It’s not about not offending

When talking about women in free software or political correctness in general, we seem to focus on saying things that "don't offend" the minority group. But that's not what it's about. It's about saying things that encourage people to join your group, that send the right message and represent our values. While not saying things that send them away. The focus should be on making the message welcoming, not on making the message "not offending."

Showing a woman in a bikini in your ad may not offend any women, but will it encourage them to join your project? If you are looking to bring women to your project, not showing the woman in a bikini is the first step. The next step – and the much harder one – is figuring out what to do to show them they are welcome.

It's not about not offending, it's about understanding, encouraging, relating, being welcoming.

There are a lot of groups that I'm not part of. Most of them have not offended me. I just don't feel any pull to join them.

An example of this would be Amazon and the Kindle. One of the Kindle's biggest customer groups is women. And Amazon shows lots of women in its Kindle ads. They are all lying on the beach or by the pool relaxing. The women I know that use Kindles use them after their kids go to bed or in doctors' offices or while waiting at their kid's soccer practice. Amazon is missing a chance to connect to those women.

Where are we missing the chance to connect and encourage groups to participate?

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33 Replies to “It’s not about not offending”

  1. Could there be less women in OSS because there are less women in IT?
    I am just speaking from my own experience in two different IT courses in two different colleges, there was one female out of about 40 males in each course.
    Now take into account that most of those 40 students will not be interested in making open source software and it seems to be somewhat understandable to me that there would be less women in OSS.
    I don’t really like the term feminist, I prefer humanitarianism. For the concept of feminism and equal rights to actually work there must be a counter balance, this is why I think humanitarianism is the proper way to go.
    I also think the issue you raise is a valid one but lets not dedicate this to OSS alone, the males in the IT courses with fewer women should apply the same principals to make everyone feel welcome.
    I wouldn’t see myself as sexist in any way and I tend to have a habit of excluding lots of people around me until they interest me in some way. Should I treat women differently, is that not in itself sexist?
    The whole subject confuses me but one thing I think is important to do is for people blogging on aggregations like planet gnome to stop identifying it as an OSS problem and start thinking broader.
    Its giving OSS a bad name(journalists listen to debates like these closely) by applying it all the blame when it should be equally distributed across Information Technology.

  2. There are less women in open source software than there are in IT and
    programming jobs.
    However, it is definitely a much bigger problem than just free software.
    There are substantially less women than men interested in math and science
    in high school, less women studying computer science at the university
    level, still fewer employed in IT fields, etc.
    If we want women involved in open source software, we can’t focus on whose
    fault it is that they are not here (unless it helps us understand how to
    encourage them to join.) We need to focus on encouraging them to join.
    My personal interest in this is two fold: 1) I think there are a lot of
    women who would enjoy careers in free software. 2) I think we are missing
    out on a lot of talented resources!

  3. From the statistics I’ve seen, there are fewer women in OSS than there are in IT at large, proportionally. That’s distressing.
    Treat _each_ person appropriately. Avoid sexism by getting to know individuals, don’t typecast them. Treating people based on their group membership is something-ist, whichever ism of the moment. Not always bad — sometimes we really like our groups — but more often, the fact that we’re women (Or queer, or non-English-first-language, or non-US or non-UK) isn’t actually the issue. Are we welcomed? Are people aware of us at all?
    It /is/ an open source problem. The reactions I get are much more dramatic in open source than they are in the IT industry at large. I get a few raised eyebrows when I tell people I’m a programmer, rather than a designer or a tech support person, but it’s not extreme, it’s not putting me off.
    However, the reception I get in open source has often been the “OMG A GIRL!?” that it’s difficult to get involved. I’ve reacted by getting really good at showing off technical proficiency first and letting people find out I’m a girl afterward. Not everyone can pull that off — polishing a patch until it shines, slipping things under the radar, getting people used to seeing my contributions first.
    It’s amusing that the two things that have got everyone in an uproar aren’t the things that’d put me off. It’s pervasive, it’s often a matter of suddenly being an object of sexual attraction, or the subject of a conversation about women in open source. It’s always being an example, it’s being more sensitive to the abuses we quite often have heaped on each other, and calling them out.

  4. i’ve found that, to start fixing our “white male hetero geeks only” thing we got going on in open source, it helps to *invite* people who don’t fit that profile.
    explicitly say: “hey you, geeky maori lady at the next table with the android phone and 300 piercings, there’s a open source in government barcamp this weekend, we’d love if you attended to share your opinions”. (though you should probably introduce yourself and use her name in that sentence instead of the description)
    This really does work. Shocking really, that people actually like being invited.

  5. I think we have a male problem, but not a male hetero problem.. In my experience, there is about the same proportion of gays in open source as in the general population (about 10%).. Most people probably don’t know they’re gay, but they wouldn’t know in another context either. And in general, I find the FOSS communities to be very LGBT friendly (see Davyd->Danielle Madeley’s recent transition, almost everyone was very supportive).

