominated IT industry)? If not, thanks for playing. You are living in a fantasy world. Try some basic research.
Do you think that the significant under-representation of women is a problem? Let's say there are about three answers here:
- Gender disparity in Free Software is a Good Thing
- If this is your position, please announce it explicitly so we all know. Just so you know: I don't want to be part of your all-boys club. You can stop these questions now, sorry to have bothered you.
- I don't really care about gender disparity in Free Software one way or the other
- You may not care; but a significant subset of the Free Software community thinks that it's a problem and would like to address it. Please keep this in mind as you go to the next question. Also, have you thought much about the idea of privilege and how it might apply to your situation?
- I think gender disparity in Free Software is probably a Bad Thing
- Great, glad we agree on that.
People in our community have a problem with the current state of affairs, and point out some specific behavior that makes the bad situation worse. What should you do?
- Shout them down or attack them
- Gee, it sure is upsetting to hear people talk about problems in the community. It's almost as upsetting as getting bug reports about problems in our software. Shall we shout them down too? Maybe we should attack them! Condescension is also great. Those silly bug reporters!
- Argue them out of having a problem
- This just doesn't work very well. Someone has already volunteered to tell you about a problem that you hadn't noticed. You are unlikely to convince them that they were imagining things.
- Take them seriously
- Yes! It seems to be surprising to some commentators that this is not a witch hunt or a lynch mob (interesting that these terms often-used in defense of white men connote specific historical traditions of the exercise of male privilege and white privilege, respectively). Well-meaning people have respectfully raised good-faith concerns about the state of our community, and made very simple suggestions about what to do to make the community more welcoming to women: lay off the sexist remarks at conferences, apologize when some nonsense does slip through — we're all struggling with various kinds of internalized oppression, you won't be perfect — and try not to do it again. Why not listen to these people? Why not support them?
Please read the Geek Feminism wiki and blog. Even if you don't agree with everything on those sites (hey, it's a wiki! and a blog! you don't have to agree with everything!), people are at least trying to address the problem of sexism in our community there. Engage constructively and don't hide or ignore problems!
UPDATE: I've asked the site admin to remove some trollish comments. If you want to use the comments on this blog to announce something like "i'd like for free software to be a boys-only club", that's fine, i'd like to know who you are so i can adjust my perception of you accordingly. Anything advocating or excusing rape and/or murder is way over the line and is not welcome here. i'm sure you can find some other place to troll.
Tags: community, conduct, feminism, free software, sexism