We'll see | Matt Zimmerman

a potpourri of mirth and madness

Posts Tagged ‘Feminism

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.


Written by Matt Zimmerman

September 29, 2009 at 03:14

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Geek feminism blog

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.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

August 16, 2009 at 11:05

Backlash: feminism considered harmful

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.

Lefty’s account of Richard Stallman’s keynote at the Gran Canaria Desktop Summit offers an excellent case study of this pattern.

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

bitch, STFU

…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?

Written by Matt Zimmerman

July 13, 2009 at 22:22

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Have you tried the “white boy” test?

From time to time, someone in the Ubuntu community writes about the experience of introducing a “normal person” (someone who has no specific expertise with computers) to Ubuntu. These accounts provide useful feedback to Ubuntu designers and developers working to make Ubuntu easier to understand and use. They are no substitute for rigorous usability studies, but are nonetheless worthwhile. By explaining where the subject got stuck, they help to identify the most obvious usability problems. By celebrating the user’s successes, they help to build a sense of accomplishment and momentum around usability.  They usually go something like this:

My grandmother is 104 years old and has never used a mobile phone before, much less a computer. One lazy Sunday afternoon, I introduced her to Ubuntu. I helped her into the den, showed her the mouse and keyboard, inserted the installation CD…

They go on to describe the subject’s attempts to use Ubuntu for common tasks, without any prior experience of the system.  I will boldly hypothesize, based on my own reading and without gathering any data, that the subjects are predominantly female.  Perhaps the earliest examples of this were our references to Jeff Waugh‘s mother, in early Ubuntu thought experiments, as an example of an uninitiated Ubuntu user.

Thus, we generalize: Ubuntu is so easy, even your grandmother can use it, or it passes the Mother test, or the girlfriend experiment shows just how far we have to go.

These generalizations idealize women as uninformed, technological novices or intellectual inferiors, which is particularly striking to some of us who learned computing from our mothers.  This is not to say that statements like these are the origin of gender stereotypes, but they do display and reinforce these (often unconscious) beliefs.

In analyzing statements about gender roles, it is sometimes helpful to substitute for gender some other trait, such as skin color or race.  This helps to illustrate bias, because many of us are more sensitized to racial stereotypes: is Ubuntu so easy that a white boy could use it?  Does it pass the white boy testIf my white boyfriend can figure it out, you can too! This can be a useful way to “test” language and reveal implications.

We should think twice when we read, and make the effort to investigate our own speech as well.  Unfortunately, our first impulse is often to deny the possibility of bias, and treat the situation like an argument we want to win.  Instead, we should try to recognize these moments as opportunities to improve our awareness, and listen for new information in the reactions of others.

It would be a huge step forward for us as a community to do better at this.  We will know that Ubuntu has truly arrived, though, when becomes more popular among white people than Apple.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 20, 2009 at 17:37

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Do not stand by

We all witness bad behavior at some point or other.  For many of us, the most common examples are provided by men misbehaving toward women.  Whether it’s in public at a conference, on an IRC channel, in an errant wiki page or two, or in a private conversation, how we respond to it is critically important.  This is particularly true where the behavior undermines the security or agency of another person.  Perhaps most of all, it applies where someone is speaking up about it.

If I’m standing with a group of people, and one of them behaves badly, I think that they’re a jerk.  If no one else seems to notice or object, then I start to wonder if they’re all jerks.  If someone speaks up, and is attacked, ignored or discredited, then I’m certain that I’m in a den of wolves.  Feelings like these are toxic to communities, and I don’t want anyone to have to feel this way in one of mine.

Managing one’s own behavior, although it is an essential first step, is not enough.  We must also critique the behavior of others, and signal to our peers that we object to bad behavior.  Furthermore, we must support those who speak up, particularly when they are doing so on their own behalf, or as a member of an underprivileged or under-represented group.  It may be difficult to speak up when you are an observer, but it is much more difficult when you are a target.  This isn’t about coming to anyone’s rescue, but openly accepting their objection and their right to voice it—even if it’s directed at you.