  6. I agree. It helps to invite people (not just women) or to point out you
    think they’d give a great talk on their project. Usually people either
    haven’t thought of it or don’t feel they know enough. Having someone else
    suggest that they give a talk or attend a conference (and that the talk or
    attendance would be appreciated), makes them much more likely to attend.

  7. I would agree that I always feel like I’m being an example. If I goof, I
    feel (right or wrong) that it will reflect on all women in open source.

  8. Perhaps it’s because it’s harder to hide being a woman at first? The first
    impression includes being a woman. I don’t know … but it’s a good point.

  9. > Could there be less women in OSS because there are less women in IT?
    No. There are 20-30% women as software engineers in IT, and 1.5% women as engineers (or just participants, even) in free software projects. You’d know about this if you’d read the FLOSSPOLS report (, which explains the situation very well.
    > Its giving OSS a bad name(journalists listen to debates like these closely) by applying it all the blame when it should be equally distributed across Information Technology.
    Except it shouldn’t.
    – Chris.

  10. So, I think this is because there are significant trends (such as teenage girls getting their first personal computer several years later than teenage boys, on average) that dissuade women from making a career out of computers — I knew what I wanted to do by the time I was 16, and it’s common for a woman to not have their own computer by that age.
    This would be one explanation for why gay men, or women that have transitioned from growing up as a man, are unaffected by that particular social pressure.
    – Chris.

  11. Nice post Stormy!
    I disagree with the basic premise you make, though: I think it is about not being offensive, sometimes. Communities which tolerate the kind of thing which drives people away tend also to attract people attracted by those things. Beach babes may not welcome women, but they sure pull in the adolescent male loners with social problems.
    In some sense, this is self fulfilling prophecy: when you see someone defend a post with “no-one minds”, the chances are that after a while, no-one will, because all the people who did will be elsewhere, and not looking at you any more.
    I think the goal is to have a community of people who value the feelings of others, and who aren’t sexist, racist or otherwise hateful. In the meantime, the best way to get there is to get the people who are sexist, racist or otherwise hateful to keep quiet about it, until they either learn better or get sufficiently pissed off with being told not to say what they think that they go elsewhere.

  12. The breakdown of involvement types for the global “IT Industry” and FOSS involvement won’t be in sync. Basically I imagine (no facts or figures to back this up – pure conjecture) that there are proportionally more people hacking in FOSS than in the IT industry at large (and the corollary: not enough people involved in the other facets). I would be interested to see an attempt at a breakdown like this and a look at the relative proportion of women in IT vs. FOSS involvement per-facet. I suspect it will show the gender inequality being more closely correlated with facet than FOSS.

  13. I’ve not noticed a sexuality inequality either. I seem to encounter more variety in this via my F/OSS involvement than most other aspects of my life (physical or net-based)

  14. That’s a good point.
    I decided I loved computers around the age of 8 when I first saw an Apple
    IIe. (I thought it was really cool what they could do.) Looking back, I
    don’t remember any of my girl friends feeling the same way.
    I don’t think I decided that it could be a career until late high school

  15. Good post. I like how you gave specific examples about how people can say
    things more specifically by not using the word “offend”.

  16. That’s interesting – are there people in FOSS or more people in IT?
    I think percentage wise there are more women in IT than FOSS, but I’m not
    sure what you mean by per-facet.

  17. And that surprised me at first. I think it’s awesome (That there’s less
    discrimination around sexual orientation.) but it surprised me. (And I guess
    I can’t say that there’s less discrimination, just that it appears that
    people are more open and accepting.)

  18. Finely slicing the statistics wanders a bit off the point. A quick glance at the numbers is useful in a “wake-up call” sort of way, but whether the FOSSiverse has half as many or twice as many women (or men, or gays, or prong-horned antelope) as the general IT community (or national population, or society of coffee drinkers) is nowhere near as important as what we do to welcome people in.
    Social tribing seems to have two phases. In the “exclusion” phase, we talk about the differences (like the xkcd linked above). In the “inclusion” phase, we talk about the unique, interesting personalities and contributions. Still “differences”; different response.

  19. No one ever welcomed me into the FOSS world (I’m a guy). I fought for my own recognition and reputation against egocentric mailing-list mavens, jerkwad conference presenters, and all the petty cliquiness that happens when you’re an outsider who wants in.
    It takes effort and a really thick skin to join a FOSS project. Just read LKML some time.
    I guess I’m just getting really tired of reading posts about how FOSS makes it hard for women to join. FOSS projects are hard for *anyone* to join, regardless of sex.
    I don’t actually care that there aren’t as many women as men in Open Source, and I don’t think it matters at all. If women wanted to be here, they’d be here – when you want something, you put up with the crap and go get it, no matter what.
    Blatant rudeness, injustice, brag or abuse should not be tolerated by FOSS communities. In most it’s not. But these are human groups, and people make mistakes and have egos. Some of the smartest people I know are complete assholes – to EVERYONE, including me – but boy do they ever contribute.
    People gravitate to communities they enjoy working in. If rude, abusive communities that get things done were truly not workable, they would wither and die.

