Friday, March 23, 2012

Dev-corner: On Sexism in the FOSS World

Wikipedia's discrimination icon

First, a note on relevance:

This issue is related to FOSS gaming in that it affects the FOSS community as a whole, and the FOSS gaming community with it.  The fact that it's an overall FOSS issue doesn't render it irrelevant to gaming.

...and a warning:

This is a rant.  I believe it's clear from the blog entry that the feelings I'm expressing here are directed at a small subset of the community and not everyone who happens to read the blog.  So, as you read this, consider if what I'm saying applies to you.  If it doesn't, then I'm not ranting at you.  If it does, well, I'm Bart Kelsey, I run, and I stand by what I said.

Anyone who reads my blog entries knows that I love stirring up controversy.  As such, it's probably not a big surprise that I'm taking on this topic, since it tends to draw so much vitriol from some parts of the FOSS community.

Here's the thing, though.  Being against sexism shouldn't be controversial.  Regardless of what your political, personal, and/or religious beliefs may be, treating other people with respect (particularly fellow members of a community who, like everyone else, are volunteering their time and energy for the betterment of the world as a whole) ought to be something we do by default.

I have ranted in the past (at least in a round-about way) about the trouble the FOSS community has with respecting people it perceives as "outsiders".  For instance, if it's believed that you don't know how to code, there's a vocal minority of the population who are quite sure that your contributions aren't worthwhile.  Add this to the pretty much automatic assumption by some people that women aren't good with computers or competent coders, and you end up with an environment where women are rarely ever treated with respect.  It's no wonder the FOSS community is so overwhelmingly male.

You may or may not have already seen The Real Katie's blog post entitled Lighten Up, which explains the general situation from her view point.  Of course, there are probably plenty of people out there who read it and still feel that she needs to "lighten up", so for those of you who are too dense to be able to put yourself in her shoes for a minute, I'm going to lay it out for you:

When a large group of people "joke around" with a single person or a small group of people, that's not "joking around".  Heck, you may think, in your infinite wisdom, that you only made one little comment.  And you almost certainly didn't mean for that comment to hurt any feelings.  It's the sort of thing that you might say at a party or in a room full of friends and everything would be cool because you know each other and one person isn't being singled out as the target.

Think back to elementary school for a minute.  I'm willing to bet that a fairly large proportion of FOSS community members were a bit nerdy, and were probably singled out at one time or another (hell, you don't even have to be a nerd for that to happen -- it happens to pretty much anyone).  You sit there completely on your own and everyone gets a dig in at you -- even the people who you thought were your friends.  The teacher comes in, and suddenly everyone was just "joking around".  Nobody meant anything by it; ganging up on you was all in good fun.

And the thing is, individually none of the things that were said would be particularly hurtful.  The real problem is the experience in aggregate.  It's not that one person called you a name, it's that everyone is doing it; or at least that a large number of people are doing it and nobody is doing anything to stop them.

I've been the target, I've been one of the quiet ones, and regrettably I was at times one of the perpetrators.  Thinking back, in the times where I was the target, it would have been nice if one of the quiet ones had stood up and said something.

So I'll say something now.  If you're about to make a sexist comment to one of the few female FOSS developers who have stuck with it thus far and put up with this kind of crap from the rest of the community, then do this little exercise: write that comment down on a little piece of paper, wad it up into a ball, and cram it up your ass. Then, sit there and endure the discomfort that you were just about to inflict another person.

They say that no single snowflake believes itself responsible for the avalanche.  Well listen up, snowflake.  If you're taking part in making sexist comments or otherwise ganging up on women in the community, then you share responsibility for cutting the total body of FOSS contributions in half.  That's right, not only are you being rude to individual people -- in driving people out of the community, you contribute to there being less code for the rest of us.  If you've driven away a prolific and talented coder, then your total contribution to the FOSS community in terms of code is actually a net negative.  In simple words, the community would have been better off if you'd never been involved.

I'd also like to add a message to the "quiet ones".  There are a lot of us out there.  If you've ever found yourself wondering why members of certain groups don't denounce the most vocal and horrible members of those groups, this is your chance to put your money where your mouth is and say something.  Blog about it, complain about it, or better yet, call someone out as it's happening.  If this is ever going to change, people need to be made aware that sexist jackwads don't comprise the majority of the FOSS community.

Peace out.

Bart K.

I'm expecting I'll see some comments repeatedly, so I'm going to write some copypasta answers here to copy into responses and save time:
  • What does it say about the community as a whole when the best solution is "just pretend to be male"?
  • The fact that veil of anonymity that the internet provides encourages people to be jackasses doesn't absolve those people of being jackasses.  Perhaps people like that ought to give serious thought to what they are in the dark (timesink warning: tvtropes).