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OPW and Growstuff: Frances Hocutt on open and welcoming open source communities

Two weeks ago, I interviewed Geek Feminism founder Alex Skud Bayley about Geek Feminism, programming, and the Growstuff Indiegogo campaign. As a followup, I’m interviewing Frances Hocutt, who will work on Growstuff’s API if the fundraiser reaches its target.

Frances Hocutt looks at a flask in a laboratory

Frances Hocutt

Frances is the founding president of the Seattle Attic Community Workshop, Seattle’s first feminist hackerspace/makerspace. She prefers elegance in her science and effectiveness in her art and is happiest when drawing on as many disciplines as she can. Her current passion is creating tools that make it easy for people to do what they need to, and teaching people to use them. She is a fan of well-designed APIs, open data, and open and welcoming open source communities.

Frances is entering technology as a career changer, from a scientific career. She’s recently finished a Outreach Program for Women (OPW) internship, and she spoke to me about OPW, Growstuff, mentoring and friendly open source communities.

What did your OPW project go? What attracted you to Mediawiki as your OPW project?

This summer I wrote standards for, reviewed, evaluated, and improved client libraries for the MediaWiki web API. When I started, API:Client Code had a list of dozens of API client libraries and was only sorted by programming language. There was little information about whether these libraries worked, what their capabilities were, and whether they were maintained. I wrote evaluations for the Java, Perl, Python, and Ruby libraries, and now anyone who wants to write an API client can make an informed choice about which library will work best for their project.

I am generally interested in open knowledge, open data, and copyleft, and I admire the Wikimedia Foundation’s successes with the various Wikipedias. When Sumana Harihareswara asked me if I might be interested in interning on this project for the Wikimedia Foundation I jumped at the chance. I was pleasantly surprised by how welcoming and supportive I found the Mediawiki development community. I had a good experience technically, professionally, and personally, and I learned a lot.

What attracts you to Growstuff and its API as your next project, technically?

Growstuff open data campaign logo

I really like creating usable tools and interfaces, and when that comes with the chance to play around with APIs and structured data, that’s gravy.

My favorite tech projects value developer experience and generally usable interfaces (whether for UIs or APIs). Growstuff’s current API makes it hard to retrieve some fairly basic data (given a location, when was a crop planted?), so I’m really looking forward to the chance to have input into designing a better one.

I also enjoy writing particularly clear and careful code, which I’ll be doing with my API example scripts so that anyone can pick them up, include them in their website or app, and easily modify them for whatever their intended purpose is.

What attracts you to Growstuff as your next development community?

The development community is the main reason I’m so excited about working on Growstuff. Growstuff is one of a handful of majority-female open source projects, and I definitely feel more comfortable when I don’t have the pressure to represent all women that sometimes comes when women are a small minority. Growstuff has great documentation for new developers, a friendly IRC channel, and an agile development process where pair programming is the norm. It’s obvious that Skud has fostered a collaborative and friendly open source community, and I’m looking forward to working in it.

What can the technical community learn from OPW and Growstuff about mentoring and supporting people coming to tech from diverse backgrounds and oppressed groups?

As I’ve come into tech, I’ve gotten the most benefit from environments where interpersonal connections can flourish and where learning is easy and ignorance of a topic is seen as an opportunity for growth. I credit much of the smoothness of my internship to being able to work with my mentor towards the shared goal of helping me succeed.

Some particularly useful approaches and skills were:

  • explicit explanations of open source community norms (i.e. how IRC works, whom and how to ask for help, ways that various criticisms might be better received, where a little praise would smooth the way)
  • constant encouragement to put myself out there in the MediaWiki development community and ask for help when needed
  • willingness to share her experiences as a woman in technology and honesty about challenges she had and hadn’t faced
  • willingness to have hard conversations about complicity and what we’re supporting with our technical work
  • willingness to engage with a feminist criticism of the field and orginazation, without falling back on “that’s just how it is and you need to get over it”
  • introducing me to other people like me and encouraging me to make and nurture those connections
  • telling me about career paths that my specific skills might be useful in
  • making me aware of opportunities, over and over, and encouraging me to take them
  • inviting metacognition and feedback on what management approaches were working for me and which weren’t.

Gatherings like AdaCamp have also helped me find people at various stages in their careers who were willing to openly discuss challenges and strategies. I’ve been building a rich network of technical women of whom I can ask anything from “how does consulting work” to “how much were you paid in that position” to “how in the world do I set up this Java dev environment?!” It’s amazing.

I’m looking forward to more of the same at Growstuff. Growstuff’s pairing-heavy style encourages those connections, and Growstuff’s development resources focus on making knowledge accessible and not assuming previous experience. I’ve admired Skud’s work for years and I am delighted to have the opportunity to work with her myself.

How are you finding the fundraising process for Growstuff? How can people best support it?

Frustrating, in a word. The crowdfunding campaign I ran last year only ran for ten days, so I’m adjusting to the longer and slower pace of this one. Like many women, I often feel awkward promoting myself and my projects — even when I would be happy to hear a friend tell me about a similar project she was working on! I try to reframe it as sharing interesting information. Sometimes that works for me, but sometimes I still feel weird.

That said: if you want to support Growstuff (and I hope you do), back our campaign! Tell any of your friends who are into sustainability, gardening, shared local knowledge, or open data why Growstuff is exciting and encourage them to donate! If you garden, sign up for an account and connect with other gardeners in your area! We’re trying to make it as an ethical and ad-free open source project and every bit helps. And if there’s anything you want to do with our data, let us know! We’d love to hear from you.

Growstuff: food gardening, open data and extreme programming the geek feminism way

In 2012, Geek Feminism founder Alex Skud Bayley founded Growstuff, a website and multi-purpose database for food-growers to track what they have planted and harvested and connect with other growers in their local area. Growstuff is now two years old and has launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund API development, which will help outside developers of tools like a harvesting calculator to show you how much money you save by growing food or emailed planting tips and reminders based on your location and climate.

Skud uses open source software and related technologies to effect social and environmental change. She lives in Ballarat, Victoria, where she works on a variety of open tech projects for social justice and sustainability. Skud and I have talked in the past about how Growstuff is among the projects that Geek Feminism contributors have built on principles we brought to and out of Geek Feminism, and I’m kicking off the second week of Growstuff’s fundraiser by asking her more about this.

Q. Which communities is Growstuff modelled on, and what principles has it inherited from them? In particular, how have Geek Feminism and other social justice communities and your work within them influenced Growstuff?

Growstuff open data campaign

Skud: When I started Growstuff, I’d been running Geek Feminism for about 3–4 years, and involved in a few other “women in open source” groups before that. This had led me to watch really closely as different open source communities worked on how to be welcoming and supportive, and to attract participants from different backgrounds and demographics. One thing I saw was that projects founded by women attracted women — no big surprise there I suppose! And, unsurprisingly, Growstuff has attracted a lot of women as developers: roughly half of the 40ish people who’ve made code contributions have been women, and we have lots who’ve volunteered for things like testing and data wrangling as well.

Initially we modeled Growstuff quite heavily on Dreamwidth, which has a majority of women. (Dreamwidth was one of the projects I focused on in my 2009 OSCON keynote, Standing Out in the Crowd.) I also took inspiration from the Agile software development movement.

Extreme Programming, which is the variant of Agile I grew up on, had a lot to say about having real conversations with people involved in the project, working at a sustainable pace, and using introspection to think about the process. I think some of the more recent versions of agile (like Scrum) have made it more business-friendly and, dare I say, macho. But to me, developing software the agile way is about working on the things that are most important, and about honouring each participant’s expertise and their time and energy they bring to the project. So Growstuff has a policy of working closely with our members, getting them involved in the project, and in some ways blurring the lines between tech/non-tech roles. Our choice not to use the term “users” is part of this; we use “members” instead because we feel like “users” distances the people who use Growstuff from the people building the code, and treats them more as consumers rather than collaborators.

Agile development methodologies are probably not what you were thinking about when you asked about social justice movements, but to me, my feminism and the way I work on projects are closely connected. I certainly find agile development (which I do with clients as well as on Growstuff) to be a more egalitarian way of working together than traditional/non-agile approaches.

Q. Your crowdfunding campaign will pay a developer, Frances Hocutt, to work on Growstuff’s API? Why is Growstuff moving towards a paid development model, at least in this case?

Growstuff's Lettuce crop page

Screenshot of Growstuff’s page for the Lettuce crop.

