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more adventures in sexism

I’ve just read the complete HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux and I hope it doesn’t sound strage for me to say it, but I am deeply moved.

I want to share a story. In 2000, when I first moved to Edmonton, I worked for SunSITE Alberta as a systems administrator. One of the servers we maintained hosted openbsd.org, and I used openbsd a lot, even though we were ostensibly a Sun shop. I got to know some of the developers, I read the mailing list and the website, and at one point I decided to buy an openbsd t-shirt. As I placed my order on the website, I put a comment in the comment box, which then without my knowledge or consent got posted to the openbsd mailing list. You can still read it in the archives:

Hi! I’m a big fan of BSD and I love the fact that you’ve started selling
t-shirts especially for women. However, I was a little distressed when
I read the caption for it: “specifically for the girlfriends (and
potential girlfriends) of OpenBSD users and developers!”
(http://www.openbsd.org/tshirts.html#14)

A woman doesn’t have to be someone’s girlfriend to be part of the BSD
community. Women use BSD, too. I’m one of them. I think I’ll order a
t-shirt, but it’s for me, not my girlfriend.

I hope you’ll think about changing the language on your website. You’ll
probably sell more t-shirts to geek-girls (who must be your real target
audience here).

Thanks,
Bess Sadler
University of Alberta

In the archives that are still online, the only reply to my message is this:

We’re trying to be funny.

Sure. I’ll change it soon. We’ll head right towards the bland,
boring, universe of text that you so eagerly wish for.

This was by far the nicest and least threatening of the responses I received. I don’t remember now which messages went to the mailing list and which came directly to my mailbox. Most were pornographic, or threatening, or both. I was accused of being a castrating bitch, and I was propositioned lewdly. It terrified me. I never went to another UG meeting, I never installed openbsd again, and I was never again comfortable around any of the bsd developers I knew, even though they had not been part of the incident, and may not even have known about it. When my t-shirt came, I gave it away.

I got over it of course, and I haven’t thought about that incident in years now, until this current discussion reminded me. But yeah, when people ask why there aren’t more women doing open source development, it does rankle a bit.

UPDATE: I’ve been getting quite a few people linking to this post, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to add one more detail. There was one guy on the OpenBSD list who was really great. He thought I had a good point, and he immediately changed the language on the website that I was originally complaining about. That doesn’t change everything else that happened, but I wanted to give him credit, even if I can’t remember his name at this point. Thank you, guy who did the right thing!

Comments

Comment from Sachiko
Time: July 29, 2006, 8:26 am

Hi Bess,
After reading your blog and have read several articles on sexism in science (the most recent one I read is in The New York Times appeared on July 18 ["A CONVERSATION WITH -- Ben A. Barres; Dismissing 'Sexist Opinions' About Women's Place in Science"]).

I met a few female programmers.
A few, not as many as I wish to see, but they’re nonetheless as brilliant as male programmers.

I have no immediate (and logical) response to your question, “why there aren’t more women doing open source development.”

However, I am as disgusted as you when people bring their prejudice and assumption that women could not be a programmer or an open source developer.
At least I could tell those people that it’s unfortunate that they haven’t met excellent female programmers. I’ve met some, and they’re far better (seasoned) than any mediocre male programmers!

Comment from orcmid
Time: July 29, 2006, 5:27 pm

I just learned of your experience through a link from Dorothea.

I am sorrowful that you were treated in the manner that you report.

I regret that I ever paid for an OpenBSD disc set.

Thank you for making this incident known.
I am thankful that you have managed to get past the experience.
I’m also grateful that you are willing to let everyone know the kind of sexist
nonsense that is still rampant in our culture. We need you to let us know how
we are falling short of our ideals for equal treatment and the honoring of all humanity.

Comment from Deanna Phillips
Time: July 31, 2006, 6:20 pm

Though I feel, a little, for your hurt feelings, I must say it seems
like you’ve taken this in the wrong direction. Why punish yourself
because of a few idiots? You must know that even though the internet
seems like a Wild West full of scary gun-toting macho men, in reality
the most ridiculously hostile ones are just children, using the
relative anonymity as an excuse to misbehave. They’re trying to get a
reaction wherever they can; if this were not the case we’d never have
had a goatse.

