Open Source Misogyny

We have a very large problem in the open source community: we are the epitome of a hostile misogynistic work environment.

If you’ve missed the latest example, read the comments on “A hell of a time” (cached) right now. Then come back and read the rest of this post.

I don’t know either of the people involved. I’m not going to comment on this specific incident beyond saying two things:

  1. This sort of thing should never, ever happen. It is inexcusable in any context. Full stop.
  2. A large number of the comments posted on the blog indicate just how pervasive the problem really is.

The first point is simple. Touching someone without their consent is assault. There is no excuse for not knowing and understanding this painfully simple concept. If you don’t, seek professional help before you hurt someone.

The second point, though, demonstrates just how pervasive misogyny is in the technology and open source community. I am extremely disturbed at the number of “LOL STFU you asked for it” posts. “Suck it up, if you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen” is just as bad, just less obscene. Not only are there members of our community that are supporters of abusive behavior, they’re willing to post their vitriolic opinions for the world to see. They make it appear that we as a community consider their abhorrent attitudes acceptable.

Standing up and speaking out against abusive behavior is a critical first step, but this is a systemic problem deeply rooted in the culture of our community. It’s not just that we need to stop it, abusive behavior shouldn’t be happening it in the first place!

We need to move beyond blog posts, angry tweets, and contributing to comment flamewars (of which I am equally guilty) and start making substantive changes to the way we run our community. Projects like CAHP are examples of attempts to make some of the fundamental systemic changes, but we need to do more. We need to change the underlying social mores our wonderfully chaotic and individualistic community.

Effecting fundamental change in any community is difficult. There’s no one “right” way to do it. A combination of multiple top-down and bottom-up approaches is likely the only way we’re going to make any progress. I’m no expert on organizational culture and change, but I have some ideas on where we can start:

  • We need to have codes of conduct in our projects and conferences that specifically ban abusive and sexist behavior. Moreover, these codes must have real consequences for violations – loss of commit access, removal from governing boards of committees, bans from conferences, etc. A scolding and a slap on the wrist is not sufficient. We need to make it abundantly clear that if you say or do something abusive, you will be booted from the project/community/conference. Then, of course, we actually have to enforce them. As painful as it may be, “but he’s a really brilliant coder” is no excuse. Booting someone for inappropriate behavior may cost you a valuable community member, but how many brilliant people have left or not joined the community because of the hostile environment engendered by letting the abusive members stay?
  • Trainings around diversity and sexual harassment – not just for people who have done something wrong, but everybody. I know, I know. I can hear the eye rolling from here. Badly-done trainings are worthless … as a public employee I’ve sat through more than a few that were painful wastes of time. That said, when well-executed these trainings really do work. Trainings help the majority (straight white guys like me) see the signs of trouble that we would ordinarily miss- they help us step back and really see what it’s like for members of the community minority. They help us know how to appropriately respond when we see problems, without condescension or paternalism and without disempowering the very people we’re trying to support . Most importantly, they make us think about how we do things and how we unthinkingly contribute to the problems within our community’s culture.
  • Keep speaking out. We need to learn to be more effective in how we respond to inappropriate and abusive behavior. Commenting on blogs can be useful, but it’s also shouting into an echo chamber. It makes a lot of noise, but is anyone really listening? Speaking out publicly helps, but we also need to pull our peers aside and speak to them privately about things they say and do – even when there were no women present – that are sexist or misogynist. One-on-one personal conversations are vastly more valuable than shouting on a blog.

Look around the next time you go to a conference or hack-a-thon or meetup. Tally the gender ratio. It’s appalling. It’s embarrassing. It’s totally unacceptable. Why is it this way? In no small part due to the behavior of us, the straight white male majority in the open source community, and how we treat the people who make up the rest the world’s population. We must do better. We have to turn this hostile work environment around and make it a welcoming place for everyone, not just some exclusive good old boys’ club.

19 Responses to “Open Source Misogyny”


  • Methinks a large part of this was just trolling. It’s pretty easy to spur people on anonymously, as evidenced by this post here, outraged over people’s internet conduct. Don’t feed the trolls, man.

  • Code of conduct/whatever stupid bureaucratic regulations WON’T help. Speak/talk/educate.
    But he’s a brilliant coder is not enough, but he’s a terrorist is for *some other organisation* – catch my drift? And if this brilliant coder doesn’t enlighten hundred of other people, out of which one will make the next you name it? Such rhetorics is utterly broken.
    Speak, educate, talk. And teach women to program – the more of them are in the cs/it professions, the less of such incidents (in relation to the whole female cs/it population) will happen. Of course, the nominal number will be higher – compare it to other work environments.

    • @ags: I’m talking about a code of conduct with real consequences for violation. “You insult a member of the community, you lose your commit access” will absolutely get someone’s attention. “Assault a member of the community, you’re banned” certainly will. A code of conduct without censure for offenses is useless. But if we censure community members for bad behavior – up to and including expulsion from the community – we’ll either educate the people who are willing to learn and change, or get rid of the ones who refuse to comply.