So far, Growstuff’s been built by volunteers. My work on other projects (mostly doing tech contracting for sustainability non-profits) has funded my work on Growstuff, and other volunteers have generally been funded by their own day jobs. Unfortunately, requiring people to volunteer their time not only means you’re relying on their rather variable availability, but those who are likely to have the most availability are generally relatively privileged. That means that the contributor pool will be demographically tilted towards those who happen to be the most affluent and time-rich. In the feminist tech community, we’ve been talking for a while now about labor issues in open source: Ashe Dryden’s The Ethics of Unpaid Labor and the OSS Community is important reading on the subject.

As a matter of principle, I want to be able to pay people to work on Growstuff. Maybe not all people all the time — it’s still an open source project, and our volunteer community is important to us — but I want our contributors to know that they’re not expected to go to extraordinary lengths without remuneration. That includes myself! I guess like many women I find it hard to ask for money for my own work, especially work for a “social good” that is so often undervalued and unpaid. It’s easier for me to ask for money on other people’s behalf.

Frances is exactly the sort of developer I want to work with on Growstuff. She’s come from a career in organic chemistry and switched to open tech. I got to know her through her co-founding Seattle Attic (a feminist hackerspace in Seattle, Washington), and through her Outreach Program for Women internship at the Wikimedia Foundation. By the time I met her I already knew she was a developer with a strong interest in community and collaborative projects, with the right combination of high level thinking, code, documentation and outreach. Her work developing “gold standards” for Wikimedia’s APIs (including the Wikidata API) seemed like a perfect lead-in to working on improving Growstuff’s APIs and helping people build things with them. When I heard she was looking for a short-term contract, I jumped at the chance to see if we could raise the money to pay her to work on Growstuff for a bit.

What principles and techniques could other software projects adopt from Growstuff? And how does Growstuff fit in — or rather, not fit in — to the current venture funded hypergrowth model of software companies?

We’re still trying to figure that out. Growstuff is structured as a sort of hybrid business/social enterprise: the website’s direct expenses are funded by memberships, while my work as Growstuff’s lead developer and organiser is funded indirectly by consulting on other projects. We don’t have any outside investment though we have received a couple of small grants and some support from a government startup program. We’re not seeking traditional VC investment, which makes us rather at odds with most of the “startup scene”, but I would much rather that Growstuff as a whole were funded by the community it serves, than by an external party or parties (investors, advertisers, etc) whose goals and values might be at odds with ours.

The bigger-picture answer, I guess, is that 21st century western-style capitalism increases inequality. The rich get phenomenally richer, and the rest of us get screwed over. If someone offered me the chance to get super rich off Growstuff at the expense of our members and community, I sincerely hope that I’d be able to resist that temptation. Though to be honest, I think Growstuff’s insistence on copyleft licensing and other choices we made early on (such as not to serve ads) mean that nobody’s likely to make that offer anyway. I’ve intentionally set Growstuff up to be more cooperative than capitalist. The trick is to figure out how to fairly support our workers under that model.

I think it depends a lot on our members: people are used to getting online services “for free” in return for their personal information and marketing data, which is used to make a handful of people very rich indeed. Are they going to be willing to resist that easy, attractive evil and become more equal partners in supporting and developing an online service for their/our mutual good? That’s what we still have to find out.

How is food gardening a part of your feminism? (Or feminism part of your food gardening?)

Photograph of Skud wearing a sunhat

Growstuff and Geek Feminism founder Alex Skud Bayley in her garden

I think the connection, for me, is through the idea of DIY — doing it yourself. My feminism is closely tied to my dubiousness about our current capitalist system. As I said, a system that concentrates wealth in a small segment of the population increases inequality. As businesses get bigger, our choices are fewer. I think growing your own food, even in a small way, is an important area of resistance: every pot of herbs on your windowsill means one less thing you buy from a giant supermarket chain. Incidentally, I feel the same way about building our own software and online communities! And I think that those who are least well served by the mainstream capitalist system — women, for instance, who are constantly bombarded by really screwed up messages about what we eat and how we feed our families, trying to sell us highly processed foods that ultimately benefit the companies that design and package them far more than they benefit us — have the most to gain from this.

How can Geek Feminism readers contribute to or support Growstuff?

Well, of course we have the crowdfunding campaign going on at present, to support Frances and myself as we work on Growstuff’s open API.

We’re always looking for people to join our community as contributors: testers, data mavens, coders, designers, writers, and more. Even just diving in to our discussions and weighing in on some of the ideas there helps us a lot — we’re always keen to hear from food-growers (including aspiring/potential ones) about what they’re looking for in Growstuff and how we can improve, or from people who’d like to use our data, to discuss what they have in mind and how we can support them.

Apart from that, just help us spread the word :)

More about Growstuff

You can learn more about Growstuff and its philosophy in the pitch video for the crowdfunding campaign (audio transcript follows):

Hi, I’m Alex Bayley. I write software and I grow vegetables in my backyard. I founded Growstuff in 2012.

More and more people are taking up veggie gardening all over the developed world, especially in cities. That means millions of new gardeners trying to eat and live more sustainably. People are growing food in their backyards, on balconies and in community gardens.

I started to grow my own food because I want to know where it comes from and that it hasn’t been grown with environmentally damaging fertilisers and pesticides. Like a lot of people these days, I worry about food that’s not local. The costs of transportation and the waste from overpackaged food are huge. I think it’s important that we have alternatives to the big supermarkets. And of course homegrown food just tastes so much better and it’s so much better for you.

Like most gardeners, I’m always searching online for information. Most of the growing advice I find isn’t suitable for my climate. I need local information, not something from halfway around the world.

Growstuff started when I met a guy called Federico from Mexico. He’s also a software developer and a permaculturist and he has trouble finding growing information for his local area. So he asked me if I knew of any open databases that had planting information about where to plant any kind of crop anywhere in the world.

We looked around and we couldn’t find anything. Some governments release open data, but it’s usually aimed at big farms. The stuff aimed at home gardeners was usually either just for one region or else the websites had really restrictive rules about what you could use the data for.

I’m a software developer so when I look at data I want to build things. If that data’s locked up where no one can use it that stifles innovation. Growstuff crowdsources information from veggie gardeners around the world. We gather data on what they plant, when and where they plant it, and how to grow it. We use this information to provide local planting advice back to our members and anyone who visits our site.

Growstuff is 100% open source and our data is also open. You can download it straight from our website and use it for any purpose, even commercially. But we want more people to use our data. We’re raising funds to improve our API which lets third party developers use Growstuff to build apps, mashups, tools, or to do research.

With your help, we’ll be creating a new version of our API with more features, building demos, and running workshops for developers. I’ve been working with open data since about 2007 and I think making food growing information freely available is one of the most important things we can do.

Whether you’re a gardener or a software developer or you just care about sustainable food please support Growstuff’s crowdfunding campaign.

Disclosures: in addition to working with Skud on the Geek Feminism project, I’ve worked with her when she was an advisor to the Ada Initiative, an AdaCamp staffer, and in several other capacities over many years.

Some Questions For Brian Carderella and Wicked Good Ruby

This is an anonymous guest post.

Today, the organizers of Wicked Good Ruby decided to cancel the conference. One organizer, Brian Cardarella, posted to the BostonRB list to explain his reasoning.

I have some questions.

Why was there no code of conduct?

Increasing numbers of tech conferences, both within Ruby and otherwise, are adopting codes of conduct. Codes of conduct protect attendees, particularly attendees from marginalized groups, and are an important part of making conferences safer. Codes of conduct also protect conferences and their organizers; having defined policies in place for what to do when harassment happens make the on-the-ground decisions easier to make and more legally defensible after the fact.

Ashe Dryden and the Ada Initiative, among others, have written extensively on why codes of conduct are important and on how to effectively write and implement them. There’s no excuse any more for not having one. Because of this, increasing numbers of people have pledged to not attend events without a code of conduct. Some companies have even decided to not sponsor events without formal codes of conduct.

This may partly explain your speaker-recruitment and sponsorship woes.

Why wasn’t your outreach to female speakers sufficient?

I’m glad that you read the advice that direct outreach to female speakers is often necessary to establish gender balance. However, you make it clear in your posts explaining the cancellation that you were primarily seeking female speakers to avoid “drama,” to not “get destroyed publicly,” to avoid “how crazy everybody gets over the gender issue in Ruby.” Nowhere did you say anything about doing it because it’s the right thing.

