What's the next step for FOSS feminism?

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jul 20, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Men who support feminism aren't supposed to criticize. They are supposed to expand the size of a crowd, donate, and keep their mouths shut. However, I have never had trouble being insubordinate, and I have a question I think worth asking: isn't it time to take FOSS feminism to the next level?

FOSS feminism has had a long list of accomplishments since Alex Bayley (AKA Kirrily Robert and Scud) started talking about the issues in 2007-08. Dozens of organizations have sprung up teach girls and women to code --Code 'n' Splode, Geek Girl, Girls in Tech, Hacker You, Ladies Learning Code, PHPWomen, RailsBridge, Black Girls Code, Women Who Code are just the ones I can easily recall. The Ada Initiative has made anti-harassment policies the norm for conferences. Outreachy (formerly the GNOME Outreach Program for Women) has become the standard for introducing both women and minorities to free software. As Deb Nicholson pointed out, for several years we've been "moving into a situation where you have to be willfully ignorant to say you don't know there's a problem."

All these accomplishments are worth celebrating, and I don't want to denigrate them for a moment. Yet when I consider everything that remains to be done, they seem starting points at best -- minor if necessary approaches to much larger issues. My concern is that, focusing on the minor issues risks losing sight of the major ones, many of which are rarely mentioned, let alone acted upon.

For example:

Instead of anti-harassment policies that at best influence the few days every year spent at conferences, what about employment policies that effect daily life? The gender gap in wages, not just at hiring, but over employees' careers? Affirmative action for qualified candidates? Blind hiring, in which employers see only candidates’ qualifications, and not their name, gender or age? Employee standards of behavior? Human resources policies that reflect women’s lives? Universal daycare? Making encouraging more women speakers at conferences a major campaign, instead of something mentioned now and then? Addressing goals like these would make go a long way to converting FOSS feminism from the lifestyle of an elite to an active presence in ordinary women's lives.

However, rather than approaching these larger issues in the present hit and miss way, I suggest it is time for FOSS feminism's Continental Congress -- an Internet conversation, punctuated by in-person conferences to produce a common list of priorities that represents a consensus among all the schools of FOSS feminists, and would represent their general position in the media.

I realize, of course, that FOSS feminists are not unanimous in their opinions. However, many of the issues I mentioned follow naturally from any definition of feminism, so the amount of disagreement might be less than anticipated. At any rate, the point would not be the solution, so much as a recognition of exactly what the issues are. Any discussion of solutions will only bring the issue closer to mainstream concerns.

Gaining the advantage
One advantage of a position statement is that it would wrestle the power of definition away from the opposition. For example, men's rights activists often dismiss affirmative action as reverse discrimination, arguing that under-qualified women will be hired in order to meet quotas. But if a majority of FOSS feminists could agree that the action took the form of blind hiring, and would only apply to qualified applicants, then opposition to affirmative action would no longer have even the illusion of logic.

Even more importantly, a clear statement of purpose would attract supporters. Many free software developers and advocates express sympathy to FOSS feminism, but seem unsure how to act on that sympathy. Let them know precisely what they are asked to support, and they should see more clearly how they could become involved.
With a unified position statement, FOSS feminist could become a mass movement, like the anti-slavery movement of the early 1800s, the Suffragist movement of the early twentieth century, or the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Instead of feminist stickers and t-shirts being displayed only a carefully vetted handful, lets have thousands displaying them, showing just how widespread the support actually is, and reinforcing the call for change. It would spark the discussion that is a necessary prelude to change, making clear that feminist issues are the concern of everyone, and not confined to an insular minority.

Being a man, I am not the one to organize such a discussion -- certainly not alone, or in any major role. By trying to do so, I could only undermine the credibility of the result. Still, If any women can ignore the source and take up the suggestion, I suspect that the result would not only re-focus FOSS feminism, but change FOSS for the better as well.

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