FLOSS inclusivity: pragmatic, voluntary, empowering, joyous

Lucy Connor’s “Diversity at what cost?” and Benjamin Otte’s blog post on equality got me thinking about the backlash against diversity and outreach initiatives in open source. Specifically, I sometimes see arguments that inclusivity

  • is a slippery slope into coercion and quotas
  • should not be a FLOSS value, or
  • competes with the core mission of his/her software project.

In response to Otte’s thoughts on whether the principle “all men are created equal” stands in opposition to core GNOME and Fedora goals, I said in part:

The words “equality†and “inclusive†can be easy to misinterpret. Advocates often use them as a softer way of saying “don’t be sexist/racist/etc.†and “let’s give due consideration to people we’re inadvertently leaving out.†Perhaps [critics] are misreading this suggestion as greed for market share, or conflating cowardice with the intention and practice of thoughtful inclusivity.

Yes, it is an important principle that all people deserve to be treated equally *by the law*, and as an ideal to reach toward, it’s laudable. However, it’s a straw-man argument to suggest that advocates for equality and inclusion propose that all seven billion people’s opinions should have equal relevance in every endeavor and choice.

Every organization has a specific mission, such as “change the government’s policies to improve the environment†or “maintain an excellent Linux distribution with cutting-edge innovations.†This is its “value proposition,†in US English. It embodies some of its core values. The Fedora project is indeed facing a tension between its value proposition and one facet of inclusivity — suitability for novice users. But there are many other aspects to inclusivity and an interest in equality, such as accessibility, nonsexist language, university outreach, and documentation. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

You may also be interested in http://geekfeminism.org/2009/11/29/questioning-the-merit-of-meritocracy/ for thoughts on meritocracy in FLOSS.

… If you simply find any good product unstylish as soon as a certain proportion of the population starts to benefit from it, that strikes me as needlessly snobbish, and implies a misanthropy that will permanently be opposed to even the least controversial inclusivity initiatives.

We linkspammed Connor’s piece a few days ago, and commenter koipond noted:

I hear the sentiment, but it’s kind of missing the point. No one is saying “Diversity at all costs†where they want to force people in who don’t want to be there. It’s more a case of trying to break down the barriers that prevent people who might be interested but see a toxic morass and refuse to swim in the pool.

My comment was along similar lines:

When I read http://geekfeminism.org/ or the http://geekfeminism.wikia.com wiki, or listen to the women on the Systers mailing list, I don’t hear a general and undifferentiated “WE MUST GET MORE WOMEN INTO FLOSS†or tech agitprop agenda. I see lots of initiatives to help underrepresented groups — African-Americans, women, people from developing countries — get in on the joy and empowerment of hacking.

I think there is a separate argument to be made that everyone, of every gender and from every socioeconomic, ability and ethnic background, should be generally technically literate, which means being able to code a “hello world†in some decent language and feeling empowered to modify their computing environment a little. To extend the analogy, I know it ruined your [Connor's] enjoyment of Model UN when the teachers forced everyone to participate, but you’re not against the goal of everyone learning a little about how international politics works.

And because these sexist behaviors and attitudes keeping women out of high-status and high-paying professions are just now starting to fade, it’s important to take an extra look at seemingly innocuous traditional attitudes to make sure they don’t conceal yet more barriers and discouragement. As Kirrily Robert pointed out in her OSCON keynote, the community as a whole grows organically and benefits greatly from (voluntary, of course) women’s participation:


Like you, these advocates like helping people. Check out http://gnomejournal.org/article/88/the-un-scary-screwdriver for an example of the kind of noncoercive, entirely opt-in outreach that most advocates, well, advocate.

As I noted to Connor: Sure, coding, and open source work, are not really intrinsically appealing to lots of people. But because there are so very many external factors keeping interested girls and women away from tech careers and open source, I’m comfortable prioritizing breaking those down, so that maybe in fifty years people’s intrinsic interests will shine naturally through. And then we’ll talk and see what interesting patterns show up.

6 thoughts on “FLOSS inclusivity: pragmatic, voluntary, empowering, joyous

  1. Benjamin Otte

    Disclaimer: I thought about using the women in open source issue as an example in my blog post, but deleted that paragraph because I feared it’d make the post into this topic that I didn’t want to focus on.

    I think a big problem in all equality movements is pro-active versus reactive behavior. In the first case you’d say “women should be equally represented” and set a goal that X% of participants should be women. And the next time you have to decide between woman and man, you prefer the woman. This way the minority ends up being “more equal” and that’s problematic. In the reactive case you only tackle problems once they come up and that way depend on people actually making you aware of them. So it has a high barrier of entry, but avoids the “more equal” problem.
    That’s btw what always bugged me about GNOME WSOP. It seemed so mean to me to support a project to sponsor specifically women, but not disabled people, Chinese or seniors. All of them are underrepresented in GNOME, too.

    I personally think that the solution should be mostly reactive and the only proactive thing to do is to raise awareness of existing inequalities inside the community. Make everyone aware that we lack women, help them come on board and provide them a place where they can gather. Basically continue the way we are currently heading. It worked for WoW and computer gaming, it will work here: Women are becoming well respected members of the community on their own.

    1. koipond

      Hrm … I wonder if this comment is failing.

      Let me see. Telling a non-priviledge group what they need to do. Check.
      Pushing rights for those of a non-priviledge group seen as “reverse -ism”. Check
      Telling them that by focusing on one group you’re ignoring all the others, ignoring the idea of intersectionality. Check.

      I personally think that the solution should be mostly reactive and the only proactive thing to do is to raise awareness of existing inequalities inside the community.

      This is le crème de la crème of comments. Basically what you’re saying is that we should only react to horribly sexist things rather than try to make sure that those with privilege are being made aware of it and calling them on their crap. So standing outside with pamphlets good, actively providing opportunities for people who wouldn’t have it because those who have all the ability don’t take pamphlets from you, that’s bad.

      Very few people scream diversity at all costs. The rallying cry is “Diversity because it costs.” The only people who don’t get that are those who are currently not experiencing any problems, people in a priviledge position (those being white, male, TAB and cisgendered) who wonder what the big deal is.

  2. FreeDeb

    I find it weird that people truly believe that more diversity = complete and total abandonment of the cause or project goal. Particularly in this instance. It’s not like a bunch of clueless strangers are demanding the right to hang out and eat crackers at your celiac support group. When women are wondering if they would be welcome as part of your free software project, it’s because they are interested in being part of a free software project.

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