By now, many of you have probably read Sarah Sharp’s blog post about civility in the Linux kernel community as well as her followup post about it. As an experiment, Sharp decided to allow unmoderated comments on her original post, which has 284 comments as of this writing.
I’m not going to go re-read all of those comments, because I would rather remove my own appendix with a rusty spork. Rather, I just want to make one observation. Again, I’m not going to back up this observation by reference to specific comments, since they are terrible.
A frequent response when people point out that Linus Torvalds (or another prominent open-source leader known for abrasiveness) is rude to people is, “Yeah, well, he’s a jerk, but he gets things done.”
Now, there’s certainly no denying that GNU/Linux is a successful project. However, it would be a logical error to conclude from its success that it’s inconceivable that the same project could have been more successful if its members — and especially leaders — were committed to treating each other with respect.
For example, there’s reason to believe that verbal abuse is more likely to turn off women contributors than men. This is certainly not universal (there are plenty of women who are happy to respond to rudeness in kind, as well as shy and sensitive men). I also don’t believe it’s due to any sort of deep biological truth; more so due to the ways that men and women are often trained into different communication patterns, and rewarded for conforming. When I say “women”, by the way, that includes all women, because even women who weren’t assigned female at birth frequently know which social messages are meant for them, and internalize them starting from an early age. And if you are driving away roughly half the population from your project, you’re driving away half of all potential contributors for no particular reason.
I am certainly not the first to make this observation. However, so far I haven’t seen anyone point out that besides discouraging women from participating, equating abusiveness with leadership effectively ensures that women cannot attain positions of power.
Why? Well, if you believe that “jerks get things done”, it’s easy to go from that to believing that if you’re not a jerk, you must not be interested in “getting things done”; you must be someone who wastes precious time on social niceties. So if you believe that, you won’t recognize someone who is not at least occasionally rude and abrasive as a potential leader.
And, I argue, you won’t recognize a woman as a potential leader. Not because women can’t or don’t want to be rude — rather, because women are likely to already have been conditioned to be nice, and even if they haven’t, a hypothetical woman who led a major open-source project would never get away with being rude to people the way Linus is.
You might ask: how do you know? And in my opinion, all the evidence you need is contained in the comments on Sarah Sharp’s blog post. Sharp made a quite polite request; in return, she received numerous comments accusing her of rudeness, and of threatening what commenters say as a man’s right to be “frank and honest” (without stopping to consider the feelings of others). Some commenters seized upon the fact that Sharp’s post to the Linux kernel mailing list contained the word “fuck”, and scolded her for using a swear word while simultaneously defending Linus & company’s right to swear at people.
If you still need evidence that there’s a double standard, there it is. I think what’s happening here is that whatever men do gets defined as being effective, by definition, because they are men. It’s a little bit like how women frequently get describe as “emotional”, but this (often pejorative) label is rarely applied to men who are raging out, because apparently anger isn’t an emotion. (Thanks to Brenda Fine for originally pointing this out to me.) When a guy yells at his team members, he’s “being a leader”, “getting stuff done”, not wasting time with trivialities like being nice. But when a woman suggests that the whole team would be better off without the yelling, she’s “being oversensitive”, “reading too much into it”, wanting to stop everyone from ever saying “fuck” again. She can’t possibly be saying it because she has the best interests of the project in mind — because by definition, women are off-topic.
So that’s why the belief that “jerks get things done” is dangerous (and, in my opinion, false): it defines what leadership means so as to indirectly block women from being leaders. Because a nice polite woman can’t been seen as “a jerk, but she gets things done”; while a woman who swore and insulted people the way Linus does would be socially frozen out for violating gender norms. No matter what a woman’s communication style is, someone will focus on style and use that to ignore the substance of what she is saying.
What do you think?
- Are you a “frank and honest” woman? If so, do you think you’d be treated differently if others perceived you as male?
- Are you a guy who doesn’t want to be rude or confrontational, and if so, do you feel like you’ve paid a price for that?
- Are you a woman who’s tried to become more frank and honest, and had that backfire?
- Are you a guy who feels like you’ve gotten away with verbal abuse that a woman wouldn’t have been able to get away with?
- If you’re genderqueer, what set(s) of conduct standards do you feel people apply to you?
- If you’re trans, have you found that changing what gender others perceive you as made them more or less tolerant of your behavior (and did your behavior actually change?)