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Who’s afraid of Ubuntu Women?

At the recent Ubuntu Developer Summit, there were three sessions held to discuss the future of the Ubuntu Women project. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the first two, because I didn’t realize the first one was happening, and I had a scheduling conflict for the second. The first session was video recorded, and hopefully the recording will be made available soon. While attending the third and final session, I tried to catch up on the earlier discussion as I listened to what was being said.

The first thing I noticed in the Gobby notes was a link to an existing roadmap for Ubuntu Women. I hadn’t seen that document before, and was encouraged to see that it included concrete, measurable goals for increasing the participation of women in Ubuntu. In particular, it presents a goal of increased representation in Ubuntu governing bodies, which I think is an important step in promoting gender diversity in the project. People want leaders they can identify with.

The next thing I found in the document was a list of goals. I asked about the relationship between the goals in Gobby and the ones in the wiki roadmap, and someone explained that the goals in the wiki were long term, while the ones in Gobby were short term (to be completed in the 6-month Lucid cycle).

There were about 25 people attending the session, and most of the talking was done by Amber Graner, Elizabeth Krumbach, Laura Czajkowski, Jono Bacon and Kurt von Finck. It was Friday afternoon, the last day of an intense week, and the energy level was fairly low. The focus seemed to be on reviewing the group’s objectives and agreeing who would take the next steps. The objectives were as follows:

Clarify the purpose of the #ubuntu-women channel

The group seemed to feel that there was confusion about what this IRC channel was for. A couple of men in the room said that they didn’t know whether they could or should join the channel, because it had the word “women” in the name.

The core of the issue seemed to be less about purpose than governance. The group was concerned about the fact that the channel was not publicly logged like most other Ubuntu channels, and that this gave the impression of it being a “fiefdom” within the community, or a place where people would “gossip”.

As far as I’m aware, there is at present no requirement that Ubuntu channels (official or unofficial) must be publicly logged, and there are many channels which are not. If this is considered to be a requirement for a healthy IRC community, then the Ubuntu IRC council would be in a good position to put forward such a policy. I don’t think I have enough experience in regulating IRC discussions to say whether this is the right thing to do, but it seemed a bit odd to me that this came up in the context of #ubuntu-women. It isn’t clear to me what problem this is meant to solve, and whether it is consistent with precedent (again, I’m not very familiar with IRC governance).

There was some confusion over why folks might not want the channel to be logged. Kurt suggested that if the conversation adhered to the Code of Conduct, there should be no reason not to publish it. I suggested that there were many occasions where a conversation might be appropriate to keep “off the record” while still following the code of conduct, and that these were separate issues (standards of behavior versus privacy).

The group’s agreed actions on this topic included agreeing and documenting guidelines for behavior in #ubuntu-women, and arranging for the conversations in the channel to be publicly recorded.

Create a safe space IRC channel

This objective seemed to acknowledge that something would be lost if the conversations in #ubuntu-women were made a matter of public record. The group therefore proposed the creation of a separate channel, which would still be logged, but only the Community Council would have access to the logs.

The reason for this seemed to be, again, the need to ensure regulation, and the concern that without oversight, channel participants would misbehave. While a safe space does require oversight in order to be maintained, the goal of involving the CC seemed to be general governance of behavior rather than the safety of women. The group seemed to acknowledge that this idea needed more work, and in particular wasn’t satisfied with the terminology of safe space.

The agreed actions were to create the new channel, document guidelines for behavior in it, and arrange for the conversation there to be logged for the Community Council.

Appoint a leader of the Ubuntu Women team

The group seemed to feel that, in order for the team to meet its goals, it was important to implement some form of government, and that the appropriate structure (at least initially) would be to have a single leader. They proposed to define the responsibilities of such a role, solicit nominations from the community, and ask the Community Council to appoint a leader.

I asked why the team could not appoint their own leader, and they explained that the team was not well defined enough, e.g. the Launchpad team is open for anyone to join. Without explicit membership, it’s difficult to organize a fair election. They suggested that the appointed leader would go about organizing the team to the point where it could govern itself more effectively.

There seemed to be some concern that this would be controversial.

Change the perception of Ubuntu Women

After the written goals had been reviewed, Amber said that in her view, the true value of the sessions had been to change the perception of Ubuntu Women in the community, and that the perception had been very negative. All of the vocal participants agreed with this assessment, seemed to feel this was an important problem to solve, and felt that great progress had been made during the course of UDS.