In contrast, I’ll relate a similar experience I had with the OpenBSD
community in 2001. Someone posted a link to the usual (tired, boring,
cliched) pictures of softcore porn models with airbrushed geek logos
on them. I made a drive-by comment that was aggressive in nature, and
received a couple of seemingly hostile private email responses.
However, I let them sit a while and gave it some thought, and after
re-reading them I realized they were meant to be.. humorous. And they
were! I wish I still had copies. One of my favorites was: “What
makes you think we _want_ more female users?” :)

http://marc.theaimsgroup.com/?l=openbsd-advocacy&m=99542178002233&w=2

My point here is that I, personally, would never want any specially
gentle responses from a DoOcracy that is known for its sharp wit and
sharp people. It’s not a tea party, and no one is out to get you.
The people who are geniunely hostile about non-technical issues are
almost always children and have no relationship to the project at all.
Don’t let them keep you from doing what you love.

As an aside, I can’t stand these “women developers wanted!” feel-good
articles. The main draw of the open source culture has always been
peer-respect and review. Don’t cheapen my now-valid chances at
receiving this reward for years of hard work by setting up a special
short bus.

Comment from Peter
Time: July 31, 2006, 7:27 pm

I find that whenever you see people reacting out of proportion to the situation, it is usually because you’re receiving the backlash of a much longer conversation. It is totally true that the tagline could be read to imply that women were not a part of the BSD community. It is also true that the tagline was probably not intended to be demeaning or exclusive, but was, in fact, intended to be a jibe at the male developers. For me, the offense here is that these were people attempting to provide some colorful fun in their advertising, meaning no offense, and you read their copy in the worst possible light. It would seem that you’ve even added some of your own personal bias, ascribing more weight than was obviously intended.

As for the vicious responses, I can’t comment directly, as you didn’t post them more offensive ones, but I agree with Deanna that the more immature the response, the less worthy of note. I would say that you can hardly expect to enter a community who is relaxed and enjoying themselves and quash their fun and expect them to kowtow and genuflect. These sexists were relaxing and having fun, and you come in, read a joke and get offended. Then you message them and try to make them feel bad about themselves. They’re going to feel defensive. The more mature among them will snidely riposte with sarcasm while the less mature will lash out with the unchecked aggression that Internet anonymity allows.

You haven’t asked for my counsel, but I would suggest asking what the intended message is rather than assuming that you know. You alerted them to the existence of female BSD developers, but then you presumed to know their target audience. My wife, who is not a developer, would (does) proudly wear geeky shirts to show solidarity, not because of any particular love of the icon herself.

I don’t find you unreasonable, but I wonder if it might not be more productive to be a force for peacemaking between the genders rather than dehumanizing the sexist males.

Comment from Dorothea
Time: August 1, 2006, 8:47 am

I don’t see any dehumanizing in Bess’s response. I see a lot of it in the BSD folks’ responses to her.

It is indeed very difficult to walk into a space where people have established norms that exclude you, and ask to be included. It is often taken as “spoiling folks’ fun.” I suppose my response to that is that what some folks consider fun is disturbing — and, honestly, wrong.

Defensive responses are indeed quite common. That does not mean they are justified. When we have done wrong, the proper thing to do is apologize and make amends, not trash the person who called the wrong to our attention.

Bess’s read of the copy is not unreasonable to my eyes — again, it’s a matter of context. It is commonly assumed that women are not developers, but the SOs of developers, so commonly assumed that it is *damaging* to parade that notion unchallenged on a T-shirt. I applaud Bess for her bravery in challenging that damage, and I am appalled at what happened to her because of it.

Comment from Dorothea
Time: August 1, 2006, 8:49 am

And as for “peacemaking between the genders” — what have the men done to create peace? Coming here and accusing Bess of being a spoilsport and a dehumanizer isn’t exactly an olive branch.

Comment from Deborah
Time: August 1, 2006, 11:43 am

Peter —

Your response is exactly the kind of response that keeps women out of software development, although I fully understand that you did not mean it that way. Your statement that Bess needs to look for the intent of the T-shirt slogan and its defenders is true in as much as intent is what defines them as clueless well-meaning fools instead of misogynists. But the intent is different from the effect. Bess’s message, as reproduced here is not at all representing people “in the worst possible light”. It is a friendly attempted outreach, saying “hey, you guys, I am one of you too, and by the way, you should be aware that I’m here.” That’s not asking people to “kowtow and genuflect,” that’s asking people to be aware of other members of the community.

She presumed to know their target audience? Hell, yes. They made T-shirts for men and advertised them for developers, and made T-shirts for women, and advertised them for girlfriends. They state their target audience: male developers and female girlfriends. The very presence of what you call harmless fun sets the rules for the community: only boys may apply. Your wife can wear the T-shirt to show solidarity, but Bess can’t wear one as a BSD developer.

