Responding Sanely to Sexism in FOSS

by Ostatic Staff - Oct. 14, 2009

I've been watching the latest kerfuffle about sexism in the FOSS community with a combination of concern and dismay. Concern, because it's an issue I care deeply about and dismay because both sides are so busy screaming at each other, no one is stopping to listen. Instead of bickering, where are the actionable steps people can take to educate each other about how to get along in a community where everyone's end goal -- the advancement of free software -- is ultimately the same?

Although I do not work in the FOSS development community, my profession gives me the opportunity to observe its ecosystem from a broader standpoint and I've been watching this issue evolve from both sides. That said, as a card-carrying member of the larger geek community, I have been been on the receiving end of sexist remarks about my advanced technical aptitude that have left me literally speechless.

Outside of the FOSS community, I'm intimately familiar with sexism, misogynistic behavior, and the alpha-male personality as a whole. I used to work as a firefighter/paramedic in the midwest and, in case women in FOSS think they have the market cornered in exposure to sexist and obnoxious behavior, let me assure you it's alive and well in many other professions.

I loved being a firefighter and it was family obligations that caused me to return to my writing roots, not the sexist atmosphere. In fact, I learned quite a lot from working in that environment and had very candid, open conversations with many of my colleagues to help me understand the situation and my role in what I could do to improve it.

With the extended exposure I've had to working in professions that seem to exude more than a whiff of sexism, I've learned a thing or two more about the issue and what women can do to help change things for the better. The number one thing I discovered is that most men are just as flummoxed about how to conduct themselves when a woman turns up in a male-dominated environment as women are to be there in the first place.

I'm going to say something very unpopular, but at least give the thought some consideration before unleashing the pitchfork-weilding angry mob. Women need to stand down a little and stop getting so bent out of shape over every damn comment someone makes. Meshing genders in a collaborative environment like FOSS is a work-in-progress and it's not a well-oiled machine just yet. Taking physical intimidation or abuse out of the equation, I'm a firm believer that taking umbrage at every perceived slight is not the way to change things. Instead, it's helpful to take a look at the motivation behind the comments we don't like.

People who make sexist remarks fall into one of two categories: social clods or bullies. Neither deserves a free pass, but berating either type of offender accomplishes nothing, and here's why.

Let's start with the social clod who tells a woman that her presence at a FOSS conference "really dresses up the place." Chances are, the guy honestly meant it as a compliment and no offense was intended. Sure, it's hard to be noticed for something superficial instead of important skills you worked hard to cultivate, but that doesn't detract from the intent of the comment -- it was intended as a compliment. There's no harm in tactfully responding that you're there to contribute your skills to the community but jumping down someone's throat for an innocent mistake achieves little, if anything.

Bullies, on the other hand, require a different approach. These are the types of community members who delight in making derogatory remarks to prove themselves. Pay careful attention the next time you meet someone like this because you'll probably discover they're just as obnoxious to the other men around them, just in different ways. I've yet to meet a person who was openly misogynistic who wasn't also equally as off-putting to most men, but for other reasons. A tool is a tool. The proper response to these types of situations is «em»not«/em» to flip out and "show them what-for." You'll simply confirm their twisted beliefs and give them more ammunition. Don't engage these people. It's schoolyard-bullying 101, but you grew up and they didn't so be the bigger person and walk away.

Before anyone jumps all over me for suggesting women "just accept things the way they are," or run away instead of standing your ground, let me assure you that I am not saying that. Instead I'm recommending two things.

First, consider each interaction and respond accordingly. Don't just decide that from now on anytime you feel you've been a victim of sexism you're going to let the offender have it with both barrels. Instead, assess each situation individually and decide what approach is likely to have the most effect. Being kind -- or at least neutral -- to someone who offends you is not a form of weakness, it's a form of humanity and class.

Second, aim to change a single person at a time, not an entire group. Find positive ways to effect change instead of flipping the hell out every time someone makes a slip of the tongue. Not every sling and arrow is designed to demean an entire class of humans on this planet. Sometimes people have off days. Sometimes people make genuine mistakes.

The bottom line is that no one should ever have to be humiliated, degraded, or condescended to in any social situation. The fact is, however, not everyone has the social graces and manners that it takes to avoid clumsy remarks. Then there are those that do have the ability and choose not to exercise self-restraint. Each requires a different response, and full-bore anger isn't appropriate for either one.

I'll never enjoy being handed a sexist remark in any setting, no matter what the intent. I don't think every situation should be turned into a crusade, though. It's a touchy situation for everyone, I get that. But that's all the more reason that we should think long and hard about the way we respond.

I am heartened at the amount of men in the FOSS community who consistently weigh in against sexism and actively stomp on those who give women a hard time. I think they deserve a lot of credit and are a great resource for helping us determine the best way to minimize misogynistic behavior within the community. Listen to them, they can and want to help, so let them.

Sexism in FOSS is not new news. I don't know when it will meet its long-overdue demise, but I do know it will happen eventually. It's going to take a long time and a lot of patience to turn this ship around but the willingness is there, I can see it in both genders within this community. Total acceptance won't happen overnight, but women are a lot more accepted now than they were in our grandparent's generation. Our daughters and granddaughters have a lot more acceptance to look forward to. Lets not cannibalize each other while we wait.