  20. Then why are only 1.5% of FOSS projects women? I’m not buying the “because
    women don’t want to join” – I like working in the software word too much to
    buy that it’s a job only men would enjoy.

  21. Brilliant.
    One of the struggles I have in coordinating the Diversity in Open Source Workshop for this weekend’s Ohio LinuxFest is getting people to understand that it’s not simply about gender, or race, or identity. It’s “How would you feel if you were the only person who looked different than everyone else in the room.”
    The common response to this is that it has no relation to online groups. Except it does. Those who don’t speak English well are talked down to or treated as stupid, instead of someone reaching out a hand to say, “I understand English isn’t your first language, please help me try to understand you.” People with foreign-sounding names are expected to have similar difficulties. And of course, women are expected to simply not understand anything technical. {A friend, a 10+ yr sysadmin, once went to a technical Linux IRC channel only to be told to “go install Ubuntu, it’ll be easier for you to understand.”)
    It’s not affirmative action. Nobody is demanding that N% of something be XYZ type of people. But if people don’t feel welcome in a project they’re just not going to get involved. And that’s a loss to both them AND the project.

  22. Some think I used to hear a lot – and I really think people meant it as a
    compliment – was “You don’t look like an engineer.” Either I now look like a
    manager or people have gotten a clue or something.

  23. Since I’ve been brought up, I wanted to share my thoughts.
    I’ve often wondered, if I had been born cisgendered, would I still have developed the same interest in computers?
    I was first exposed to PCs very early on, Dad worked as a PC technician and he and Mum purchased a computer so that she could word process her second degree (this is back when most people were typewriting or handwriting their assignments). It was Dad who taught me the basics of programming, and how to put a computer together, about computer networks and how to debug problems. I made friends with the other computer nerd in my year at primary school (a boy). We learnt a lot together.
    If I had been born female, would my Dad and my teachers have devoted so much time to reinforcing my technical, mathematical and reasoning skills. I’ve thought about this a lot but I don’t have an answer. Maybe I would have gone into a more pure science (like Mum). I also wonder whether my (crucial) friendship with that young boy would have flourished.
    I feel that being perceived as male made my entry into free software and professional programming much, much easier. I don’t think I was required to prove myself nearly as much as I might otherwise have. Although I don’t really feel qualified to comment on this yet, wait until my worth is judged by someone not aware of my gender history.
    I’ve joked that I became a FOSS woman the “easy way” and while I was terrified about coming out via my blog, everyone was really awesome. Something for which I’m really grateful.
    Finally, I wanted to share this page from Tim Chevalier, which I found both enlightening and terrifying:

  24. Thanks for sharing your story and the list.
    I definitely wouldn’t have ended up with this career if it hadn’t been for
    my dad. He also made sure I had the right to play football and be an
    altergirl. Neither of which I wanted to do. But I really appreciate now the
    fact that he made sure I knew I could do anything I wanted regardless of

  25. Stormy:
    I think the trend that women are “underrepresented” in STEM and open source is in fact a good one. Women are ruthlessly logical about the cost/benefits of career choices; perhaps it’s the legacy of getting paid 85 cents on the dollar re: old white men. Analytical women know that for all the rhetoric coming out of the fedgov, pc corporations and higher ed about the need for women in STEM, we (the US) as a culture reward 1) bankers who lie and hold contracts in disdain, 2) sports stars in fields related to balls and wheels, 3) rappers and folks who make movies, and 4) the occasional world-beating politico. If one is a single mom raising kids (statistically a pretty big chunk of the female demographic) one doesn’t have the luxury of being idealistic about the fields that have the potential to help society while they are being rightsized, offshored and down-salaried in order to bump C-Suite bonuses a microtad. When women in tech get the same comp as the good ol’ boys in the corner office or the bling of the entertainers then the climate will change. It’s all about transparency and incentives of the realeconomik sort.

  26. I agree that our traditional cultural roles influence what jobs we take. For
    example, the drop out rate of women in technology jobs is very high. I’ve
    heard that only 1/3 of new female computer science graduates still have jobs
    in computer science after 2 years. I think one of the reasons for this is
    that women are more likely to feel that it’s ok to give up a high paying or
    prestigious job if it’s terrible. Men often feel like they need to stick
    with it – not having a job means they are an irresponsible

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