I have to wonder: did you read the widely available advice for how to do outreach to female speakers properly? I’m wondering this for two reasons: first, the lack of a code of conduct makes it sound like you weren’t interested in meeting female speakers’ likely needs; this may have contributed to their lack of interest. Second, the way you characterize your outreach makes it sound like you emailed people saying “Hey, I need a woman so the internet doesn’t fall on my head, and you’ll do. Wanna speak at my conf?” That’s not nearly as appealing a prospect as, say, “I really admired your work on [gem]; do you want to talk about it at WGR?”

Maybe I’m being too harsh on you with that assumption. But, still, I wonder why you only asked twelve women, given that you were trying to fill 24-36 speaker slots. (Were you assuming they’d all say yes?) I wonder when you started your outreach process, given that popular speakers are often booked months and months in advance. I wonder why you didn’t even let your CFP hit its deadline before snappishly assuming no women would apply in the last week.

Why did you blame women for WGR’s cancellation?

By your own account, the biggest reason you cancelled WGR was a lack of sponsorships. Why did you throw that frankly bizarre paragraph about lacking talk proposals from women? It’s a nasty little pit of nastiness, and frankly seems pitched to incite the “drama” you claimed to want to avoid.

Why did you want to blame women, instead of the people with the money?

I leave the answer to that question as an exercise for the reader.

Tech confidence vs. tech competence

This is a guest post from Alex, who is a volcanologist in their spare time. When not messing about with rocks in their underground lairlab, they can often be found shouting about trans (especially genderqueer) rights, earlier diagnosis of endometriosis, and books with dragons in.

Content notes: sexism, abuse

My dad was among the first cohorts to graduate in Computer Science at a prestigious university back when the course was introduced. Every single person I’ve been involved with long-term – and some of my major interests along the way – has been a computer scientist. Over the course of my life, I’ve frequently chosen to hang out with programmers; in my early-to-mid teens, I spent a slightly worrying amount of time on Netnews (yes, as distinct from Usenet). I grew up in the Silicon Fen. I half-joke that I was brought up by the Internet; I’ve just graduated with an MSci in physical sciences from a similarly prestigious institution.

And it wasn’t until 2012 that I first wrote code.[1]

Hello, everybody. My name’s kaberett, and I’m a Dreamwidth volunteer.

Code. It’s used in my field: it’s a vital component of modelling. I’ve spent my life surrounded by coders and design architects, by people whose reaction to “nothing exists that does what I want” is “okay, I’ll build one, then”; whose reaction to “I’m bored” is “what can I make?” And still: it was 2012 before I wrote any code.

Sadly, I think there’s a pretty obvious first-order explanation for this: I was assigned female at birth, and socialised accordingly. I spent my childhood being torn down by my computer-programmer father for “not having learned [that] yet,” or for answering questions “too slowly” at dinner, or being told I’d “never get a job if…” or being yelled at about how valuable his time-that-I-was-wasting was.

Does this mean I think all programmers are like him? No. Did it mean I was too scared to use the (theoretically) best resource available for me to learn from? Yep! And it landed me with a whole bunch of other issues. Asking for help with maths was right out – and so, really, was asking for help with anything. I’d acquired the conviction that I’d be belittled and torn to shreds, and that any information I did get would have more to do with building up my “instructor”‘s ego than my own knowledge base.

That experience is what I’m bringing to the table here. That, and a whole lot of reading, about the issues with diversity in FLOSS culture – and some more first-hand experience, this time with a place that is, by all accounts, doing it right.

And here’s what I suggest: in terms of getting high-quality code written by a diverse community, line-for-line my gut says that tech confidence is much more important than (perceived) tech competence.

Let’s pause a moment, while I define my terms. I use (perceived) tech competence to mean, broadly, the (perceived) ability to identify and fix a problem (without use of external resources). I use tech confidence to signify the belief that this is something that one can do – or learn to do, if one doesn’t know how to yet: it’s about trusting yourself to be able to figure it out, and trusting your community to help you rather than deride you if you ask questions.[2]

And that, right there, is where we stumble straight back into the issue of the meritocracy: the idea that a competitive environment – in terms of number of lines of code written, or features rolled out, or bugs squashed – is more important than one that values every contribution and every contributor.

Meritocracies are inherently broken, and competitiveness – while sometimes healthy – also erects an enormous barrier to beginning volunteers and coders. An ivory-towered culture of enthroned experts – one that enforces the idea that you must have a high level of technical knowledge to be worth talking or listening to – makes many people afraid to ask questions. This in turn makes learning slower and knowledge transmission harder, and leaves the group more likely to land in a situation where the only person who understands how to do what Sam does is, well, Sam. And that’s a problem – when Sam becomes ill, or they take a holiday, or they decide they don’t want to be involved any more, or sometimes they die. This is something that’s seen over and over again in, for example, the field of graptolite studies.


Let’s take a diversion, actually. Graptolites are an enormously important extinct species, most a couple of inches long at the outside, and they more-or-less resemble saws. Their diversity and steady morphological evolution – and the fact that they were found in all oceans on the planet – makes them superb for establishing relative ages of sedimentary rocks in the geological record. Problem is, there’s hundreds of species of the little sods, differing in such minutiae as how many thecae (saw teeth) they have per centimetre, the percentage overlap between thecae, the extent of curvature… which is all fascinating, except for the fact that the most recent illustrated catalogue of known species? Was published, as a serial, in 1901. (Want to know about some awesome scientists, incidentally? Look up Gertrude Lillian Elles and Ethel Mary Reader, née Wood.)

Do you know how many species have been reclassified since 1901?

Answer: a lot.

And so your best bet for identifying a particular graptolite is, if you’ve got one, to hunt down your local expert and get /them/ to do it for you.

And then, in the way of all flesh, they die – and you find yourself waiting for the next generation of experts to develop their eyes, because none of them write any of this down.


One of the things I’m spending a lot of my volunteer time on at the moment is encouraging Dreamwidth’s new volunteers (affectionately referred to as “babydevs”). This means, in practice, that I’m spending a lot of time writing documentation: how to do things that Everyone Knows, so that there isn’t the entry barrier of perceived “wasting senior devs’ time with trivialities”; so that we get consistency of explanation; so that we are more welcoming.


As I’ve said, pretty much my entire experience of volunteer work in the FLOSS world is at Dreamwidth, where I’ve been encouraged, throughout, to get started, to ask questions, and to seek help. Dreamwidth values my broader contributions to the project just as much as it values any code: I’m valued as much for tagging our incoming suggestions for features, adding to our volunteer wiki, putting together lists of easy-to-tackle bugs (“babydev bait”), and for end-user support, as I am for what coding I do. And that’s important: I got embedded in the volunteer culture well before I started trying to learn new skills, and the encouragement and support I got for that made me believe that I’d have the same level of encouragement and support if I attempted to branch out. It’s not just me this helps, or people who are new to coding: we also make space for people who already can code, but haven’t yet found time to contribute to any project due to other obligations. We’re always working on making public records of this: for example, our wiki entry on Things Real Dreamwidth Programmers Do is a relatively recent invention.

And all of this is crucial, not just to my own personal growth (which – obviously – I’m very grateful for!), but to Dreamwidth’s success as a FLOSS project. It is not focussing, first and foremost, on tech competence: instead, we work towards fostering tech confidence, through creating a culture where babydevs know that senior devs have their backs; a culture where people feel able to ask questions of the broader community, in public as well as in private; a culture where people learn how to test and debug and Not Give Up; a culture where our co-founders own their mistakes, and do so publicly, so that nobody has to feel alone. When people get discouraged, we give them pep talks. We remind people that it’s okay to learn visibly, instead of having to pretend to be entirely competent all of the time. Everyone can learn from the mistake that anyone makes – and mistakes are caught soon after they happen, so consequences can be minimised.

This is in stark contrast to communities where tech competence is valued above all else: where people feel they have to hide their mistakes. In such settings we routinely observe low volunteering rates from people in marginalised groups, with low retention from beginning volunteers, because people are too scared to ask for help or too scared to admit that they don’t know how things work. This isn’t unique to FLOSS cultures, of course – I’ve just finished a degree at a university regularly ranked in the top 5 globally, and I am appalled by the way in which this institution pushes people towards poorer understanding through militating against asking “basic” questions. It’s a habit that leads to misunderstanding, and misunderstandings lead to bugs, and it’s generally an all-round disaster, in which nobody wins.

