Friday, 18 November 2011 12:42

Women in FOSS: men need to do more, says senior dev


A long-time member of the FOSS community believes that men need to do much more about increasing the participation of women in the community and improving their experience of being part of the community.

Russell Coker (pictured), a Debian developer and Linux consultant, told iTWire that some recent material he had noticed online indicated that when women spoke out about issues of discrimination, they tended to be attacked more than men who made similar statements.

The abysmally low numbers of women in the FOSS community have been a matter of concern for some time now, with a number of sexist incidents at various conferences over the last two years adding to the focus on the issue.

What focused Russell's attention on the issue recently were an article on the website of the Melbourne newspaper, The Age, about the abusive misogyny of anonymous posters online, and a blog post at the GeekFeminism wiki which detailed the writer's treatment because she spoke out about discrimination against women.
Russell Coker
"It seems to me that when problems are caused by men and the cost of advocating solutions to the problems is lower for men than for women, there is no possibility for decent men to stand on the sidelines," he said.

He cited the so-called Lucifer Effect, a term created by Philip Zimbardo who is known for the prison experiment he conducted that turned ordinary men into quite savage beings when they were asked to act as jailers.

"The 'Lucifer Effect' makes average people do bad things. I think that we need changes in social norms to reduce these problems," he said.

Russell said he was particularly exercised about the discrimination against women in the IT field in general and in the FOSS community in particular because, "I am not aware of any other form of discrimination which is as widespread in my community and which gets so little attention".

He said the article on the Age website had caught his attention because, "I think it's noteworthy for the mainstream media to publish an article about this topic. When The Age publishes an article it gets a lot of attention from a wide range of people. While anyone could have read websites such as and learned about the issue in greater depth some time ago there are a lot of people who would never read such a site who read The Age".


Russell said he had seen quite a few discussions about the treatment of women in the IT industry and they usually seemed to feature men saying, "I've never seen any discrimination so I don't think it exists".

He said: "I think that in many cases men just don't notice things as being wrong. There are things that I observed in the past which I didn't recognise as a problem at the time but which are obviously problems now that I know more.  For example, there's the issue of conference T-shirts - a recent article explained the issue really clearly. Prior to reading that article I hadn't realised the importance of the issue or what needs to be done to avoid marginalising women in this regard.

"Providing evidence of problems occurring should help to convince people that it's something that could happen in their area and therefore it's something that they should watch for, and try to prevent."

Russell said he had plenty of personal and anecdotal evidence of discrimination. "Things that I have witnessed in the non-FOSS IT world include an IT manager encouraging junior employees to look up women's dresses at the company Christmas party; an IT manager asking two identical twin female employees whether they had ever 'shared a man'; and lots of sexist jokes, which, according to psychological research, do affect attitudes towards minority groups of changing status.

He said he had been told of an incident of hard-core lesbian porn being installed as the desktop background on the computer of the most conservative woman in an office, in order to offend her. "In this case the HR manager, a woman, was not permitted to do anything about the situation until after the victim's husband had a hostile meeting with the owner of the company. The fact that all the female employees of that company were ignored until a man got involved says a lot."

In the FOSS community, Russell said he had once witnessed a photographer asking for permission to photograph a woman at a conference who was using a laptop (nothing unusual for an IT conferences). "When she refused permission the photographer argued with her and then said 'you are beautiful, I will photograph you anyway'. He published the picture on the net."

He was of the opinion that this did not indicate that the IT sector or the FOSS community was any worse than the general community. "It does show that the FOSS community needs to improve and I don't think that the issue of whether our community is better or worse than the general society is relevant," he said.

"It's probably worth noting that while the FOSS community seems better than the general IT industry based on what I have personally witnessed I don't think that this means that the FOSS community is any better.  My observations are anecdotes not a survey, they disprove all claims that women are treated equally but don't prove anything else. Also note that I only listed a random sampling of anecdotes, I could list many more."


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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