Thursday, 15 October 2009

Sexism and open source software

The_Great_Indoors in comments at Shakesville mentioned these writings by Bruce Byfield: original article, and his later comments on the (predictable) response.

It reminds me of the research done back in 2006 for the EU on this - D16 and D17 are the relevant documents - which said much the same thing. It's hardly surprising that it hasn't changed.

As an occasional open-source developer myself, and someone who uses open-source software a lot, it doesn't surprise me that this is a problem. Eric Raymond's statement, quoted in both Byfield's article and in the FlossPols research, that:

Hackerdom is still predominantly male. However, the percentage of women is clearly higher than the low-single-digit range typical for technical professions, and female hackers are generally respected and dealt with as equals…. …When asked, hackers often ascribe their culture's gender- and color-blindness to a positive effect of text-only network channels, and this is doubtless a powerful influence. Also, the ties many hackers have to AI research and SF literature may have helped them to develop an idea of personhood that is inclusive rather than exclusive -- after all, if one's imagination readily grants full human rights to future AI programs, robots, dolphins, and extraterrestrial aliens, mere color and gender can't seem very important any more.

It's fairly obvious that what actually happens is everyone gets assumed to be the default. The text-only communication doesn't mean that race and gender become unimportant; it just means that everyone is assumed to be a white man.

In the scenario he imagines, what would actually happen is that everyone would also be assumed to be an organic Earth-born human, and female robotic dolphins from Mars would just have to put up with that assumption. Certainly, even now, ablism, homophobia, transphobia, and other common forms of discrimination are also commonplace. I'll, for simplicity, just discuss the effects of sexism, as a shorthand for the range of intersecting discriminations.

The consequence of assuming that everyone is a man is that sexism gets expressed and goes largely unchallenged by the other people around who are also men, which creates an unwelcoming environment for everyone who isn't.

This environment puts off potential developers, but of course it also puts off potential users, and since most developers of open-source software are firstly users of that software (with the exception of the initial developers, of course), that further makes developers less likely.

Given that open-source software basically survives or disappears into obscurity based on the number of users and number of developers, you'd think that not being actively hostile to 50% of your potential user base made sense.