Just say “NO” to RTFM or why there aren’t more women in open source?

This is loosely related to libraries, but it is related to FOSS [free and open source software] which many libraries are using or contemplating. One of the things that is consistently stressed as a benefit of open source stuff is that when you pay for people to work on your software, you are hiring talent, not paying for licenses at giant megacorporations. For some of us, this is an unqualified good thing. However, compared to megacorporation software projects, there are many fewer women working on open source projects.

Some of this has to do with the nature of the open source community, some of it has to do with technology generally. When my little video got a ton of views on YouTube, I sort of made a joke that I would know it was a success when the marriage proposals started trickling in. Other non-techies looked at me strangely when I said this, but sure enough when you look at the comments, you’ll see it. I find it all pretty amusing and not some sort of “evidence” of any sort of sexism, but I do think it points out that a woman with even a passing competency in this areana [and I’m techie but nothing like, say, Karen Coombs] is such an anomaly that people just stop and stare. I’d like more nerdy lady friends who do this sort of stuff, so I’ve been reading up on it. I found a few good things to read and I’d like to share them with you.

15 thoughts on “Just say “NO” to RTFM or why there aren’t more women in open source?

  1. This is very interesting stuff. My background is all software development in the corporate world.. with some recent exploration into WordPress customization for my blog (but as user, not as a contributor). I just posted a review of the book Dreaming in Code last night. It specifically is looking at a team focused on Open Source development – and includes some interesting sections that talk about gender issues and work styles of the team members being profiled. I suspect you would enjoy it!

  2. I believe that many free software developers are reasonable about this and willing to bring the sexists in line, but are demotivated from doing so by creation of sexist women-only Affirmative Action projects, like the LinuxChix mentioned in the first HOWTO above.

    Fight for equal opportunity, not for equal discrimination.

  3. How is having a hobby group for women interested in Linux some sort of affirmative action project, or sexist for that matter? There are tons of social groups that cater towards one gender or another (boy scouts?) and there’s nothing sexist about that.

  4. I get so tired of hearing that. First of all, I don’t want to “fight” and suggesting this is a fight means the point really is sadly missed.

    Fact: We have such an EXTREMELY low percent of women participating in open source. We hear women say they are afraid, intimidated, worried about posting in open source forums; some pose as men so that they get answers to questions and respect. It sounds like 18th Century English Literature, not the Day of the Internet.

    This is a problem.

    If you believe, like I do, that women also bring gifts and you look at our open source projects, it’s not difficult to come to the conclusion that “Hey! We could use some of that!”

    Of course we should try to figure out why we have this problem that prevents participation of an important segment of our population and fix it! Think Raymond – interesting problem to solve. Some of us find this to be so! It’s scratching our itch, baby!

    What makes this non-sexist is this: if we found men were not participating, then it would make the same kind of sense to take steps towards figuring out why that is happening and fix it.

    This is not sexist at all. Dealing openly and honestly with this condition is being responsive to a real community issue. As it turns out, we need a diverse community in order to get the work done. We need one another, men *and* women alike.

  5. at first i wondered “why does RTFM comments turn away women and not men”, but in my experience the problem is women are far more likely to be told to RTFM, when asking questions. We have to fight to prove we’re technical, and not “just a user”.
    besides, if the FM was any good (or easy to find) I wouldn’t have needed to ask.

  6. Check out Carnegie Mellon’s Women@SCS (SCS = School of Computer Sciences). It has one of the best explanations I’ve seen about why women-centric computer science groups are necessary and positive. Carnegie Mellon looked at its enrollment numbers around 2002 or so and realized that it had a pathetically small number of women enrolling in CS and engineering. So, explorations were done, and revealed a sort of ‘boys club’ in existence. Nothing malicious, but when a bunch of guys live together and all study CS, they tend to stay up late together, study together, share notes, share ideas. Females in the program found it difficult to break into this club. And, while the guys may be more than willing to invite a female in, not every female is comfortable being the only girl in a room full of 18-22 year old guys. And, frankly, not every guy is willing to invite a female in (or admit that she may be of equal or greater ability).

    Groups like LinuxChix and Women@SCS exist for a very simple reason: welcoming and fostering women’s involvement in computing in a time when participation is very low, and sexist ideas still run rampant. I imagine that once there is more equal participation, and once some ridiculous, antiquated ideas about women’s abilities die (please die, bad ideas, please?), these groups will become obsolete. Until then, rock on!

    Heather Y.
    Soon-to-be database and server admin, in delicious open source glory

  7. I’ve been on the less techie end of the spectrum – old school FPS gamer. And there were some truly horrific LANs that made me want to quit. And eventually I did. There are only so many times you can take the sexually degrading humour ‘kindly’ and look away in one day. There are only so many times you can deal with the harrassment before the thought of being the only girl (and very obviously a girl) in a room full of a hundred men who think nothing of using sexually violent ‘humour’ or even just assuming I know nothing.

    Like I explained to someone – what kind of stupidity does it take to ask someone sitting in front of a computer, at a lan, with CS open, “oh hey, are you here to play or just dropping someone off?”. It isn’t malicious, it’s just stupid and irritating. CS (the other kind) was just as bad, particularly when they were threatened by the LibSci management forcing all of the LibSci students into Masters level programming courses with the Masters level CS grads. Even the girls clammed up and blocked us out.

  8. Jessamyn, I am a relatively new library student, and a part-time library techie. In my first career I was an embedded software developer and tester. I have been using Open Office for some time, but it wasn’t until I saw your video a couple of weeks ago that I was inspired to do likewise to a donated computer that I recently received. I’m still waiting for the additional memory that will allow me to install Ubuntu, but meanwhile I have been experimenting with nearly a dozen other Linux distros. Boy, does this bring back memories! I doubt that I will ever get involved in Linux code development–I’ve left that behind–but I will certainly be an open source evangelist to anyone who will listen. In particular, I would like to see my library’s consortium migrate to an open source ILS such as Koha or Evergreen. The “Microsoft tax” is pretty light compared to the proprietary ILS tax.

  9. MJ, let’s just say for the sake of argument that things like “LinuxChix” are bad ideas, and maybe even ‘sexist’ themselves. (I don’t personally believe that, but just for the sake of argument).

    I don’t get it, how could you POSSIBLY let that
    “de-motivate” you from “bringing sexists in line”? What, some women do something that you think is a bad idea or even unethical, so you decide that all women should be attacked, or that now you like sexism? I think maybe you were never that motivated in the first place.

  10. FLOSSpols has some interesting reports on gender and open source, including a list of policy suggestions for improving gender balance.

    I’m very interested in contributing to open source projects, but I lack the technical expertise to move beyond writing documentation, and I admit I’ve been a little overwhelmed wondering where to start. To me, the most productive way to address the issue of gender inequality in open source development would be to have a tangible and focused project to start with. How awesome would it be if a crew of knowledgeable people organized something like 5 Weeks to a Social Library, but structured it around contributing to an open source library project like koha and geared it explicitly toward being supportive toward women and other underrepresented folks in the open source world?

  11. Jessamyn: I typed a long reply to this, but forgot about your spam word check. When people submit comments and forget to enter something in that field, the browser forgets what you had previously written. This is very frustrating. You are probably losing comments because of this.

  12. Over half the students in our inaugural class Intro to Applied Technology for our graduate Certificate In Digital Information Management program at the University of Arizona are female. In this class, we have students learn Linux and actually bring up and configure their own a LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) server. We were very pleased to see such a high enrollment of women as well a number of students falling into the underserved/minority categories, which are also significantly underrepresented in tech. I hope to see this trend (if it is one) continue.

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