And yet instead of getting offended and lashing out, Bess does try to be a force for peacemaking between the genders. Reread her initial e-mail. It’s inclusive, friendly, from one member of the community to another. The problem is when something that professional, that respectful, that friendly is interpreted as “reading their copy in the worst possible light”, “getting offended”, “trying to make them feel bad about themselves”.

It is not out of line to point out to people when they’re doing wrong. It’s not an attack, it’s not an accusation of evil — it’s just an attempt to educate. That you see pointing out to people the exclusive nature of their community as an attempt to make them kowtow and genuflect is incredibly worrisome to me.

Comment from Deanna Phillips
Time: August 1, 2006, 7:10 pm

Sigh.

If you want change, call off the pity party, stop wasting time on these wretched blogs and DO SOMETHING. Taking these things personally and using them as an excuse to not participate harms you personally as well as your cause.

Comment from Dorothea Salo
Time: August 1, 2006, 8:07 pm

Deanna, I tried doing something without the blog. I got nowhere. Nothing happened until I blew things high, wide, and handsome IN PUBLIC. ON THE BLOG.

I won’t apologize for that, and I won’t be incorrectly called passive, either.

I respect what you’ve accomplished, and I ask respect in return for what I have — and what Bess has.

Comment from Eliyahu Skoczylas
Time: August 2, 2006, 3:55 am

In looking through the discourse up until now, I think I can see everyone’s side. :)

First, I sympathize with bess, and feel ashamed like orcmid for the disgraceful juvenile antics to which she was subjected. I do feel, though, like Deanna Phillips, that her response was perhaps disproportionate, in that she cut off her own nose, so to speak, to spite the OpenBSD community’s face, even though the silent majority ther probably mildly agreed with her, felt a bit personally uncomfortable, and said nothing for lack of anything useful to contribute, or just plain awkwardness. Were you expecting an inbox full of mea culpas, breast-beating, and sincere apologies for being somewhat of an MCP but now wanting to mend one’s ways?! You asked for the website to be changed, and … it was. So most Do-ers felt nothing more needed to be done, and if they sat over a beer thinking that they were a tad too sexist, it didn’t mean that they would pour out their hearts to you about it.

Like Sachiko, I have met and been impressed by the few female “hackers” I’ve known. I’ve speculated about their rarity, but someone else’s blog is no place for me to be trumpeting my own half-baked theories. ;)

Peter, now, makes some good points, but I think that his opening remark about disproportionate responses showing the sender’s issues, rather than the receiver’s, to be telling, and even Freudian. bess reacted excessively, I agree, but then Peter’s diatribe about accepting the sexist pigs for who they are smacks, to me, of a defensive response. So I agree with Dorothea in her response to the latter half of Peter’s posting.

But I don’t want to turn this into a flame war about Peter….

I applaud the initiative to encourage women developers to form a sub-community. I disagree with Deanna Phillips that they should enter the male fraternity on male terms, no matter how hard the struggle. I see very clearly with my wife and with other women that there are MAJOR differences between (most) men’s and (most) women’s ways of building communities. bess’ initial response is incomprehensible to me, because I would have bristled my quills and jumped into the fray, spitting and and flaming, before packing up my marbles and going elsewhere to play. I DO think that is a male / female issue, and I DO think that there should be separate spaces within a larger community where people, not necessarily strictly segregated by gender, mind you, can interact with each other in different fashions…

… maybe it’s a semantic thing? Maybe instead of “male” and “female” groups we need both “flaming free-for-alls” and “kinder, gentler, nurturing circles”. (I’m NOT being sarcastic; I’m exaggerating to make my meaning clearer.) I think that different personalities will gravitate to the different styles of communication of the two sub-communities, and if we see a strong correlation of gender with membership in each sub-group, so be it.

And that’s enough for my two cents!

Feel free to reply to eli_sko at mac period com.

Comment from Peter Binkley
Time: September 1, 2006, 3:23 pm

[Having commented elsewhere on this blog, and having noticed that the Peter of comment 4 above didn't provide any identifying info to indicate that he's not me, I'd just to state that I'm not him. Thank you; carry on.]

Pingback from Caveat Lector » Blog Archive » Sexism and group formation
Time: March 22, 2013, 12:26 pm

[...] when I cut loose on CavLec finally, I didn’t get a pile-on in return the way Bess did. Well, I sort of did, actually; I spent a solid month and more answering email with my teeth [...]

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