Posts Tagged ‘Feminism’
For Ada Lovelace Day this year, I want to share my appreciation for Dr. Marian C. Diamond.
In years past, I’ve saluted women in the field of computing, which is my field as well. Dr. Diamond, however, is a biologist. Her research includes “neuroanatomy, environment, immune functions, and hormones. In particular, she is interested in studying the effects of the external environment, aging, and immune responses on the cerebral neocortex.” She has, in her words, had a love affair with the brain for about 70 years.
I know very little about biology. The content and methods of her research are, frankly, beyond me, though some of her results have garnered popular attention. She has inspired me by demonstrating that rare combination of gifts: a deep understanding of a technical subject, and the ability to explain it to other people in an accessible way.
In her interviews, articles and lectures, many of which are available online, Dr. Diamond displays these gifts in abundance. Her skill and enthusiasm for both learning and teaching is unmistakable. After applying her gifts in the classroom for many years, digital distribution has now enabled many more people to see and hear her, through millions of YouTube views.
In 1960, she became the first female graduate student in UC Berkeley’s anatomy department, and was apparently given the job of sewing a cover for a magnifying machine. I can only imagine the persistence required to continue from there to become a recognized leader in her field. She has gone on to help many other students along their way, and was named an “unsung, everyday hero” for the support she provided to students outside of the classroom or lab.
As if that weren’t enough, she has also traveled to Cambodia to apply her expertise in helping children injured by land mines. She still teaches today, just across the bay from where I write this, and will turn 85 next month.
The Ubuntu website states that “we aim to make Ubuntu a wonderful place to participate”. We developed the Ubuntu Code of Conduct to set a standard for participants to accept each other in the spirit of cooperation, and have improved it over time to state these principles more clearly.
It is implicit in our philosophy that these and other Ubuntu values should hold equally true for everyone. I would like to propose that we upgrade this to an explicit statement on behalf of the project.
I have spoken with many people who were interested in joining a free software project, but were put off because they felt unwelcome. I know various people who participate in Ubuntu today, but sometimes face difficult social obstacles in order to do so. Going forward, I would like for us, as members of the Ubuntu community, to make the extra effort to accept all kinds of people. This may sound simple, but it can be very difficult to put into practice. People often don’t even notice they’ve gotten it wrong, until the offended party points it out to them. We need tools and guidance to make this a reality.
To that end, I would like to propose a diversity statement for Ubuntu. This draft has already received support from a majority of the Community Council, but I’d like to take it a step further. Because I want this to be a commitment that we can all stand behind, I’m also calling for support from the community as a whole. Please give this issue your consideration, and let me know in the comments if you can get on board with an official statement like this. The more support we have, the more real this commitment can be.
Here’s the text. Many thanks to Mary Gardiner, Valerie Aurora and Benjamin Mako Hill for their review and input.
The Ubuntu project welcomes and encourages participation by everyone. We are committed to being a community that everyone feels good about joining. Although we may not be able to satisfy everyone, we will always work to treat everyone well.
Standards for behavior in the Ubuntu community are detailed in the Code of Conduct and Leadership Code of Conduct. We expect participants in our community to meet these standards in all their interactions and to help others to do so as well.
Whenever any participant has made a mistake, we expect them to take responsibility for it. If someone has been harmed or offended, it is our responsibility to listen carefully and respectfully, and do our best to right the wrong.
Although this list cannot be exhaustive, we explicitly honor diversity in age, culture, ethnicity, genotype, gender identity or expression, language, national origin, neurotype, phenotype, political beliefs, profession, race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, subculture, and technical ability.
Having invested in some introspection into my reading habits, I made up my mind to dial down my consumption of bite-sized nuggets of online information, and finish a few books. That’s where my bottleneck has been for the past year or so. Not in selecting books, not in acquiring books, and not in starting books either. I identify promising books, I buy them, I start reading them, and at some point, I put them down and never pick them back up again.
Until now. Over the weekend, I finished two books. I started reading both in 2009, and they each required my sustained attention for a period measured in hours in order to finish them.
Taking a tip from Dustin, I decided to try alternating between fiction and non-fiction.
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins
This was the first book I had read by Tom Robbins, and I am in no hurry to read any more. It certainly wasn’t without merit: its themes were clever and artfully interwoven, and the prose elicited a silent chuckle now and again. It was mainly the characters which failed to earn my devotion. They spoke and behaved in ways I found awkward at best, and problematic at worst. Race, gender, sexuality and culture each endured some abuse on the wrong end of a pervasive white male heteronormative American gaze.
I really wanted to like Priscilla, who showed early promise as a smart, self-reliant individual, whose haplessness was balanced by a strong will and sense of adventure. Unfortunately, by the later chapters, she was revealed as yet another vacant vessel yearning to be filled by a man. She’s even the steward of a symbolic, nearly empty perfume bottle throughout the book. Yes, really.