I was surprised by this, because I hadn’t encountered this perception myself, and so I asked to hear more about it. Several people asserted that that there was a problem, that Ubuntu Women and/or its IRC channel were perceived in a negative light. Two men in the room offered anecdotes: one didn’t think he should join the IRC channel because it had “women” in the name (which seems like a different issue), and another said that someone in his LoCo had advised him to avoid it because it was hostile.

I didn’t really understand all of this, but I didn’t want to derail the conversation, particularly as I had missed the first two thirds of it. In talking to people following the event, the issue at hand seems to be the IRC channel, #ubuntu-women, rather than Ubuntu Women itself. The channel, at one point, had become a sort of common meeting place for women in various geek communities, and was a place where they would sometimes blow off steam, or conduct broader feminist discussions beyond the scope of Ubuntu Women. This was apparently a bit off-putting to the uninitiated, as well as to some of the channel’s regular participants.

Some time ago, #ubuntu-women reverted back to its original purpose and the other discussion moved elsewhere, but it seems that this perception remained among some members of the Ubuntu community. This also may explain why I’ve been hearing that people are confused about the difference between Geek Feminism and Ubuntu Women, because some of the same people are involved in both, and discussed both on #ubuntu-women.

Hopefully that’s the end of this apparent stigma, and Ubuntu Women can get on with the business of helping the Ubuntu community to welcome more women.

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Written by Matt Zimmerman

November 23, 2009 at 06:44

20 Responses

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  1. Hearing about the discussion around “safe space” (deliberate scare quotes) immediately brought to my mind this thread on geekfeminism :/

    Leigh Honeywell

    November 23, 2009 at 11:07

  2. Perhaps there are useful similarities to be drawn between the reasons behind some men not feeling welcome in -women IRC channels and the reasons behind some women not feeling welcome in the Ubuntu/FOSS community. The scale is significantly different, of course, but the mentalities/perceptions could be similar.

    Andy

    November 23, 2009 at 16:41

    • As one of the channel ops, I can tell you for sure that I’ve never seen any men in the channel complain about being harassed because of their gender, asked out on dates, or asked for nude pix. So no… I don’t think it’s quite the same kind of discomfort.

      Leigh Honeywell

      November 23, 2009 at 18:29

      • I agree, and I apologise for not being more clear. I was focussing on those who don’t even bother trying to join the community due to fear and negative preconceptions, rather than those who try to join and get scared away after encountering sexism or harassment. Both scenarios are serious problems which need to be addressed but I was only focussing on the former – the fear and preconceptions which stop people from venturing into an environment which they can’t be certain is welcoming or hostile.

        Andy

        November 23, 2009 at 19:21

        • While I appreciate the distinction, I’m not terribly impressed that it’s apparently such a fear that they can’t be bothered to check the channel /topic or the ubuntu-women website and find that they are, in fact, explicitly welcomed, right there on the homepage where it says “Membership is open to all.”

          Leigh Honeywell

          November 23, 2009 at 19:29

          • OK, thanks for your insight. Just a final question to wrap up this thread: with regards to women who stay away from the Ubuntu community because of their own fears or preconceptions, do you think that it’s a problem we should address (e.g. by making the community image more welcoming from the outside), or do you feel that if they can’t make that first step to join in then there’s nothing we can do?

            Andy

            November 23, 2009 at 20:28

            • It’s a problem we’re already addressing, through programs such as… wait for it…. Ubuntu Women :) You’re welcome to help out!

              I most definitely think we can make a big difference, in the Ubuntu community, in Free Software, and in computer science in general. I personally work with a number of such programs aside from Ubuntu Women, including one which brings grade 8 girls into my local university to learn about computer science with hands-on activities for a day. I also do a lot of public speaking at conferences and schools on both gender issues and on technical topics, because being a visible role model is a vital part of getting women involved in these communities.

              I think it’s a problem we should address in all of these communities for the simple reason that we’re missing out on potential contributors in vast numbers. We should fix that! At least within the Ubuntu community, it’ll go a long way towards fixing bug #1.

              Leigh Honeywell

              November 23, 2009 at 20:46

          • Whilst it may well be explicitly spelled out on the home page and in the /topic, there’s certainly an undercurrent of “jeez, more men” in ubuntu women.

            I was in the meeting with mdz and was one of the guys who brought up the issue of the conflicting advice. I have seen both sides of the “everyone welcome”, “ugh, not more men” argument, and the point I raised in the meeting was that as a guy it’s difficult to know what the ‘right’ thing to do is.