So: please, if you want to promote diversity in your volunteer base, consider fostering an atmosphere conducive to tech confidence. It makes spaces more pleasant to occupy, and it produces real tech competence. Looking at things this way round? Well, I can’t see any losers.

[1] That’s not quite true – when I was 12 I spent a fair bit of time messing around with basic HTML and CSS to individualise Neopets profiles. But: it wasn’t standards-compliant; I wasn’t learning the languages as a whole, or even really their grammar; and it was a very structured sandboxed environment, where even very basic efforts were encouraged.

[2] Compare and contrast with the Perl virtues of laziness, impatience and hubris – except that “confidence” has the negative connotations of “arrogance”, because we are, in many cases, taught that it is bad and wrong to be able to accurately assess our capabilities and state them clearly – and it is especially wrong to reassess our abilities in the light of new information.

A rickety-looking treehouse

Open Source, Closed Minds? A reflection on Joseph Reagle’s “‘Free as in sexist?’ Free culture and the gender gap”

THERE IS NO WARRANTY FOR THE PROGRAM, TO THE EXTENT PERMITTED BY APPLICABLE LAW. EXCEPT WHEN OTHERWISE STATED IN WRITING THE COPYRIGHT HOLDERS AND/OR OTHER PARTIES PROVIDE THE PROGRAM “AS IS” WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, EITHER EXPRESSED OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY AND FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. THE ENTIRE RISK AS TO THE QUALITY AND PERFORMANCE OF THE PROGRAM IS WITH YOU. SHOULD THE PROGRAM PROVE DEFECTIVE, YOU ASSUME THE COST OF ALL NECESSARY SERVICING, REPAIR OR CORRECTION.
The GNU General Public License (GPL), Version 3

At the beginning of this year, First Monday (a longstanding, online-only academic journal) published Joseph Reagle’s article “‘Free as in sexist?’ Free culture and the gender gap”. The article is the only comprehensive study I’ve seen so far of online discourse drawn from free and open-source software and data communities that focuses on attitudes towards gender and sexism.

In what follows, I examine Reagle’s presentation of two major themes: how dominant definitions of “geek identity” serve to keep communities homogeneous; and how ideologies held by open-source workers sometimes serve to justify mistreating people in the name of freedom of speech. Finally, I suggest another reason for open-source communities’ problems with diversity and equality: an economic one. I’ll use the terms “geek culture”, “open source culture”, and “hacker culture” roughly interchangeably. Not all geeks or hackers work on open-source projects, but open-source communities represent, to me, a highly valued position in the hierarchy of value subscribed to by many people who identify as geeks and/or hackers.

Disenchantment

I had a visceral reaction to the “On being a geek” section of “Free as in sexist?” This section covers ground that is familiar to me: the obsessive, monomaniacal approach to programming that hacker culture valorizes; the relationship between this style of working and a confrontational, aggressive style of argumentation; and the relationship between geek identity and normative whiteness and maleness. (As I don’t have any special authority to speak about race or racism, I won’t discuss those issues in depth here; I recommend Mary Bucholtz’s paper “The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness” [PDF link], in which she argues that American nerd culture consitutes an explicit rejection by certain white youths of those aspects of American popular culture that arise from Black Americans.) Even so, the section affected me on more than just an intellectual level. As I read the quotations Reagle chose from sources such as Richard Stallman’s and Joseph Weizenbaum’s writings, as well as interviews with women studying computer science, I felt afraid and disappointed. I felt ready to get out of this field myself as fast as possible. Before I could help myself, my subconscious was already rushing ahead and reviewing the plans I’ve turned over in my head about jobs and careers that I could do that wouldn’t require me to be either a Toxic Open Source Guy, or an enabler for one.

When I was 15, sleeping in a lab and working for 20 or 30 hours at a stretch appealed to me. I wanted to lose myself in code, stop noticing my physical body because I was too engrossed in turning over abstractions in my mind. I think some part of me thought that if I got to be a competent programmer, it wouldn’t matter that I didn’t know how to form connections with other people or that my body was the wrong shape for me. I know now that escaping into work is not a helpful coping mechanism for me. Nowadays, I’ve exercised agency to make my body more comfortable for me; I see a therapist; and I have friends. I want to do my job reasonably well for eight hours a day and go home. I don’t want to run away from life outside the screen by immersing myself in work. I know most of the guys who do the sleep-in-the-lab, work-twenty-hours thing aren’t running away from what I was running away from. (I wonder what they are running away from.)

In Reagle’s article, I read, “Bente Rasmussen and Tove Hâpnes found female CS students who did not want be associated with the dominate [sic] identity of “key-pressers”, i.e., those who were not able to talk about anything beyond computers.” I thought — that’s me, too! I don’t want that either. I don’t think I have to quit being an open-source programmer if I want to have an identity that isn’t just about computers. But sometimes when I’m around people who do seem more like key-pressers than I am, I feel like that’s the way I have to be in order to fit in and be accepted.

Then I try to imagine what it would be like for me if on top of all of this, I felt like I had to conform to a vaguely woman-ish gender role. I didn’t know I wasn’t female until I was 18, and didn’t know I was male until I was 26, but I never felt much pressure to be what girls or women were supposed to be. On the other hand, if I was a cis woman, or even more so, if I was a trans woman (since trans women get expected to conform to gender stereotypes for women even more so than cis women are when their trans status is known), working in the industry I work in, I would have an almost impossible set of constraints to solve. As Reagle shows, success and status in open-source (and even in non-technical “free culture” communities like Wikipedia editing) are correlated with adopting a (superficially) overconfident, aggressive, argumentative persona. Women get to choose between being socially stigmatized for violating gender norms, or being ignored or mocked for violating open-source cultural norms. It’s a double bind.

Reagle quotes a passage from Margolis and Fisher’s Unlocking the Clubhouse: “‘Scary’ and ‘afraid’ are words that recur again and again.” For me, these are emotions that recur again and again when dealing with open-source culture, and when recalling the memories that reading Reagle’s article brought to mind. What strikes me, though, is that I’m almost twice the age of some of the undergrad students who Margolis and Fisher describe. When I was those students’ age, CS culture seemed safe, not scary. It was the rest of the world that was scary to me. Now, something’s changed. I think part of it is that I’ve had too many conversations with colleagues about gender politics that leave me feeling angry, frustrated, and helpless. Those interactions leave me afraid of being dismissed, dehumanized, objectified, or belittled again if I speak up. I’m also afraid of the sinking feeling that, for me, comes from being silent when I witness something I know is wrong. After a while, just walking in the door to the office seems like an entire day’s work.

Another quotation (from a social psychology journal article by Sapna Cheryan and colleagues) that stood out to me was “The profoundness of this alienation is hinted at in a recent study that found even an ‘ambient environment’ of stereotypical geeky items in a room (e.g., science fiction memorabilia and junk food) depressed female undergraduate interest in computer science.” While looking for a new place to live near my workplace in Mountain View, Ca. recently, I was browsing through rentals on AirBnB, and found a post advertising a bunk in a “hacker fortress”. I think the feeling I had when imagining living in such a place might be akin to how the women in that study felt when they saw a roomful of Star Trek figurines and Mountain Dew Code Red bottles. At 15, the summer I was doing an unpaid programming internship and drinking Jolt in the mornings, living in a “hacker fortress” would have seemed like an exciting idea (never mind the potential rape and sexual harassment that someone who looked like I did at 15 would have experienced — I probably would have dismissed that risk at the time). Now, even contemplating having to live in a place with a name like that sends my stomach dropping through the floor.

This section of Reagle’s article is valuable for showing that what I and so many others have experienced is part of a pattern; it’s not a coincidence, nor is it due to some weakness of character that we all happen to share. Women who have been involved, or tried to be involved, in free culture encounter hostility, not as a universal rule but as a recurrent pattern. It’s certainly not that Joseph Reagle is the first person to point out that free culture is systematically hostile to women — women have been saying this for a long time. But the evidence he collects is one more persuasive tool to put in the toolbox for convincing the naïve that yes, geek culture has a sexism problem. In the long term, though, we won’t have made any progress if people in the dominant group only believe women’s experiences when a male academic documents them.

It’s not just women who have been saying it, either. What Reagle doesn’t mention is that queer, trans, and genderqueer people in open-source share many of the same experiences that women do. In my opinion, like most transphobia and homophobia, that’s collateral damage from a fundamental hatred of anyone perceived as departing from a constructed heterosexual, cis male ideal — and that includes cis and trans women, as well as queer men and genderqueer and gender-creative people. (The omission of queer and gender-non-conforming people’s experiences could be due to a lack of written sources documenting it; there are various reasons why people in gender, sexual and romantic minorities might talk about their stories in a forum that lacks a permanent record.)

