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Why it matters – part 2

Deanna left a comment, and my response to it was getting so long I thought it should be its own post. I stole the title from Dorothea. See her post for part 1.

First, Deanna:

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.

Hi, Deanna. Thanks for commenting. I hear what you’re saying about having punished myself by removing myself from the group, when it was a project I wanted to be a part of. That’s true to some extent, and if it happened today I might have fought it out. I do, however, feel that this is a deeper issue than one of hurt feelings.

In cases of discriminatory harassment there is the concept of creating a hostile environment. That means that the workplace has discriminated against a group of people not by barring them from working there outright, but instead by creating an environment where they would not want to or be able to work. I hope that we can all agree that discriminatory harassment is wrong. When I go to work at the library, I expect to be able to do my job without having my co-workers comment on my body, or pin up pictures of naked women in the office, or make lewd comments to me. As a manager, I have a further duty to protect my people from hostile environments. If I don’t then not only will they not be effective, I could get the university sued.

So, what is the open source community? Is it a private club, where everyone gets to do and say whatever they like, including making sexist jokes or posting porn? I would never question someone’s right to do those things in the privacy of their home, or in a nightclub that they owned.

However, I would argue that no, the open source community is not a private club. It is my workplace. And most people in the open source community claim that they want it to be my workplace. The stated goal of openbsd-advocacy, the list you mention, is “Promoting the use of OpenBSD.” They want, or at least say they want, people to use OpenBSD. They want it to have a certain reputation as a reliable piece of software, something that people won’t get fired for if they install it on their university server. They want, and I want, open source to be considered a responsible choice for responsible department heads who are making IT decisions.

You can’t have it both ways. Either it’s a professional community that can be part of a professional workplace, or else it’s a private club, in which case they shouldn’t have non-profit status, they shouldn’t be soliciting donations, and I don’t want them on my servers.

I also do not want any “specially gentle responses.” What I do want, and what I do expect of any project that claims to be of sufficient caliber that I’m going to be trusting my data, my network and my professional reputation to it, is a certain level of professional conduct.

Comments

Comment from David Fiander
Time: July 31, 2006, 9:28 pm

Bess, I agree with you. There’s a difference between the rough-and-tumble of a “doOcracy” or meritocracy and a hostile work environment.

Deanna, calls for “women developers” are not going to invalidate your experiences, they are attempting to give more women, who wouldn’t react the way you did, the same opportunities. The women attracted by such a call still have to prove themselves technically, and if they’re not up to, they’ll be told so, and not gently, I expect.

Comment from dchud
Time: July 31, 2006, 10:43 pm

Hi Bess. There’s a lot to learn from both of these viewpoints. I think, though, that there’s a bit of a logical (or at least statistical) fallacy in your conclusion that “you can’t have it both ways.”

It doesn’t need to be argued that in many professional workplaces jerks who harrass can be found; obviously the same holds on public project lists and channels not directly owned or controlled by formal organizations.
What seems to be implied in your statement that “most people in the open source community claim that they want it to be my workplace”, though, is that if that’s what they want, they actually should hold themselves to a *higher* standard than your workplace.

I’m not going to make excuses for bad behavior, nor will I deny having behaved like a jerk myself at times. But what you seem to want here is that an informal collection of people should behave *better* than people within your formal workplace, or, at least, that members of the informal community should act as if they had the same checks and balances against bad behavior threatening them as does a formal workplace where policies and procedures are established, refined, and hopefully enforced fairly over time. By better here I mean that since those checks and balances aren’t necessarily in place in the informal community, they must be more willing to hold themselves and each other to a higher standard, whereby reputation and peer respect will suffer greatly in reaction to bad behavior.

The only even partial solution to that conundrum is for a majority of participants in an informal community to arrive at, declare, and uphold what they deem to be appropriate standards (and, if appropriate, punishments) for their community. What I like about what Deanna says above is that it means that to remove yourself if you are an offended party is also to remove yourself from the process of defining those standards.

On the other hand, I get that if there’s an overwhelming ratio of few people on one “side” vs. another (whatever a “side” might be, gender or otherwise), it can also be an overwhelming burden on the few to stand up for what they believe. What I like about your comments above and your other recent writings is that they help me (as a member of the male side in this particular instance :) understand your side a lot better.

Separately I’d also like to point out that while “there is no open source community“, in libraries in particular, what there is of an “open source community” can arguably be represented best by the membership of the oss4lib-discuss list. This informal list, approaching eight years old with ~650 members, is perhaps as-to-be-expected disproproportionately male, but it has always seen substantial participation from women and has (so far as I know) never been called out on-list for any of the kinds of problems being discussed here. Maybe we’ve just been lucky so far and our day will come too (or maybe folks have suffered in silence, which I hope not to be true), but, so far, so good. So if you’re looking for an exemplary open source community that has always been professional and welcoming, look no further. :)

I just don’t think it’s so easy to divide communities into professional or private, or well-behaved or not. Most involved people want open source to be taken seriously, and most people want their open/non-private informal communities to present welcoming, supportive environments, but most communities have jerks, and most people make mistakes sometimes. Most communities need all the help they can get when working out fair responses to mistakes and fair punishments for the malicious.