            This has been clarified since, but I’m certainly not the only one who felt this.

            Alan Pope

            November 24, 2009 at 20:29

            • Alan, the channel is supposed to be, first and foremost, about women. It’s supposed to be a place they can sculpt out some progress for womankind, as well as somewhere they feel safe.

              What I am seeing happening now is that men are getting frustrated at the thought that they might have to tread carefully to resist subconsciously dominating over the women. Even some women in the channel are getting frustrated because some men might have wrong ideas about them because they listen to issues other women need to raise, or are just slightly allergic to confronting issues head-on because those issues are a bit sad, and want to drown it out by blaring Helen Reddy and hoping the bad stuff goes away effortlessly.

              This is now culminating at a scary point. People are now dragging logging and stuff in to the new safe-space-pushed-further-from-the-community channel. You know, just in case some of these women talk funk about some men. That’s not safe.

              The “geez, more men” is “this conversation about women is becoming dominated by men”, it is the fear that the channel is becoming about how men feel about how women feel, instead of just about how women feel. Women who do need the safe space are now being pushed further from the core community, and that’s the opposite of what the project is supposed to be doing.

              As it is now, men are perfectly welcome, and totally encouraged to participate. They just need to understand that setting the boundaries is solely the prerogative of the women. If they can understand “no” and “stop”, then there’s absolutely nothing to worry about. We all make mistakes, and “sorry” fixes the greater majority of them.

              Melissa

              November 24, 2009 at 22:06

              • “it is the fear that the channel is becoming about how men feel about how women feel, instead of just about how women feel. ”

                That was one of the reasons I stopped hanging around UW. And lately, that seems to be the major concern of the project. The lack of any mention to the MarkS episode on the very place I was expecting to be the first one to raise the issue made it very clear. God forbidden to upset the always cheerful and greatest community ever… (yeah, that was an irony)

                Sulamita Garcia

                November 25, 2009 at 09:45

        • I do think it is always useful to point out similarities in feelings. Even if it should be obvious they are welcome. If they feel hesitant, we should call out that feeling and use it to explain that newcomers to open source projects often feel that way.

          School was really easy for me as a kid. One night when I was really tired and having trouble writing a report, my mom pointed out that maybe that’s the way lots of people feel all the time. I’ve never forgotten that.

          Stormy

          December 8, 2009 at 18:41

  3. Seems the only ones who ever come under fire for being exclusivist are any groups with “women” in the name. That little 1.5% sure does bother a lot of people.

    Ellen Linuxuser

    November 23, 2009 at 21:18

  4. [...] Who’s afraid of Ubuntu Women? Clarify the purpose of the #ubuntu-women channel [...]

  5. Matt Thanks for the post. You summed things up nicely. Now we are rolling up our sleeves and starting on the process of moving forward with the tasks at hand. Onward and Upward! :-)

    akgraner

    November 24, 2009 at 14:55

  6. [...] Summit, there were three sessions held to discuss the future of the Ubuntu Women project. More here There were about 25 people attending the session, and most of the talking was done by Amber Graner, [...]

  7. [...] Matt Zimmerman asks Who’s afraid of Ubuntu Women? [...]

  8. Jono and Amber have now documented a roadmap in the wiki at https://wiki.ubuntu.com/Roadmaps/Lucid/UbuntuWomen

    Matt Zimmerman

    December 3, 2009 at 10:57

  9. I had no knowledge of Ubuntu women before this but you entertained me for 5 minutes during a boring lecture. Thank you : )

    jason

    January 24, 2010 at 05:18

  10. After reading the article, I have a question.

    While #ubuntu-women has been changed back to what it’s main purpose was, was there another channel made to focus on those other people that wanted to vent about other geek issues after #UW adopted it’s older operating policy?

    I hang out on IRC everyday, and are having a hard time finding a safe channel to really vent my disappointment in other geeky topics or have a meaningful discussion about other things. The ones I have hung out in weren’t safe at all and I was trolled out of them.

    While #U-W is specifically about Ubuntu and issues surrounding that, it would be nice to have that other space to discuss things.

    Maverynthia

    April 24, 2010 at 20:49

    • Hey Maverynthia,

      We ended up moving the logged. project-focused discussions to #ubuntu-women-project and #ubuntu-women has stayed pretty much as it was :) Come hang out, it’s a friendly place!

      -Leigh

      Leigh Honeywell

      April 26, 2010 at 02:49


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