Recommendations from Women in Free Software: Too Mild for Its Own Good?

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jul 20, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

The Free Software Foundation’s Women in Free Software has published its recommendations for encouraging women’s involvement in free software. I admit that I am curious to see what reactions it invokes – or, for that matter, whether it gets noticed at all outside of feminist circles.

The analysis of Women in Free Software is not particularly new. It notes the barriers that many others, including me, have commented on in the past, noting that free software is perceived as a “boy’s club” where women are made to feel unwelcome and experience sexism. The closest that the group comes to saying anything new is when it notes that girls are not exposed to free software, and “finances are more likely to be an obstacle for women” – a remark that I take to mean that women are less likely to have the leisure to volunteer coding. I presume, too, that the bullet point noting “the perception that is is not OK to make mistakes” implies that the high standards in free software can be intimidating to women, who, because of their socialization, are uncomfortable making mistakes in public.

The recommendations are equally familiar: for instance, publicizing existing women, emphasizing cooperation rather than competition, diversity statements to set expectations in a project, paid internships, and women-only mailing lists and networking events.

A surprising mildness

The first thing I notice about these comments is how mild they are. Contrary to the boys masquerading as men out there who have never learned to be comfortable with women, there are no suggestions of affirmative action or quotas – let alone the specter that some of raised of culling men from the projects. Nor do any of the comments suggest lowering standards to bring women in. The closest the comments come to any of the worst fears of the sexists is suggesting some private space for women, and paid internships for women, and the unspoken assumption seems to be that Women in Free Software are talking about qualified, geeky women.

Still, that won’t stop the sexists. Considering that one of the loudest critics who emerged from under his log last time I talked on the subject still checks one of my blog posts for new content at least once a week (even though nine months has passed) makes me certain that they will find some way to misrepresent the comments.

However, my greatest concern is that the mild tone will encourage not only the sexists, but the general community to ignore the comments altogether. In fact, even people inclined to support the recommendations might be disappointed by the mild tone.

Where, for instance, is the suggestion that women try harder to become involved in the leadership of projects? I know of no free software or open source project whose governing board has more than one or two women out of six to twelve members of the board. I suppose that women running for these positions run the risk of being co-opted by the need to govern the daily affairs of their projects, but surely the easiest way to implement women-friendly policies is to have more women implementing policy – period.

Another point that I suggest needs to be emphasized is that changing the current situation is likely to be the work of years, not weeks. The current situation is not new, and the current gender balance so skewed that it could not possibly change quickly, even if they were undefended. The danger I see is that a false expectation of change could be created of rapid change. But perhaps the group worries that the size of the task will be daunting, or possibly that talking about it may encourage activists to be more leisurely, since rapid change seems so unlikely.

I would also be happier about the comments if the group included some concrete plans about how to implement these policies, and announced some resources and other support for them. As much as I hate to say, listing the well-known barriers and common strategies to overcome them seems a rather tepid beginning for a new group.

Still, the group had to start somewhere. Perhaps the recommendations are meant as talking points to encourage community discussion, and more concrete -- and radical -- organization and strategies will be coming out later. All the same, I while I recognize the value of the FSF's Women's Caucus, I can't help thinking that if free software itself had chosen such a quiet approach, we would just be seeing the first general release of Emacs. I really wish that the group had chosen to be more assertive.

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