Managing Humans by Michael Lopp
Of the books I’ve read on management, this one is perhaps the most outrageously reductionist. Many management books are like this, to a degree. They take the impossibly complex problem domain of getting people to work together, break it down into manageable problems with tidy labels, and prescribe methods for solving them (which are hopefully appropriate for at least some of the reader’s circumstances).
Managing Humans takes this approach to a new level, drawing neat boxes around such gestalts as companies, roles, teams and people, and assigning them Proper Nouns. Many of these bear a similarity to concepts which have been defined, used and tested elsewhere, such as psychological types, but the text makes no effort to link them to his own. Despite being a self-described collection of “tales”, it’s structured like a textbook, ostensibly imparting nuggets of managerial wisdom acquired through lessons learned in the Real World (so pay attention!). However, as far as I can tell, the author’s experience is limited to a string of companies of a very specific type: Silicon Valley software startups in the “dot com” era.
Lopp (also known as Rands) does have substantial insight into this problem domain, though, and does an entertaining job of illustrating the patterns which have worked for him. If you can disregard the oracular tone, grit your teeth through the gender stereotyping, and add an implicit preface that this is (sometimes highly) context-sensitive advice, this book can be appreciated for what it actually is: a coherent, witty and thorough exposition of how one particular manager does their job.
I got some good ideas out of this book, and would recommend it to someone working in certain circumstances, but as with Robbins, I’m not planning to track down further work by the same author.
Today is Ada Lovelace Day, “an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science”. By participating in this event, and blogging about women in these fields, my hopes are:
- to credit individual women for their achievements, which are often undervalued (both by others and by the women themselves)
- to raise awareness of the presence of women in technical fields, who are often presumed to be few or nonexistent, or only included by association with a man
- to remind men in technical communities that women are unquestionably capable of high achievement, and deserving of professional respect in their fields of excellence
For Ada Lovelace Day 2010, I would like to honor two women in the free software community who have made a strong impression on me in the past year: Akkana Peck and Miriam Ruiz.
I became aware of Akkana’s work through Planet Ubuntu Women, which is something of a year-round Ada Lovelace Day as it aggregates the blogs of many of the women of the Ubuntu community. As a senior engineer at Netscape, Akkana was instrumental in the development of the Linux port of Mozilla. Having developed a number of extensions to the GIMP, she went on to write the book on using it as well.
I met Miriam through the Debian Women project. Her profile there seems to be out of date, as it says she is not an official Debian developer yet, but she was officially recognized over two years ago as a trusted member of the team, through Debian’s notoriously thorough New Maintainer process. Miriam has been particularly interested in game development, and as the founder of the Debian Games Team has been responsible for uncountable hours of pleasant distraction for Debian users and developers. Thanks to her leadership, the Debian Games team has been exemplary in terms of cross-participation between Debian and Ubuntu.
Sometimes, when I have a conflict like this, I try to attend the talk whose material is less familiar to me (in this case, probably the SVG/Flash one). However, since the talks are being recorded and made available on the Internet, this changes the dynamic a bit. I don’t have to miss out on watching anything, as I can download it later. So, it makes more sense for me to go where I can best participate, taking advantage of my presence at the conference.
Distro summit: Package management
So, I chose to attend the package management talk, as I might have something to contribute. It was about how to harmonize general distribution packaging mechanisms (dpkg, RPM, etc.) with special-purpose ones like those used by Ruby (gems), Lua (rocks), Perl (CPAN modules) and so on. The solution described employed a set of wrapper scripts to provide a standard API to these systems, so that they could be used by the distribution package manager to resolve dependencies.
Due up next was Scott James Remnant’s talk on booting faster, but due to travel difficulties, he hadn’t arrived yet. Instead, we had a free-form discussion on various other challenges in the area of package management.
I took the opportunity to put forward an idea I had been thinking about for some time, which is that we may need to move beyond a “one size fits all” or “everything is a package” approach to package management. Modern package management systems are very capable, and solve a range of difficult problems with a high degree of reliability. The cost of all of this functionality is complexity: making packages is difficult. The system can be made to work for a wide range of software, but the simple case is often not very simple.
I also made the point that there are non-technical challenges as well: it is difficult for developers and ISVs to understand the ecosystem of distributions, and even more difficult to succeed in making their software available in “the right way” to Linux users. The obstacles range from procedural to cultural, and if we only approach this as a technical problem, we risk adding more complexity and making the situation worse.
The opportunity to have this kind of participatory discussion really validated my decision about how to choose which talk to attend.
Liz Henry: Code of our Own
Back in the Haecksen/LinuxChix miniconf, Liz Henry presented an action plan
for increasing the involvement of women in open source, with many well-considered “dos” and “don’ts” based on observations of what has and has not worked for open source communities.
