Taking the pledge a little bit further

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jan 10, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

One of my main critiques about feminism in free and open source software (FOSS) is that it has failed to engage large segments of the community -- especially men. Any movement for social change needs popular support, but too often FOSS feminists have taken a top-down approach, keeping directions and even the right to comment in the hands of a self-proclaimed intellectual vanguard.

That's why I welcome Rebecca J. Rosen's recent suggestion that people do their bit by pledging not to speak on all-male panels. True, "taking the pledge" sounds like something that teetotallers did in the early twentieth century when they promised not to drink alcohol. But the idea is practical, and gets the community involved in a way that has been lacking. Depending on how it is handled, it could not only accomplish the immediate goal of having more women speakers at conferences, but substantially increase the grassroots support as well.

What the pledge is not

However, before going into more detail, I should explain what Rosen's idea does not involve. It is not a call for a specific number of speakers. Nor is it a call for affirmative action, as many men automatically assume in order to dismiss it.

(Not that affirmative action would necessarily be a bad thing. After all, few people would have the nerve to appear on a panel whose topic they knew absolutely nothing about. Several times, too, I have seen conference organizers scouring the crowds for someone -- anyone -- who could fill in for a last minute no-show, so the idea of being qualified is frequently considered less important than putting on a good show. If nothing else, someone ignorant of a topic could contribute by asking intelligent questions.)

All that Rosen suggests is that male speakers should pressure conference organizers to make a greater effort to recruit women speakers. Admittedly, the whole problem is that women are massively outnumbered by men in FOSS, but that still must leave hundreds of women who could hold their own in a discussion for an hour. I wouldn't be surprised, either, if those women who are in FOSS are more qualified to speak than their average male counterparts, since they have probably had to work harder to gain acceptance.

Nor is Rosen suggesting that the pledge-takers hold out for fifty percent women. She is talking only about any female representation. Any.

Efforts to attract more female applications to speak have attracted 15-30% women speakers over the last few years, and, while those numbers need improvement, they are enough to build on (It's also enough for those uncomfortable with the idea to interpret as two or three times the actual number, although that's another sad story altogether).

Instead, Rosen is proposing that, when asked to appear at a conference, potential panellists ask about the number of female participants, and, if there are none, to decline to participate, explaining to the organizers the reason for this decision. Two years ago, I saw a similar tactic help to convince O'Reilly and Associates to add an anti-harassment policy to OSCON, so I have few doubts that it would be effective.

It definitely seems more useful than the emphasis in the last two years on implementing anti-harassment policies, which has always seemed to me to show a naive faith in a top-down dictum.The sort of people that anti-harassment policies are aimed at delight in breaking rules. Consequently, as the recent Chaos Communications Congress in Germany proved beyond any doubt, unless backed by clear communication and effective enforcement, anti-harassment policies are about as useful in making women safe as the Nuclear Free Zone signs of the 1990s were in banning nuclear weapons. Instead, they can create a cruel illusion of safety that does no one any good.

Planning even further along

But if the short-term effects are useful, the long-term ones could be equally important. Admittedly, I see no particular reason to add my name to the official pledge that Rosen provides -- if nothing else, I might want to specify my own particular terms, such as not boycotting all-male panels, but rather conferences without a certain percentage of women speakers.

But the point is that taking the pledge is something that supporters can do. Rosen's official pledge has collected three hundred names in a week, so, although some of those are obviously false, people are obviously eager to show their support.

My only criticism is that Rosen's suggestion doesn't go far enough. What if conference attendees pledged as well? If a few dozen speakers have influence, how much more influence would several hundred attendees who chose to stay at home?

Moreover, if the pledge is going to be made publicly, encourage pledgers to add a badge or ribbon to wear at the conference and demonstrate their support. Such a symbol need not be complicated; in fact, it might be simpler if it were something that pledgers could make for themselves. But whatever the symbol, it would show the pledgers that they were not alone, and give them a chance to explain to others why they were wearing it.

In other words, why not use the pledge to make the current feminist concerns a mass movement?

Like Rosen, I believe there are many men who support FOSS feminism, and would welcome a chance to show that support. If her initial idea was extended just slightly, I think it might very well provide a vital but missing piece to FOSS feminism.


  • Then...

    Then we'll have token women speaking there too. I can count the number of female programmers I know personally on one finger.
    She's awfully smart, so maybe listening to her everywhere I go wouldn't be a chore. But what if she's unavailable? Do I have to listen to the next random girl that "programs websites" on a panel that hardly has anything to do with it. I can refuse if there's actual sexism. But if they're missing an expert of a certain gender, that doesn't automatically mean discrimination.
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