What makes me sad about all of this is that I still want to be around intellectually curious and playful people who are passionate about learning and making things (though, ideally, ones who don’t limit their inquiry to a single narrow specialty). I still want to have peers who inspire me to be and do more. I still love nerd humor when it isn’t mixed up with brogrammer racism and sexism. But what keeps me out of spaces that attract people like this is that I’m tired of being erased, silenced, and talked over. When I say how uncomfortable I feel when someone is engaging in homophobic hate speech at my workplace, and I’m told that it’s not hate speech or that my reaction to it isn’t real or valid, that’s stressful for me. It makes me want to disengage from the whole community. I’m tired of my female friends and colleagues getting death threats. I’m tired of being told I have a victim complex if I talk back to the abuse that gets directed at me and my friends even if nineteen out of twenty times, I’m silent about it. (It’s actually when I’m acting the least like a victim — when I’m not passively accepting whatever abuse is directed my way — that other software people shame me for “playing the victim”.)

The Mythical Manarchist-Month

While “On being a geek” was an appreciated summary of ground familiar to me, I found the “Openness” section more novel. I was pleased to see that Reagle opened the section by referring to Jo Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, because Freeman’s article resonates with me strongly in light of last year’s troubles at Mozilla.

In my opinion, though, Reagle leaves a few dots unconnected in his discussion of “‘bad apple[s]‘ and ‘poisonous people'”. If it’s really a minority of the community that (quoting our own Terri Oda) “actively hinder women’s participation by trying to derail discussions, make contributions significantly more time-consuming, or send inappropriate or even violent private messages to contributors”, then why are they allowed to effectively dominate the community by putting pressure on women to leave whenever they feel like doing so? I think it would be doing a disservice to everyone to ignore the role of the majority of male contributors in the community, who stand back and watch, who fail to exercise effective moderation in discussion forums, who lack the courage to confront other men who are being actively sexist. It is also a disservice to everyone to ignore microaggressions. The ultimate effect of death threats or a constant stream of little reminders that no one feels obligated to include you (like co-workers addressing a mixed-gender group as “guys”) is to make out-group members feel like they’re just not wanted. “Good” people (people who think of themselves as tolerant, polite, and considerate), not just toxic “bad apples”, can engage in microaggressions. And even “good” people often get unnecessarily defensive when called on behavior they weren’t aware was a problem. There’s a fine line between recognizing the disproportionate power of a small number of belligerent people in the open-source community, and using that an excuse for other people to do nothing in response.

The section titled “Ideology” is perhaps the most challenging one to the cherished beliefs of open-source participants about themselves and their role in the political economy — Reagle tallies up a damning list of open-source idols (Stallman, Raymond, Wales…) and their Randian beliefs that would be amusing if we weren’t talking about men who so many people take seriously. Reagle’s insights on how an anarcho-libertarian ideology lends itself neatly to justifying the rightness of the existing gendered power structure are sorely needed. But again, I think he could have gone a bit further. The thing about freedom, at least the way it manifests today in open-source communities, is that it looks a lot like freedom from accountability, without freedom from the very real constraints that burden the many. It’s free as in freedom, not free as in beer, but I’ve started to hear “free as in free from consequences” when I hear open-source people use “free speech” as a reason to be abusive. It’s customary in both open-source and closed-source programming to use the legal mechanisms of licensing and copyright to absolve oneself of all consequences resulting from bugs in one’s software, as per the quotation from the GPL that I opened with. This is not where I want to debate the merits of that approach to the profession of engineering — I do want to ask what happens, though, when a programmer extends that approach to licensing into his personal life. What happens to a community when many of the individuals in it assert their right to “free speech” and thereby claim entitlement to shift responsibility for the consequences of their actions? Typically, when people feel entitled to make others pay the cost for their choices, the people who end up paying are people who the underlying social power structure places as subordinate. I’m using the pronoun “his” because people who are not socially recognized as men (specifically, white men) simply lack the power to do this.

One example of this freedom from consequences is the refrain that so many of us who speak out have heard, over and over, from our colleagues: “Have I offended you? Then the problem is that you’re so easily offended. Your feelings are your responsibility, and I have no obligation to not offend you. No one has the right to not be offended, and anyway, I’m an equal-opportunity offender, so if other people can take the heat, why can’t you? It must be because there’s something wrong with you. You really ought to lighten up, take a joke, get a sense of humor, not let those words have so much power over you, be less sensitive.” (The routine has become so standardized that Derailing for Dummies, as well as the Geek Feminism Wiki, catalog it.) How can these incantations of emotional blame-shifting be unrelated to the disclaimer of responsibility that appears in the GPL and other software licenses? If what characterizes the professional culture of software engineering is our refusal to own our work, what characterizes the after-hours culture of programmers is a refusal to own our words. It’s a culture of solipsism that makes minority group members into objects, designating people in the out-group as dumping grounds for the majority’s animus and need to mock the less powerful. Demanding that another person “be less sensitive” is rude, yet gets treated as polite. And because already-privileged people who make such demands get rewarded further (beginning with social acceptance), there’s little incentive for them to practice empathy.

The egocentrism I’m talking about isn’t just about dynamics between men and women. For example, Linus Torvalds’ public verbal abuse of Linux kernel contributors is an example of how open source culture also tolerates abuse directed by men at other men. (Sometimes it doesn’t just tolerate it, but even encourages it, as when bystanders comment “well, assholes get things done.”) Social hierarchies and displays of dominance are certainly alive and well in how men interact with each other; and because hackers often define themselves as beings of pure rationality and logic, they rationalize these hierarchies as “necessary” for “getting things done”. (I think we could also “get things done” if we recognized and accepted that as humans, we frequently act for emotional rather than purely “logical” reasons — and maybe even if we accepted that the dichotomy between emotion and reason is a false one.) That, however, does not mean that verbal abuse between men is just as intense for the recipient as verbal abuse directed at women by men. It doesn’t mean that verbal abuse between men gets excused as easily as abuse directed as women. And it doesn’t mean that there as just as many opportunities for a man to exploit another man’s vulnerabilities as for men to put women in their place. It could hardly be otherwise, given the wealth of experiences that women bring to interactions with men, of internalized messages that (even for those women who have worked hard to unlearn them) tell them that they deserve whatever abuse they get, that they really had it coming. It’s not that abuse is ever acceptable when directed at anyone of any gender. Rather, it’s that being punched in the face feels more intense than being tapped on the shoulder.

Ultimately, we have to ask whether the freedom to abuse people is one of the freedoms we value. Richard Stallman himself identified four freedoms when it comes to software: “the freedom to run the software, for any purpose”; “The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish”; “The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor”; “The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes.” (He notes that for the second and fourth freedoms, access to the source code is a prerequisite.) The freedom to be an asshole does not appear on this list. Rather, these values point to inclusivity (the freedom to run the software, as in: to be included in the community of people who get to use it) and altruism (helping your neighbor; helping the community by distributing a better version). (Perhaps the inclusivity part is a bit of a stretch — the freedom to participate does not explicitly appear, which may say something about what Stallman took for granted.)

Decades before, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke about another set of four freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. How often do you hear stereotypically privileged open-source guys talk about freedom from fear? As I’ve discussed, much of the dialogue that happens when hacker culture talks about diversity and inclusion is about laughing off the idea that anyone else’s fears might be reasonable. Likewise, techno-libertarianism has very little room for a discussion about freedom from want. There isn’t much time and space in hacker culture for freedom of worship, either — especially when you take a broad view of what “freedom of worship” means and interpret as freedom to believe in things that can’t be proven with logical rules from empirical facts (like the dignity and worth of each human being), without being punished for it through ostracism or in any other way.

In either case, “freedom to treat other people as if they don’t have feelings, or as if their feelings don’t matter” is not on the list. (Thanks to Leigh Honeywell for pointing out Stallman’s and Roosevelt’s four freedoms, and the parallels between them, to me.)

Diversity as Devaluation

I want to ask a question outright that Reagle at best hints at: Is the very nature of open-source, its fundamental ideologies and values, inherently bound up with the insulation of oneself from the collaborative social project of making progress towards equality?

