Women Fed Up With Open Source Community CreepsS

A feminist programmer describes the culture of the open source community as fraught with sexism and discrimination against women programmers—and a serious lack of accountability. It's "Geeks Gone Wild"—as in, "some computer dudes are like wild animals."

In "The Dark Side of Open Source Conferences," writer/programmer/feminist activist Valerie Aurora (seen here) presents excerpts from interviews she conducted with nine other women in the open source community. For the unfamiliar, "open source" refers to public software and programming projects created by volunteers in collaboration with other volunteers. (Some of the better-known open source products are the LINUX and Ubuntu operating systems). Open source conferences give people who work on these projects to actually meet face to face and work on their projects in the same room, and also to socialize.

As for the conferences themselves, the women Aurora spoke to enjoy them very much—using words like "joyous pandemonium" and "awesome." Aurora fondly recalls going to events and befriending fellow programmers she knew from the Internet "as unholy terrors on the mailing lists." And overall, she and her fellow colleagues say, that the climate at conferences has improved over the decades.

But the creepy dudes still inevitably show up and ruin things with their horrible behavior and commentary. What kinds of creepy are we talking about here? You name it: guys taking upskirt photos, guys showing slide shows of bikini models, guys inviting strippers are invited to the parties (ostensibly because stripping and programming Ubuntu go together like chips and dip). Several of the women have been physically assaulted: On her blog, Aurora produces a long list of conferences where either she or her friends have been victimized. "These include multiple incidents of groping and unwanted kissing in addition to 'just' incredibly rude and obnoxious verbal comments." Some of the conferences are so bad that the interviewees refuse to attend them.

At the very least, a certain lowering of expectations seems necessary to endure the experience. As FOSS community organizer at Google Cat Allman told Aurora:

I go to technical conferences for business, technical content and fellowship, not to hook up or engage in voyeurism. If I go to CES in Vegas I go with the understanding that porn is part of the business of that conference, but I find overt sexual behaviors unexpected and off-topic at FOSS conferences.

There's also less sexual, more sexist stuff that women programmers have to deal with; one of Aurora's interviewees talks about having to be more aggressive than usual to engage male counterparts in conversation, then having that be "incorrectly interpreted as flirting." Apparently, some men find code to be romantic.

What can these women do? For now, it looks like they're figuring that out—sharing information online in forums like The Geek Feminism Wiki, which maintains a chronology of incidents involving sexism, sexual assault, and general boys-behaving-badly. The entries for 2009 and 2010 are the longest, which could mean that the problems are worsening—but hopefully it's because these women are becoming more emboldened to speak out about their experiences. Incidents on the time-line range from comments made during interviews with the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and critiques of Internet campaigns with sexist overtones to Google technical writer Noirin Shirley's blogged-about experience at a tech conference in November 2010. Taken together, these incidents provide a broad view of a culture in great need of reform.

In addition to documenting these incidents, women programmers have also come up with an anti-harassment policy that provides guidelines for staffers at these events to handle harassment cases as they arise. Just by pointing out that harassment is occurring, perhaps they can start changing the culture. But there's definitely resistance: some of the comments Aurora's been getting on her article are typically disheartening, if her blog post titled "Groping is a compliment!" is any indication.

The Dark Side of Open Source Conferences [LWN.Net]