Explaining to girls
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.