Maybe the whole system by which people produce free and open-source software is designed to provide the same sort of cozy lifestyle that one can find by being a programmer writing proprietary software, but without all those nagging structures of accountability that one finds in the corporate world. Like policies against harassment and discrimination. It’s true that companies adopt those to protect themselves against lawsuits, not to be morally correct, but they do protect people. And open source is a world without that protection. Maybe comparing open-source and corporate proprietary software is the best experiment one can do to determine what measures attract or repel participation by women. We know that open-source projects have an even more lopsided gender balance, as a general rule, than proprietary projects mainly composed of people being paid by a corporation to work on them. Can that really be a coincidence?

In a community with no formal governing structures, it’s far easier for people to take advantage of whatever privilege and power they inherit from the underlying society. One form this power takes on is that of speech acts that dehumanize and objectify people, and appeals to “freedom of speech” to immunize the speaker from the consequences of their speech.

I think that the desire to make boob jokes with impunity is not the only reason why male open-source programmers would want to keep women out, though. After all, the sexist jokes and comments that tend to engage the “free speech” defense the most are rarely funny or interesting. I think sexist jokes and comments are actually a means to an end, not an end in themselves. We know that male-dominated professions tend to be more socially prestigious and more highly paid than female-dominated or even gender-balanced professions. This can’t be an accident; men’s social over-valuation and their disproportionate participation in work that people think of as important form a positive feedback loop. For example, consider doctors and nurses: no doubt, women originally got tracked into nursing since medicine wasn’t considered an appropriate profession for a woman (gotta keep that power out of the hands of women). But even now that women have been allowed to study medicine for quite some time, nursing continues to be a lower-paid and less-praised profession, in large part (as far as I can tell) due to the significant presence of women in it.

The thing about prestige-as-male-domination is that it’s fractal. For example, within medicine, it’s common knowledge that primary care providers are likely to be women, while doctors who work in the most prestigious and highly compensated specialties (e.g. neurosurgery) are more likely to be men. Likewise, within computer science and software engineering, both of which are male-dominated as a rule, it’s harder for women to gain entry into some fields than others. Anecdotally, those fields (within academic CS) are theoretical computer science, programming languages, and operating systems. Among non-academic programmers, open-source programming (especially systems programming) occupies the role that theory, PL, and systems do within academe: looked up to and highly valued. By contrast, self-styled expert programmers tend to disdain jobs in areas like Web development and quality assurance — that’s “women’s work”, to the extent that any software jobs are. Technical writing, as an occupation, is even more looked down on and even more open to women. Perhaps that devaluation is part of a more general distaste among programmers for documentation, which could allow outsiders to glean the in-group’s secrets. Writing documentation is also a form of teaching, which is also a traditionally female-coded profession, and also a profession that’s frequently looked down on. So that’s why it’s so important for men in the high-status subdisciplines to maintain their status by making sure women don’t enter and devalue their field. Keeping women out means keeping salaries high.

(Statistics backing up what I just claimed about medicine — at least for the US — are available from the Association of American Medical Colleges (PDF link): see table 3 on page 13, “Number and Percentage of Active Physicians by Sex and Specialty, 2007″. The only specialty that’s majority-women is pediatrics; cardiovascular disease, neurological surgery, orthopedic surgery, and a few other specialties are over 90% men. I don’t know of any similar reports about gender distribution (and salary distribution) within different areas of the software industry, so I don’t claim to be speaking any more than informally, based on what I’ve heard over the years.)

“It’s amazing the things women did to advance computing before it advanced to the point that we learned women don’t like computing.”
Garann Means

Before computers were machines, computers were women. Most of us know that part of the story. What I know less about, personally, was the specifics of the process by which men drove women out of the profession of computing as it, well, professionalized. I can guess that white middle-class dudes saw an easy desk job that potentially would pay well, and the rest is history. Without evidence (at least not any that I have handy right now), I claim that none of this was an accident. Expelling women from computing was essential to the historical process of the professionalization of software and hardware engineering. (I know that that’s roughly how it went down with the profession of medicine, as documented by Kristin Luker in her book Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood: as “scientific” medicine arose, mostly-male doctors needed a way to push mostly-female midwives off the scene, and one of the ways they did that was by inventing the supposed immorality of abortion as a wedge issue.) For many men, a job just doesn’t have as much value if it’s a job that many women do too. And numbers don’t lie: jobs in male-dominated professions literally do have more financial value than jobs in more equal or female-dominated professions.

So arguably, open source is not just a different way to produce software. It’s also an experiment in building an alternative economy for status and peer review. At the same time as for-profit companies began to look harder at how to diversify themselves, how to create policies that would protect workers from sexual harassment and various forms of discrimination, the open source movement gained more and more momentum as a way to recreate all of the good bits of being a software engineer in industry (high social status, freedom, and money) without those annoying parts like human resources departments, processes, accountability, and rules (mostly rules to protect less-powerful members of the community). I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

There’s one misinterpretation of this section that I’d like to head off before it starts. I’m not suggesting that some nefarious group of patriarchs got together, had a meeting about how to exclude women, and disseminated the memo in a lockstep, hierarchical fashion. That’s not how it works. There is no intelligent designer or invisible hand that makes sexist decisions — rather, sexism is an emergent and self-reinforcing pattern that arises from the choices of many individuals. Just as organisms in nature behave in predictable ways without there being any central evolution planning committee, people who study societies have observed that groups of humans often act out predictable patterns too. Of course, sociology and anthropology have different methods and different standards of evidence than biology and physics do, but the social sciences are the only tool we have for rigorously analyzing how groups of people operate. It would be silly and anti-intellectual to discard these disciplines in favor of nothing just because they aren’t like physics.

Finally, a note if you’re asking “where does the money come from in open source?”: more than a few businesses pay engineers (often quite well) to work on open-source software for either part or all of their working hours. (I work for one of them!) In addition, open-source work is frequently a gateway to lucrative jobs and to the kind of social connections that make it possible to found startups. “Free as in freedom” doesn’t mean people work for free, and seemingly more often than not, they do anything but.

Conclusions

Reagle ends his meticulously researched piece with a conclusion that appeals to me as an intersectional feminist: he says that to achieve the goals of openness of diversity, we can’t just focus on openness and diversity as goals (any more, I might add, than an individual can live a happy life by resolving to strive for happiness); we can’t make things better by focusing on a single axis. Just as severe gender imbalances are a symptom of a broken community, addressing root causes will increase diversity as a side effect. But we can’t ignore gender (or race, class, sexuality, or ability), either. Responding to Kat Walsh’s writing about Wikipedia, he says, “the language of being ‘more open and diverse in general’ is problematic. Seemingly, there is no ‘in general’ yet when it comes to notions such as ‘geekiness’, ‘openness’ and ‘freedom'”. I agree — during last year’s code of conduct discussions at Mozilla, some people protested the idea of what they saw as a bureaucratic document codifying standards of behavior with “Can’t we just all be nice to each other?” But being nice, as many people construe it, includes subtly undermining the value and place in society of women and people experiencing a variety of other intersecting oppressions. Likewise, the concepts of “geekiness”, “openness”, and “freedom” will not magically lose their gendered connotations — we have to actively work at it. We can’t build a world where gender doesn’t matter by pretending we’re already there.

Hacker culture is a personal topic for me, so my own conclusions can only be personal. When I was 16, I saw geek culture as something I had to become a part of because I didn’t know any other way to be the person I needed to be. Now that I’m 32, I’m increasingly afraid that it’s something I have to leave in order to be the person I need to be. I know now what I didn’t know when I was 16: that I can be free from constant misgendering, no matter what job I do. I also know what I didn’t know then: I need to be somebody who is kind, patient, willing to admit he’s wrong, and able to make space for other people to join in. I’m not sure if that’s compatible with being in the open-source community, while also having self-respect, dignity, and a place at the table.

Where this is more than just my personal dilemma, though, is that once, I wanted passionately to write open-source code, and now it’s a struggle for me to keep going; not because the nature of the work has changed (on the contrary, it’s gotten more fun as my understanding of it has deepened and my confidence has grown), but because either the culture has changed or I’ve become more aware of its shortcomings (or both). Wouldn’t you want to know about it if you were driving away potential contributors — or forcing them into impossible trade-offs? I don’t think anyone should have to choose between doing good work they love and feeling valued and respected as a human being.

Thanks to GF contributors Leigh, Skud, Sumana and Shiny; as well as Graydon Hoare, for their comments. Thanks to Debra “Teacake” for linking me to the statistics on gender distribution in medical specialties.

ETA Wed. Feb. 6th: Joseph Reagle posted a response to the responses, which is also worth reading.