  • Thanks for this.

    One thing I’m noticing is that white straight nerdy guys like you and I are starting to stand up and say

  • Did you see Jono Bacon’s recent post proposing openrespect.org?

  • what does this have to do with open source?

    • It has to do with the open source community and its inherent hostility to anyone who is not a straight white male. If you want, think of it as filing a bug report on the community.

      Issue: The open source community is hostile to women
      Description: There are too many incidences of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior within the open source community.
      Steps to reproduce:

      1) be female.
      2) attend an open source community event.
      3) observe inappropriate comments, advances, insults.
      4) observe the resulting lack of women.

      Patch:
      — a/legacy/FOSScommunity
      +++ b/new/FOSScommunity
      @@ -28,7 +28,7 @@
      - insensitivity
      - insults
      - assault
      + empathy
      + respect
      + inclusivity

  • Hey Greg,

    I don’t much agree that /open source/ is any more or less hostile than the rest of the development, or any male-dominated, community. In fact, probably less so – the entire first half of the article that triggered this was dedicated to praising the inclusive and friendly behaviour other attendants (all male) and recognised that their behaviour was by far the norm. Not something that could be said of other male-dominated communities.

    Reading ‘open source misogyny’ implies that there’s something about open source development in particular that makes people misogynistic.

    Also, have you actually seen any reports of there being more assaults in the open source community than in any other community at all?

    • It’s a bit of a chicken and egg issue – it’s a nearly all-male industry in no small part because it’s not welcoming to women. One of the primary reasons it’s not welcoming to women is that it’s a nearly all-male industry. Ask the women you know in the FOSS community what their experience is like. I have, and the answers I’ve received are eye-opening. It may not seem hostile to the male members of the community, but we don’t have to walk in our female peers’ shoes.

      It’s not that open source development makes people misogynistic, it’s that the open source community does a poor job at policing itself and quelling misogynistic behavior before it becomes accepted as the norm. As you rightly point out, this most recent incident highlights our community at its best as well as at its worst. There are a number of male community members who, when they see abusive behavior, are very forthright in stepping forward to say something. Sadly, though, not enough do so. More importantly, male community members – myself included – don’t always notice the more subtle warning signs or unconscious things we do simply because their effect on the women in the community is outside our frame of reference. Part of making our community a more welcoming place is learning to see the things we haven’t noticed previously or take for granted. Even little things like not having enough women’s size t-shirts at events can send a subtle message that “your kind aren’t welcome here.”

      Please take a step back a minute from the issue of physical assault. Why do we have to wait until someone is assaulted before we start looking at how our community treats our female peers? Why aren’t we fostering an environment where women don’t feel like they have to use a gender-neutral or male username on boards and channels to be taken seriously, or worse, not be asked to post a photo of their breasts (yes, it happens)?

  • The open source community is majority white and male because the majority of the open source community is white and male.

    There is no conspiracy.

  • You seem to be confusing correlation and causation. Because you ask FOSS women their opinions, you say that the problems they recount are in some way related to the FOSS community. If you perhaps widened your poll to include engineers in general you’d probably find theres no relationship to FOSS at all.

    Its a no-brainer – of course we should all strive for equal treatment. The open source community should work towards this because every community should, not because OSS is somehow part of the problem.

    I also disagree that its not welcoming to women. This is entirely subjective though – I’ve only been involved in English and Australian communities. And I would think (though I have no evidence) that talking about ‘them’ like we should all be taking extraordinary measures to protect them might be considered somewhat condescending.

    • @Paul: I’d like to thank you for responding with respect and thoughtfulness. I was fully expecting to be flamed, so it’s a pleasant surprise that I haven’t had to deal with a single inappropriate post here.

      I am well aware of the difference between causation and correlation. When women in the community are saying, “I quit participating because I’m sick of the sexist crap” it’s causation.

  • For all those who think floss communities are devoid of sexist harassment, cyber-stalking, etc, here are some experiences I’ve blogged about. If it matters, ALL these men are within the FLOSS community.

    http://svaksha.com/post/2010/trolling-101
    http://svaksha.com/post/2010/gesellschaft

    Over the last 5-6 years there have been many more creepy experiences which I’ve not always written about publicly, but that does not mean it never occurs.

    • Thank you for sharing. As a male member of the FOSS community, I am very sorry you had to endure those experiences and pledge my support in helping eradicate such inexcusable behavior.

  • I’m always disappointed by the defeatism inherent in statements such as “I don’t much agree that /open source/ is any more or less hostile than the rest of the development, or any male-dominated, community.

    So… all we need to strive for is to achieve the same level of hostility as the rest of an also-hostile community?

    Way to set the bar low there, Paul. Personally, I hope we can do much, much better, and set the example for the rest of the STEM fields.

  • I’ll give a shout out here for PHPWomen . Drupal devs should check it out, as they have some seriously knowledgeable people involved.

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