Sexism debate

Just wanted to reprint and expand upon something I wrote as a comment on the Geek Feminism blog post about Mark Shuttleworth’s sexist comment. To preface – this isn’t particularly about Mark at all. It was a slip of the tongue, it happens to everyone, and when you make a little mistake you say sorry and everyone moves on. I just wanted to consider the wider issues around the topic. Here’s my comment:

Matthew: to me your comments seem a bit indicative of a kind of cognitive dissonance that’s happening whenever this topic comes up. It seems like, whenever the issue is raised in the abstract, there’s near-universal agreement. Everyone seems to agree that:

a) there’s very few women involved in F/OSS
b) that’s a bad thing
c) it’s probably due to sexism, of *some* kind – few people seem to think it’s intentional and malicious, but still sexism by any reasonable definition

So far, so good, everyone’s recognizing a problem and pointing in the same direction. However, whenever anyone tries to raise any _specific instance_ of the kind of sexism that, all the instances taken together, tends to exclude women from F/OSS, there seem to be people who say either ‘no, that’s not sexism, that’s just a guy speaking from experience / politically incorrect’ or ‘oh, come on, it’s just one little thing, don’t get so worked up!’, to paraphrase.

This just doesn’t add up. If you take that attitude at face value, apparently we all agree there’s sexism in F/OSS, it’s a bad thing both absolutely and in practical terms (it’s holding back F/OSS from being all it can be), and we should do something about it – but no actual practical instances of sexism really exist, or if they do, they’re so trivial that no-one should really get worked up about it.

How’s that going to work, then?

If we’re going to accept the big – yet paradoxically easy, because it’s abstract – proposition that sexism in F/OSS exists and should be tackled by people modifying their behaviour, we’re going to have to start actually listening when people start trying to point out exemplary instances of the kinds of behaviour that are problematic and need to be changed, rather than taking each example in isolation and trying to pick it apart or denigrate its individual significance.

To expand, there really is a lot of remarkably woolly thinking going on around this area. (Thinking that woolly would get very short shrift in any _other_ context in the F/OSS world, I suspect). To line up and knock down common variations on the theme:

i) Person X (who made sexist remark Y) isn’t sexist, so it’s no big deal

This is usually true, so far as it goes. I’ve encountered quite a few people in the community who find interacting with women awkward, but very few who seem overtly, maliciously sexist – who don’t think women are capable of F/OSS work and actively and consciously want to keep them away. However, that doesn’t justify the conclusion. People who aren’t sexist in this way say sexist things, and when that happens, the correct response isn’t just to ignore it and accept the consequences because they’re a ‘good guy’. We don’t do this in any other context, after all. If a smart person says a dumb thing, we don’t just let it go and accept whatever dumb consequences result because we don’t want to hurt their feelings. We call them out, and that’s exactly the way it should be. Smart Person makes a booboo, community says ‘you idiot, that’s dumb’, Smart Person says ‘whoops, yeah, I must’ve been on crack’, everyone moves on with their life. No drama, but the outcome is correct. Inadvertently making a sexist comment doesn’t make you sexist, and no-one’s saying it does. But by the same token, the correct response is not just to ignore it and carry on, but for others to point it out, and for the person who made the remark to say ‘whoops, uh, sorry, didn’t mean that’.

ii) Sexism isn’t the reason girls aren’t interested in F/OSS, so it’s not a problem

This is wrong for two reasons. One, the proposition is just factually very hard to defend. It’s pretty tough to support the suggestion that some facet of the biology which separates males from females means that females are…uh, my math foo is weak, but something like fifty times less likely to become interested in F/OSS (the statistic I’m working off is that 97-98% of F/OSS developers are male). It’s far more credible to assert that it’s not _purely_ sexism strictly within the F/OSS world itself which produces this result, but wider sociological factors – but so what? Sexism in F/OSS may only be a part, but that doesn’t make it not a problem. Even if we can’t solve the entire problem ourselves, that doesn’t exclude us from the responsibility to stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution.

Second, even if one were to grant that there’s some mysterious biological reason why female people are intrinsically less likely to be interested in F/OSS, that doesn’t justify or excuse sexism at all. It’s bad on its merits. It should never be accepted in any situation. The logic behind this assertion just doesn’t add up at all. It seems to require that this mysterious biological imperative is the _sole_ reason that only a tiny minority of women become involved in F/OSS, and therefore any instance of what appears to be sexism isn’t really sexism, or somehow – mysteriously – _is_ sexism but doesn’t actually discourage any women from becoming involved in F/OSS at all. Huh? I don’t see where that works.

iii) Female Person X wasn’t offended by the remark, so it wasn’t sexist

Uh, nope. Doesn’t follow. A sexist remark is not one that offends 100% of all women everywhere. That’s all you need to say, really, about this objection.

iv) I just don’t want to talk about this! can’t we go back to talking about ‘important technical stuff’?