It was the first opportunity I’ve had to attend a free software conference session which went beyond the typical “yes, this is important” and “yes, there really is a problem here” content which is unfortunately as necessary as it is commonplace.
I won’t attempt to summarize it here, but I can definitely recommend Liz’ presentation to anyone who is looking for concrete, actionable methods to promote gender diversity in their technical communities.
Lucas Nussbaum: The Relationship between Debian and Ubuntu
Historically, in Lucas’ assessment, many Debian developers have been unhappy with Ubuntu, feeling that it had “stolen” from Debian, and was not “giving back”. He said that bad experiences with certain people associated with Canonical and Ubuntu reflected on the project as a whole.
However, he says, things have improved considerably, and today, most Debian developers see some good points in Ubuntu: it brings new users to free software and Debian technology, it provides a system which “just works” for their (less technical) friends and family, and brings new developers to the Debian community.
There are still some obstacles, though. Lucas says that many bugfix patches in Ubuntu are just workarounds, and so are not very helpful to Debian. He gave the example of a patch which disabled the test suite for a package because of a failure, rather than fixing the failure.
He felt that Canonical offered few “free gifts” to Debian, citing as the only example the website banner on ubuntu.com which was displayed for Debian’s 15th anniversary. I felt this was a bit unfair, as Canonical has done more than this over the years, including sponsoring DebConf every year since Canonical was founded.
It occurred to me that the distinctions between Canonical and Ubuntu are still not clear, even within the core free software community. For example, the “main” package repository for Ubuntu is often seen to be associated exclusively with Canonical, while “universe” is the opposite. In reality, Canonical works on whatever is most important to the company, and volunteers do the same. These interests often overlap, particularly in “main” (where the most essential and popular components are).
Lucas speculated that more mission-critical servers run Debian pre-releases (especially testing) than Ubuntu pre-releases. It would be interesting to test this, as it’s rare to get sufficient real-world testing for server software prior to an Ubuntu release.
Lucas presented a wishlist for Ubuntu:
- more technical discussions between Ubuntu and Debian (particularly on the
ubuntu-develdebian-devel mailing list
- easier access to Launchpad data
- Launchpad PPAs for Debian
The prominence of Launchpad in these discussions spawned a number of tangential discussions about Launchpad, which were eventually deferred to tomorrow’s Launchpad mini-conf. One audience member asked whether Debian would ever adopt Launchpad. The answer from Lucas and Martin Krafft was that it would definitely not adopt the Canonical instance, but that a separate, interoperating instance might eventually be palatable.
I made the point that there is no single Debian/Ubuntu “relationship”, but a large number of distinct relationships between individuals and smaller groups. Instead of focusing on large-scale questions like infrastructure, I think there would be more mileage in working to build relationships between people around their common work.
As I left the office yesterday, I passed a billboard at a bus stop near the Canonical office. In large, capital letters, it read “Career women make bad mothers”. It invites readers to “have their say” on a website called “Britainthinks!”, which I won’t dignify with a link. I say it stinks. Who on earth thought this would be acceptable?
Apparently, more than a few people took notice, as The Guardian reports that the ad will be withdrawn. According to the article, a representative from the agency responsible offered a non-apology, saying that “they were intended to spark a debate, and did not represent the opinion of the agency or the campaign organisers.” Whose opinion was it, then, and how did it end up all over London? (I saw a larger format version of the same billboard in a different location today) What must the meeting have been like where this originated? “Well, we thought about debating whether rich white men are poisoning the Earth, but decided it was better to go after working mothers instead. Sound good?”
This reminds me a bit of the BBC’s recent screwup, where they attempted to “spark debate” about whether gay people should be executed(!?), and then defended their actions as intentionally polarizing. The common pattern is disregard for the rights of a class of people, followed by blind excuses and justification. It’s no coincidence that the target groups are routinely subject to harassment by more privileged folk.
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.
There has been some discussion recently about Mark Shuttleworth’s keynote at LinuxCon, in particular a comment he made in passing about the need to explain to “girls” about free software. I haven’t had much time for writing since then, but a few people have asked me what I thought about it, so I thought I should say something.
First, a few things to note:
- Yes, I was there, in person, at the event, in the audience, during the keynote
- Mark is my direct manager at Canonical, and occupies various positions of authority in the Ubuntu community
- I am speaking mainly for myself, and in part on behalf of the Ubuntu community (not Canonical)
- I briefly spoke to Mark in private about what he had said, shortly after his talk, before saying anything publicly
The remark in question was sexist, and although it may seem small in itself, it is representative of an attitude which is harmful to the community.