Re-post: A Problem With Equality

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on September 5, 2012.

This post is cross-posted to Tim’s blog on dreamwidth.org.

“Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. ” — Rebecca Solnit, “Men who explain things”

A Problem with Equality

In March 2012, Gerv Markham, who works for the Mozilla Corporation dealing with issues of community and governance, ignited a controversy about what kinds of content Mozilla tolerates on its Web properties. That debate opened the broader question of whether the Mozilla Corporation should have a code of conduct for its employees, as well as whether the Mozilla project as a whole should have a single code of conduct for its employees and volunteers. An internal — but world-readable — discussion on Mozilla’s online discussion group, mozilla.governance, ensued, examining the nature and desirability of community standards for inclusion.

That was about as neutral and objective as I’m going to be in this essay. In what follows, I analyze the controversies of March and April, while sharing a hefty quantity of my own feelings and opinions about them. These opinions are my own and solely my own. While I’m an employee of the Mozilla Corporation, in what follows, I am speaking only for myself. I’m not writing from the perspective of someone who has formal education in political and social analysis; the only authority I claim to have is on my own lived experiences. Thus, I don’t have citations at hand for every idea; moreover, much of what I am saying here has been said before, by people who make it their calling to interrogate sexism, homophobia, racism, and other social structures of domination. I’m writing for an audience of people who think critically, reflect openly, and draw their own conclusions.

Disclaimers: please read them.

What happened

In what follows and in the subsidiary links, I’ll frequently use the sociological concepts of power and privilege. If you don’t feel familiar with notions of power and privilege as they play out in everyday life and interaction between people, or if you don’t understand how the same person can have power over others in one situation and be powerless in another, I’ve written a brief primer about these concepts.

Planet Mozilla (“Planet” from here on) is a blog aggregator that aggregates the blogs of people in the Mozilla community — both paid Mozilla Corporation employees, and community volunteers — who choose to maintain blogs and include themselves in the Planet newsfeed. The sidebar states: “The content here is unfiltered and uncensored, and represents the views of individual community members.” Glancing at Planet, most content is related to Mozilla projects, but some personal posts from community members, about non-Mozilla-related topics, appear — some people syndicate their entire blogs to Planet, while others only syndicate posts that have a particular tag (or keep completely separate technical and personal blogs). For example, I syndicate my work-related posts on my Dreamwidth blog to Planet Mozilla Research (not part of the main Planet) by tagging only those posts with the tag “research”. My posts about politics or what my cats are doing don’t show up.

I look at Planet sometimes, but don’t read it every day. Some Mozilla employees, however, are required by their managers to read it regularly, in order to stay abreast of what’s going on in the community.

On March 6 while I was getting off Caltrain to go to work and reading email on my phone, I saw an email on the Homozilla (internal Mozilla LGBTQ and ally group) mailing list about the fact that a post from Gerv Markham [Content note for homophobia and advocacy of legislative violence in post and some comments], a Mozilla employee who works remotely from the UK, had written a blog post encouraging people to sign a petition distributed by the Coalition for Marriage, a homophobic hate group, that would endorse the legal codification of marriage in the UK as “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others”. This post appeared on Gerv’s personal blog, but as per his settings, all of his personal blog posts were at the time syndicated to Planet. Thus, without him taking explicit action, a post encouraging people to support social inequality and discrimination against a group into which many Mozilla contributors fall appeared on a Mozilla Web property.

I’ve only been at Mozilla for a year and a half, so I don’t have too much context, but people who have been at Mozilla longer have said that the discussions that resulted were the most intense of any of the debates that have occurred about what content is acceptable on Planet. A number of Mozillans, both people who are out as LGBTQ and people who are allies, wrote blog posts or tweeted saying that it was wrong for a Mozilla Web property to be used to spread hate, and that we needed to set a clearer standard for what content is acceptable either on Planet specifically, or on mozilla.com and mozilla.org domains in general. I think most or all of the people in this category would agree with what the person who posted the first Homozilla email said: “Gerv is entirely entitled to have his opinions on gay marriage, but I absolutely do not want to see them in Planet Mozilla, just as I don’t expect to see pro gay marriage posts there or posts about the upcoming US election.” Another Homozilla member wrote, “Even at work, we’re not free from being reminded that some say we’re different, not normal, and not worthy of the same rights as everyone else”, which is something that I agree with and that I’ll attempt to explain and flesh out in much of the remainder of this post.

Posts from Al Billings [Content note for homophobic derailing in some of the comments, but not in the post itself], Graydon Hoare, and Christie Koehler [Content note for derailing in some comments] soon after March 6 describe why many of us found the presence of Gerv’s post on Planet objectionable and why some of us feel that it illustrates the need for community conduct standards at Mozilla. I’ll avoid repeating what they already said very well. I wrote an initial reaction as well on the 6th.

The same day, the Planet Mozilla Module Team (made up of both Mozilla staff and volunteers) published a response [Content note for derailing in both post and comments] to the concerns raised by people like Al, Graydon, Christie, and myself, as well as to a letter from Homozilla people that was sent privately, and possibly to other private communication. The line of reasoning in this response is an old one: speech like Gerv’s must be allowed because of a social-libertarian commitment to freedom of speech, which is assumed to be part of Mozilla’s mission. Somehow, this means that Planet Mozilla must be a forum even for content not related to the project, so long as one project member wants to use the megaphone for that purpose.

Through private communication, it became clear to me that the Mozilla HR department and legal team do not see any legal liability on their part to allowing unrestricted (more later about whether it’s really unrestricted) free speech on a mozilla.org Web site. As far as I can tell, they do not believe that speech that helps construct the inferiority of a particular social group creates a hostile working environment for employees, because they believe that nobody is required to read Planet as part of their job responsibilities. However, that belief is simply incorrect: some people are required to read it. And they do not appear to believe that such speech damages Mozilla’s reputation, because they believe it is clear that Planet, as its disclaimer said, “represents the views of individual community members” and not of the Mozilla Corporation or Foundation as a whole.

User interface design principles suggest that the guiding principle for an interface should not be how its developers prescriptively think its users should understand the interface, but rather, how its users will understand the interface, even if those users’ understanding is incorrect or naïve. The idea is that if the user comes to a wrong conclusion from looking at the interface, that’s the responsibility of the interface designers — they should have made the interface less confusing — rather than the user’s fault. That’s because computers should be tools for people rather than people serving computers.

Likewise, if people outside Mozilla read Planet and assume that the opinions there are representative of or endorsed by the company or the community, the answer to that is not to say they’re wrong, but to either make the user interface of the site clearer (not everyone will read a disclaimer in small text away from the main flow of the page), or simply avoid including content that could go against the company’s values or damage its reputation. At least in this sense, the customer is always right.

Separately, I’ve written about my personal views on the issue of same-sex marriage (the term I prefer is “universal marriage”) and why I find opposition to universal marriage to be baffling and incoherent, for those who wish to appreciate what someone who is simultaneously regarded as more than one sex and gender by government agencies might think about restricting marriage by sex or gender. Otherwise, there’s so much that’s already been said about universal marriage that I don’t feel the need to say more. Anyway, this post is about general patterns that occur in discussions about many different forms of social power imbalances, and not primarily about the specifics of homophobia or heterosexism.

The conversations that happened as a result of Gerv’s post and of the response from the Planet Mozilla Module Team eventually led Mitchell Baker, the chair of Mozilla, to initiate a
thread
[Content note for more or less every kind of psychologically/emotionally abusive comment directed at minority groups that's possible, not in the original post, but in the replies] on the open mozilla.governance mailing list/newsgroup. In the unstructured discussion that followed, I saw some comments that were far beyond the level of harmfulness and hurtfulness that I would expect from colleagues. I read a number of open Internet fora, and some of these comments were worse than I would routinely expect from those fora.

In the rest of this essay, I won’t talk much about Gerv’s original post. I don’t mean to make him into the bad guy. I am less concerned about individuals and their opinions or decisions than about systems and processes, and I’m going to talk about how underlying, external systems of oppression — systems that Mozilla did not invent, that predate its existence by centuries — were nevertheless replicated inside Mozilla during the community discussions that followed. Again, my choice of the word “oppression” is quite deliberate, to emphasize the real, damaging nature of being treated with unequal respect and dignity. Being oppressed as queer people corrodes our self-esteem and limits our life chances. It also stops us from contributing all that we can to whatever endeavors our talents and desires would normally allow for.