It’s easy to have a degree of sympathy with this position. I’m kind of there myself; I know how much effort and energy it takes to be an activist on this kind of issue, and I just don’t have it myself. I’m not as diligent as I probably should be on picking this kind of thing up all the time. But…

there’s several problems here, again. One, I’m frankly suspicious of the unspoken attitudes inherent in the person who cares enough to make a comment saying they don’t care about an issue. That’s…a little inconsistent, right there. You care so little about sexism that you registered to post a comment about how little you care? hum.

Second, I think this comment often means ‘look, I’m really quite happy with the very male status quo, it’s all working out quite nicely for me. I’m happy to concede, in vague abstract terms, that perhaps there could be rather more women involved in F/OSS, but if it involves – heaven forfend! – me having to lift a finger or even just read about something a bit uncomfortable, well, that’s just not going to work for me, so please stop with your efforts to do something about the problem, I find it icky.’ I hope it’s self-evident why this is, frankly, the most spineless position of the lot.

Finally, this position also sometimes manifests itself as ‘I don’t want to read about this in Technical Form X’, where X is a mailing list or planet or IRC channel or whatever. To which I say, well where the hell is anyone supposed to talk about it? Are we supposed to create Planet Sexism Is Bad, Yo! and put all the posts there, where only people who are already interested will read them, and all the people whose attitudes we actually need to change can go right ahead and completely ignore them? What’s that going to achieve, then? How far would the civil rights movement have got if Martin Luther King had just sat around in a room with a bunch of other black people?

Martin Luther King: Man, racism sucks.
Second Guy: Yup. Yup, it sure does. What are we going to do about it?
MLK: We’re going to sit here and talk to each other about how much it sucks, that’s what we’re going to do!
Second Guy: Uh huh, that’ll work well.

Unless the issue is talked about _in the places where it’s causing trouble_, nothing is going to improve.

Final edit: in case all the above isn’t enough, just remember that if you reckon it’s all a bunch of silliness and everyone should just stop moaning and get on with it, you’re lining yourself up with good ol’ Sam Varghese. And let’s face it, that’s never a comfortable place to be. If I ever want to know what I think about something, I just look at what Sam thinks, and I can be pretty sure the diametric opposite is a good place to stand…

My personal experience is as an even more unusual minority in F/OSS than being a woman – I’m gay. (I’ve mentioned this before but I don’t really make a point of it, so some people probably don’t know). I can’t even recall anyone _else_ openly gay in the F/OSS community at all – I’m sure there are a few, but it’s a very very small number. I’ve not really been much bothered by this, but I think it’s because I’ve never seen F/OSS as a social venue for me, really. I like to do the work and contribute and I have fun interacting with many people in the F/OSS world on that level, but I don’t really make my personal friends from this world, the people I’d hang out with on weekends. I think it does serve that function for quite a lot of the straight male people involved, and I think it’s very unlikely to serve that function very well for lots of people – gay people and women included – as current attitudes stand. That’s an exclusionary factor, for those who like to combine their hobbies, enthusiasms or work life with their social life.

5 Responses

  1. Shamurai_bobby
    Shamurai_bobby September 26, 2009 at 3:31 am | | Reply

    It always surprise me when people comment some without even mentioning/citing original text.

    Some people has a hard time to get what it is about. Well, in according to wikipedia it might be:

    1. attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of sexual roles.
    2. discrimination or devaluation based on a person’s sex, as in restricted job opportunities; esp., such discrimination directed against women.
    3. Discrimination based on gender, especially discrimination against women.
    4. Attitudes, conditions, or behaviors that promote stereotyping of social roles based on gender.

    The belief that one sex (usually the male) is naturally superior to the other and should dominate most important areas of political, economic, and social life. Sexist discrimination in the United States in the past has denied opportunities to women in many spheres of activity. Many allege that it still does.

    The belief that one sex (usually the male) is naturally superior to the other and should dominate most important areas of political, economic, and social life.

    It sounds like Mark said something that some people treat as “denied opportunities to women in [FLOSS community]“.

    Of course, conversation isn’t about opportunities but about apology.

  2. dedanna1029
    dedanna1029 October 8, 2009 at 6:10 pm | | Reply

    Adam, this has got to be out of all of them (well except maybe the one about Linux Security), the best post I’ve ever seen you make. Thank you, so so much.

  3. A followup on the Shuttleworth incident | Geek Feminism Blog

    [...] Sexism debate by Adam Williamson, Redhat developer and QA community manager: If we’re going to accept the big — yet paradoxically easy, because it’s abstract — proposition that sexism in F/OSS exists and should be tackled by people modifying their behaviour, we’re going to have to start actually listening when people start trying to point out exemplary instances of the kinds of behaviour that are problematic and need to be changed, rather than taking each example in isolation and trying to pick it apart or denigrate its individual significance. [...]

  4. National Coming Out Day: LGBTQ geeks | Geek Feminism Blog

    [...] geeks, like women, are a minority in geek communities. AdamW mentioned it the other week in this post: My personal experience is as an even more unusual minority in F/OSS than being a woman [...]

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