Thank you for choosing to write about all this!

Comment from Dorothea
Time: August 1, 2006, 8:27 am

A couple other thoughts:

Humor is a common weapon. That a remark is funny (to some) does not mean it’s not also belittling, cruel, or distancing. The men who emailed Deanna doubtless did think what they said was funny. I doubt, however, that they thought Deanna was going to laugh.

“Most communities have jerks” is a cop-out. It’s certainly true, but so what? What matters is what *happens* to the jerks when they show themselves to be such. To me, appropriate standards of conduct in the workplace are no different from appropriate standards in any open group of people. The question is whether those standards are meaningfully promulgated and held to.

I don’t think it’s true that informal non-workplace groups have no behavior standards or enforcement mechanisms. Indeed, some such groups have tighter requirements than workplaces! And like it or not, many IT groups have a “no gurlz alowed” stenciled on their front stoop, enforced with humor, private and public attacks, reduction of women to sex objects (specific women or in general), and the rest of the tired litany.

So the question for a group wanting to move beyond that becomes how to use the enforcement mechanisms that the group *already has* for new purposes. Probably an easier problem than trying to impose a new mechanism altogether (such as workplace-style restrictions or “official” written covenants).

Now then. A group attempting to cope with a behavior problem, especially one of long standing, needs to recognize that it has *already lost* people, *already damaged* its reputation in the larger community. Those who finally spoke up asking for change are the tip of an iceberg.

They’re probably also the wrong people to ask about change, as are whatever remnants of the target group remain. Many of them are partially or fully assimilated, so identified with the group that they accept its mores — witness Deanna. Others are atypical. You can’t judge female systems librarians by Bess and Deanna and me; we’ve hung around IT long enough that we’ll put up with more longer than most syslibs (never mind non-syslibs) will.

It’s a hard problem. But as Karen pointed out with regard to female speakers, it is *not* a problem that can be solved by sitting around and expecting women to pop up with convenient solutions.

And it’s not a problem that gets solved if only the women are talking, so I’m glad that David and Dan are here.

Comment from Dorothea
Time: August 1, 2006, 8:33 am

Oops, Bess’s reply and mine crossed in the ether…

Comment from Ross
Time: August 1, 2006, 10:47 am

Bess, the issue of public workplace vs. private sphere is a discussion that needs to happen. I would wager that the tension is mostly a matter that this hasn’t really been discussed until now. My guess is that this debate will have varying success based on community (groups that are doing specific work would probably be more tolerant to a more professional workplace than a more general discussion/advocacy space, right or wrong).

My question is where does this (well, not my ‘this’ as in ‘my previous paragraph’, but ‘this’ as in sexism/discrimination in IT and, specifically, library IT) go from here?

Unlike Art, I don’t think blogging is a particularly good forum discussion (although I think it’s a great means of publishing opinions or raising awareness). The blog is akin to a revolutionary pamphlet or an edict nailed to the door of a church (to take this metaphor into the realm of hyperbole), but it’s not neutral space where ideas and opinions can be bounced around and refined.

I was actually planning on writing a post about this last weekend, in a fit of meta-irony, about how the core of this conversation needs to leave the blogosphere (although, obviously, there will still be discussion there) and into a more public. moderated and neutral space. The reason I didn’t write it can be boiled down to feeling overwhelmed with how to phrase such a plea without including too much of my own opinion. Also, I thought my voice, since it’s generally provocative and unprofessional in tone, would sound hollow or (even worse) defensive.

This dialogue must be held, though, I just don’t know where or how.

Comment from Deborah
Time: August 1, 2006, 11:24 am

Thank you for this, Bess. I think it’s an important distinction to make that while, as Dorothea says, many of us have been around long enough that we *can* take the heat, there’s no reason we should. If open source software wants to be taken seriously, its proponents have to act professionally. Why should I contribute to a volunteer movement that assumes all women are girlfriends or groupies and perforce refuses to treat me as a contributing member?

The numbers which Art sites are extremely telling. Why are there far fewer women in open source then in software development as a whole? It’s because in the professional world, adult behavior is the expectation. In the open source software world, on the other hand, there is a large culture of the kind of behavior many of us have been speaking about for a while, in which individuals make infantile jokes and calling them on it results in cries of “why do you make everything so serious!” It’s not that there aren’t jerks everywhere, but in a professional environment the culture as a whole formally or socially punishes the jerks. In the open source movement, the culture as a whole *encourages* the jerks.

