We'll see | Matt Zimmerman

a potpourri of mirth and madness

Posts Tagged ‘Feminism

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.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

November 23, 2009 at 06:44

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