I think that Mark cares about the health of the free software community, and the Ubuntu community in particular. I don’t think that he set out to exclude and alienate women, but he did so without meaning to. It was a mistake. It was a mistake which very likely had deep, unconscious roots. I make such mistakes myself, more often than I would like. My own mistakes are the most difficult to see and grapple with, so I can identify with his situation. I, too, care about the health of the community, which is why I’m speaking up.
Mark probably didn’t realize that he was othering, or invoking a pattern of men explaining things to women. His intent was to make his (overwhelmingly male) audience laugh, and they did laugh. Now, it’s clear that some people didn’t find it funny, and were made uncomfortable by it, some to the extent that they want nothing to do with Ubuntu because of this attitude. The fact that it was “only a joke” doesn’t change that. They know it was intended as a joke, and they still feel this way.
This sort of mistake is very common, common enough that there is handy reference material which explains how to handle it without making it worse. There have been much more severe incidents in the free software community this year, with more lasting effect than passing comments. This one is pretty easy to correct, and I hope that Mark does so. It would send the message that we mean it when we say that a community where people feel uncomfortable or threatened is not a productive one.
On the heels of the excellent geekfeminism wiki comes the geekfeminism blog. Kirrily Robert, Liz Henry, yatima, Mary Gardiner, Sumana Harihareswara, Mackenzie Morgan, Terri Oda and Valerie Aurora are listed as contributors so far.
The about page reads:
The Geek Feminism blog exists to highlight and discuss issues facing women in geek communities, including the tech industry, open source, gaming, science fiction fandom, and more.
It’s only just getting started, but if you’re interested in reading about and discussing this subject, head on over and subscribe to their feed.
We have a problem in the way that women in free software are regarded and treated. If this is news to you, I encourage you not to take my word for it, but read what women in the community are saying about it. Ask women you know about their experiences.
What I want to discuss here, though, is how people are received when they speak up about this, for example by criticizing sexist behavior they have observed. Often, the problem is denied, the critic themselves is personally attacked, and the victims are blamed. In short, there is a backlash.
In the talk, Stallman incorporated a “joke” which Lefty described thus:
The nadir for me was Richard's explanation of "EMACS virgins" as "women who had not been introduced to EMACS" along with the advice that "relieving them of their virginity" was some sort of sacred duty for members of "The Church of EMACS".
The very first comment (anonymous) denied that Lefty had actually heard what he said he had:
Why do you automatically think of girls and woman when somebody talks about virgins? Richard did not mention the sex of the virgins.
However, many members of the audience (including myself) recall it quite clearly, and I expect a video will be published at some point to provide an objective account of what was said.
The second comment (also anonymous) denied that there is a general problem with how women are regarded in free software, citing female disinterest as the true cause:
This "include women" is all but nonsense. Women is[sic] uninterested - as a group, as you can find exceptions *everywhere* - in programming as men are uninterested at another areas where woman reigns.
Lefty received some support from other commenters, but the backlash went further downhill from there.
One anonymous commenter suggested that women should be actively prevented from participating in open source:
Blah blah blah. This kind of whiny bullshit about unimportant details is exactly why women should be left out in the cold.
Another mocked Lefty for daring to speak out:
Thank goodness a big hairy chested man like you was there to protect any helpless women that were about. [...] In other words grow some balls you silly pseudo feminist
For speaking up, he’s been accused of being a disingenuous “pseudo feminist”. Why? I didn’t see any reason in Lefty’s writings to question the validity of his objection, and the anonymous commenter presumably doesn’t know him personally. Plenty of other people were much more vocally offended by Stallman’s comments on Mono, for example, but they haven’t been accused in this way. What is different about women’s issues which trigger this response?
Another anonymous commenter shares his view that women (as a class) do not deserve to be heard, in this classic finger-pointing exercise:
Respect is a two-way street. I'm tired of hearing the so-called feminists yelling out to sexist claims towards women. You know what? I'll take their complaints seriously when most women stop their openly stereotypical view towards men.
From there, the anonymous comments descend into sexual metaphors:
Lefty, go back to sucking deicaza's cock YOU MUPPET
This led to more overt, but blessedly brief, misogynist hatespeech…
…and calls for Lefty to leave the community for having the audacity to criticize Stallman…
People like you should be ashamed of such behavior and words about other people. Moreover, people like you must quit doing whatever at Open Source.
While these are (almost exclusively) anonymous comments, and there were many others which were more reasonable, this is a pattern of backlash. In this case, it was Lefty taking offense at a single comment in a presentation at a conference which spawned this chain of vitriol. There have been entire presentations which were much worse, and whose critics were also met with rejection and insults. Lefty’s experience is not atypical.
Backlash itself isn’t the root of the problem, of course. It’s just another symptom. What I’m hoping to do is to recognize it for what it is, and question the feelings and beliefs behind it. I want to know how others feel about it. Do you see this happening as well? How does it make you feel?