I will not trivialize the effort required to do this.  It is not easy to “break ranks” and stand as (or with) an objector. It is, however, often the right thing to do, and justifies the application of will and the taking of risks for the sake of integrity.  I will also not profess that I have always made the right choice myself.  Indeed, too many times, I have stood by, and I am ashamed for it.  I have made excuses for myself and rationalized my choices, explaining to myself why I couldn’t do what was right in a particular situation.

That is why, in the title of this article, I am addressing myself above all.  I am calling myself out, and calling on my peers in the Ubuntu community to do the same.  Don’t accept bad behavior.  Stand behind those who object to it.  Hold yourself and others accountable for the well-being of your community, and let others know that you are doing so.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

May 2, 2009 at 22:27

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Ada Lovelace Day

The 24th of March was Ada Lovelace day. I’m not sure why it was so designated, as Wikipedia claims Ada Lovelace was born on 10 December and died on 27 November. Regardless, many people celebrated it by writing about women in technology. This seems like a good idea on any day of the year, which is why I don’t feel left out in joining the crowd a day late.

The woman who most influenced my own journey in technology was my mother, Margie D’Valle. When I was born, she was working in a technical role for the US government. I believe she was called a “Computer Operator” at the time, which sounds a bit funny now that computing devices are so pervasive. She worked as a programmer, and later as a manager of programming teams. In addition to raising me and my sister as a single parent, she encouraged and enabled us from a young age to become “computer literate”, another term which soon sounded archaic.

Her programming work itself was largely invisible to me, being a proprietary system which was only used within a single organization, and I didn’t learn much about mainframe technology until much later. She sometimes told stories of programming, or debugging, or working late to get a release out, which have since been shared by many people, including myself. At the time, they had a certain element of fantasy, as if they existed in another world.

I think it’s wonderful that so many women can now be recognized for contributing to open source, where they can inspire millions of people around the world, for generations to come. I expect, however, that their influence has been greatest on the people they know best, and so it was for Margie. She helped me see how computer technology would change the world, and helped me to be a part of it.

I’m not sure what experiences she may have had with discrimination against women in her workplace, though the events of Ada Lovelace Day have made me curious to ask her. She has since retired from her job, but I’m sure that her code is still running, tirelessly performing the invisible but necessary work of keeping important government services alive. Such systems evolve slowly, and it may survive for many years to come.

Thanks, Mom!

Written by Matt Zimmerman

March 25, 2009 at 18:10

Speaking out with stickers

Mako’s recent post about a laptop sticker reminded me of an experience I had riding the London Underground earlier this year.  On my way home from work one day, as I was thinking about other things, I happened to read the text on one of the many advertisements posted inside the train car.  While gender offences in advertising are regrettably common, this one was so overt that it caught my attention and made me feel embarrassed at reading it.

The text, next to the smirking face of a man, reads in full:

blurry cameraphone photo of the advert

Chris had a long face.  The wife wanted a new family car and this had the potential to blow a huge hole in his finances, not to mention the other plans he had for his money.

A little bird told him to get down to Cargiant where he bought a quality used car that kept the wife more than happy and saved himself a tidy little sum in the process.  Just enough for a weekend in Paris…

…with the girlfriend, tweet, tweet!

“Chris” beams at us with a joy that could only come from the combined pleasures of pacifying his wife, protecting “his” money from her, and spending the savings on casual infidelity.  Was it simply ignorant, or a failed attempt at humour?  Either way, the message was not one I was glad to receive.

At the time, all I thought to do was complain to the company, who offer a feedback form on their website.  If only I’d had a pocketful of clever stickers, like the ones offered by Sticker Giant (whose name is curiously similar to that of the advertiser) or the more unassuming Sticker Sisters.

After all, it would be much more effective to send a message to other readers of the advert as well as its creators.  I felt embarrassed when I saw it because it made me wonder whether the people around me considered this to be normal and acceptable content.  Seeing an angry sticker on it would have let me know that I was not alone in my objection.  Stickers are good for more than just graffiti.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

August 31, 2008 at 14:00

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