As I recently blogged, a friend once asked me to join in a Slashdot discussion about why there weren’t more women in open source. When I went to look at the discussion, the vast majority of the comments were variants of “because girls are stupid and only like ponies.” Worse, these comments had high moderation scores. In other words, the Slashdot community’s self-policing mechanisms showed that the members of Slashdot thought this kind of behavior was not just acceptable, but praiseworthy.

And why should this be discouraged? Why should women be encouraged to contribute to the open-source world, and feel comfortable there? Well, personally, I feel I have a lot to add. I’m a good programmer. Last time I contributed to an open source software project it was to take a lot of hacked C-like C++ code, give it a good data modeling schema, and rewrite it to the schema — a project I think was extremely valuable. And last time I contributed to an open source software project on a large scale was four years ago. It’s the open-source community’s loss, IMHO.

Comment from Deborah
Time: August 1, 2006, 11:30 am

Also, a quick aside to Deanna’s “short bus” comment. It’s not a short bus to make active calls for women to participate in calls for papers, conferences, and open source projects. As long as you hold the contributions of female developers to the same standards you hold the contributions of male participants, you’re not in any way devaluing the contributions of the women who join these projects. What you *are* doing is fighting, in a tiny way, the constant messages of “go away, you’re not wanted” that female developers and IT professionals hear explicitly and implicitly everyday. I know that there have been projects I haven’t contributed to because I believe that my opinions are not wanted specifically because I am female. Throwing that “female developers wanted” line into a project or a paper call does the tiniest little bit of fighting the overwhelming boys club atmosphere of open-source software.

Not to mention it sets a precedent of decent, adult, professional behavior. It’s a lot harder to defend the locker room atmosphere of many coding mailing lists in a project that explicitly states that it is trying for diversity.

Comment from Dorothea
Time: August 1, 2006, 1:28 pm

Ross, I’ve been thinking about some of the same things you express. My issue is that supposedly “neutral” space often isn’t. Since code4lib was brought up, let’s use it as an example. If another IRC channel were created to discuss this problem, the similarity in venue would naturally cause participants in the new channel to bring over behaviors and thought-processes from #code4lib proper — including unwanted ones. Familiarity breeds lots of things, but change usually isn’t one, humans being creatures of habit.

An allied problem is that people who have found a given venue unpleasant naturally have aversive reactions to similar venues. One avoids the alley where one was mugged last week, and like that.

The blogsphere, while assuredly not neutral, offers the benefit of a public space where the previously-silenced cannot be silenced any longer. Sometimes nailing edicts to the door is precisely what the situation requires. It also offers a sense of ownership and a sense of safety that I for one find helpful.

This does need public discussion in a safe discussion space. How do we find such a space?

Art, neither Bess nor I said the word “punishment,” and I don’t think any of us is interested in retributive justice! We *are* interested in seeing certain behaviors deterred. I don’t think “punishment” is necessary for that, but *something* needs to be in place to clue in the clueless and manage the malicious. What?

Comment from Ross
Time: August 1, 2006, 2:16 pm

Dorothea, I’m certainly not recommending another IRC channel. The dialogue doesn’t have to be synchronous.

While I’m not sure face-to-face gatherings are manageable and I can already hear the groans of yet-another-mailing-list, there must be a way to harvest and discuss community input that is centralized, open and welcoming.

Blog postings are akin to lectures (yes, this in tandem with being pamphlets and edicts) regarding their dynamic for discussion. Commenting is pretty much limited to the initial posting (which makes sense) and the blog owner is the only person that can steer the conversation.

Comment from Dorothea
Time: August 1, 2006, 2:34 pm

Weeelllll… y’know, lecturing is what people do when they have something to say and don’t really *want* to be sidetracked, kibitzed, discussed with, or shouted down right that minute. Not so?

I don’t think the current series of lectures (and I include Deborah’s contribution here, which she has not yet brought up) has been a bad thing at all… and I also think it’s possible that it needs to continue until we lecturers have said what we feel we need to.

Honestly? It may not be time for discussion yet, especially when “discussion” in IT venues can be code for “we’ll wear you down to a nubbin and then go right back to what we were doing before.” I don’t yet feel a change of heart here — I feel a sense that most folks are rarin’ to start arguing with Bess and Deborah and Karen and me.

(I do hear acknowledgement from Art, as I have in the past from Roy, and I very much appreciate it.)

Until folks want to *hear and think and acknowledge* instead of reacting quickly and contrarily, I think I’ll stick with blog-as-soapbox; it’s gotten better results than anything else I’ve ever tried or done.

Comment from Dorothea
Time: August 1, 2006, 3:22 pm

Voice recognition software is great if you need it, horrible if you don’t. Typing-tutor software is vastly cheaper and more useful, as long as you don’t have RSI issues. :)

Sorry for the misunderstanding, and I like the virtual-BOF idea quite a lot!

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