Why it matters

First of all, I am writing about the Mozilla community as a member of the community. I am as much a member of the community as anyone else who is involved in Mozilla’s projects, and I belong here as much as any other Mozillan does. If you want to ask me why I don’t just go somewhere else, the answer is because this is my community too, and I like it here. Out of all of the parts of the world that I could choose to focus on changing, I choose to focus on the community of people who work on software — and specifically in that part of the community that happens to employ me — because it is home to me, and I don’t have another home. If you’re still wondering why I bother or what my stake in it is, here you go.

In the discussions on mozilla.governance and on various blogs, many people claimed (implicitly or explicitly) that there was a tension between protecting free speech and protecting people in minority groups. They claimed that there was a tension between the right of people in minority groups to feel safe and comfortable in a space, and the right of people in majority groups to say what they want.

I challenge the precept that this tension is difficult to resolve. In part, I think the apparent tension arises from the logical fallacy that doing nothing is the neutral choice. Actually, adopting a laissez-faire “free speech” policy in an organization is to take a political position: it means taking the position that existing power dynamics from the larger society will and must recreate themselves in your organization. To do nothing is to let bullies be bullies, because bullies always bully when they get the chance to and when there are no checks and balances against bullying.

So in reality, the choice isn’t between taking a laissez-faire, neutral position; and adopting a code of conduct that excludes some form of speech. The central conflict is:

Shall we implicitly exclude people in socially stigmatized minority groups, or shall we explicitly exclude people who cannot or will not behave with respect?

Another way of asking this question is to ask “In a conflict between abusers and people who are being abused, should we side with the abusers or the victims?”

To some people, the language of “oppression”, “abuse”, and “victims” may seem harsh or strident. To some people, speech that proclaims the inferiority of a particular social group may seem like “only words”, words that are only as hurtful as the recipient chooses to let them be. I disagree, and have written a number of subsidiary essays to explain why. Together, they add up to a lot of words, but I hope that after reading them, most people will at least be able to understand why I see the choice between excluding minorities and excluding people who choose not to behave with respect as the central choice here, even if they disagree with my conclusions.

That one form of exclusion (tolerance of disparaging remarks about minorities) is implicit and the other form (formal codes of conduct) is explicit doesn’t make the implicit kind of exclusion any less real. You may believe that you, personally, don’t exclude anyone, and that you never do anything to exclude people who are socially stigmatized. Even if you don’t intend to exclude people, you may still be engaging in behavior that has the effect of excluding people, and you’re still responsible for the consequences of your actions even if you don’t intend those consequences.

There is no neutral choice. No matter what position the leadership takes, someone will be excluded. If this is unclear, please keep reading. If what I’m writing makes you feel guilty or defensive, please take a moment to step back and think about why.

Roadmap

What I’ve just written may raise a number of questions for some people. I’ve tried to anticipate, and answer, some of those those questions.

  • “Why are you talking about power so much? I don’t have power over you.” Power and privilege operate in ways that often make people who have power unaware that they have it.
  • “How can I be engaging in behavior that oppresses or excludes? I would never intend to do that, after all; have you ever seen me treating an LGBT person badly?” Understanding how systematic patterns of behavior act themselves out through individuals may help answer that.
  • “Don’t you think it’s rather harsh, describing your pain as ‘oppression’? Isn’t that a word that refers to things happening in a far-off country or in the distant past?” Here’s what “oppression” means to me, and why I don’t see any satisfactory synonyms for it.
  • “Is it really that bad, what happened? Can’t you just ignore it and not let it have power over you? After all, no one meant harm, and anyway, if you’re so angry, how do you expect anyone to listen to what you’re saying?” These questions are a form of emotional invalidation, an insidious set of learned social behaviors that have the effect of making people in oppressed groups question their own understanding of reality in order to silence discussion of abuse.
  • “No, really, is it that bad?” Well, yes, it is; for me, being told I’m inferior is painful, and I’ve tried to explain what that’s like.
  • “So what should we do about it?” I don’t have a single answer, but here are some possible solutions.
  • “What does all of this have to do with Mozilla’s mission? And why are you being so critical?” My conclusions might answer that.

Everything I’ve written in the linked-to posts is an attempt to clarify some aspect of the single question above, about explicit versus implicit exclusion.

Summing up

It may appear that we’re stuck excluding some people one way or the other, and if exclusion is always bad — if the badness of intolerance means we must also tolerate intolerance itself — isn’t there no way out?

I reject that premise. To exclude people based on who they are — based on qualities that either cannot be changed or that there is no good reason for them to change, such as gender, sexuality, race, ability, age, shape, and so on — is to exclude needlessly, to harm the community by excluding people who would otherwise contribute to it. To exclude people based on what they do — engaging in anti-social behavior — is fair. It says that anyone can be part of this community as long as they’re willing to observe community standards; to do what’s best for the community; to play fair. If my employment agreement says that I must protect confidential information and trade secrets, and that I will use company resources wisely, I don’t see that as an unfair limitation on my rights. I see it as something I’m being asked to do to maintain a healthy community. I think the same should go for a request to behave in a way that’s inclusive and welcoming. Expressing speech at work that is racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or that otherwise maligns an entire group of people based on identity rather than based on behavior hurts the company and project as a whole, by making it harder for some people to contribute. (If you see being queer as a matter of behavior that any individual can give up without fundamentally compromising who they are, and are not willing to trust the lived experience of many queer people when they say it’s no more possible for them to become heterosexual than to become a redwood tree, I suppose I have nothing more to say to you.)

I’m disappointed that some Mozillans objected to other people’s objections to being demeaned in the workplace. I understood their arguments as essentially saying they felt that being asked not to be an asshole was a violation of their rights. I’m disappointed that some of my colleagues would respond to a request to stop hurting people by asserting that they have the right to hurt people.

I’m also disappointed that Mozilla leaders entertained the “free speech” argument. The majority must not determine minority rights — that never ends well for minorities, and in fact, it doesn’t end well for the entire group, because the community needs minority members’ contributions. That’s why it’s so important for leaders to take a stance in favor of inclusion. I didn’t see the leaders do that — instead, I saw them fumble about whether it was more important to them to include everyone who’s capable of contributing to the project respectfully, or to protect the freedoms of the minority that claims it’s their right to abuse others. Mozilla can retain its commitment to the free exchange of ideas while also declining to be a forum for ideas that attack people in vulnerable groups. This decision would violate no one’s freedom of speech, as everyone is free to say anything that’s legal in their home country when they are not at work or using their employer’s computing and networking resources. The fundamental flaw in the “free speech” argument is the supposition that freedom of speech means freedom from having to face the consequences of one’s speech. It does not.

Leaders have to make a choice about who to exclude. Including everyone is not an option: every community excludes people who harm the community and do not respond to requests to stop doing so. The question, then, is who in the community merits protection from harm. I think the answer to that question should be “everyone”, not just the people who conform most closely to social norms about gender and sexuality.

We can exclude people based on who they are, or we can exclude people based on what they do. I prefer a community built on norms for healthy behavior, one that has a mechanism — to be used as a last resort — for excluding people who repeatedly violate those norms. I think such a a community is better and safer for me to work productively in than one that is built on a hierarchy in which a smaller sub-group rules, and excludes others capriciously, for no reason other than being different. If your response is that a community like Mozilla doesn’t need the contributions of people in minority groups, I guess there’s no way I can persuade you otherwise, but I would wonder why you think we can afford to turn people away for reasons unrelated to their technical and collaborative ability. I think that protecting the open Web is a job that requires the help of everyone who’s willing to commit to it.

I think we can do better, and moving forward, I hope that we do better. I hope that the community participation guidelines serve to make Mozilla a more inclusive community and that in the future, dialogue will be less about people defending their privileges and more about people listening to the experiences of those who are unlike themselves. Ultimately, even though I know some of the intellectual reasons why, I still don’t get why we can’t build great open-source software and protect the Web while also setting standards for ourselves about how we treat each other while we’re doing it.


Acknowledgments

I thank Gwen Cadogàn, Ellie Collier, Jessamyn Fairfield, Graydon Hoare, Carolyn Hogg, Christie Koehler, Lindsey Kuper, Sheree Schrager and Alley Stoughton for reading drafts of this essay and providing useful feedback. Several other people also gave valuable feedback who did not grant permission for me to thank them by name; my gratitude to them is no less. I also thank Juli Mallett for originally drawing my attention to “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. Inclusion on this list does not necessarily imply agreement with or endorsement of any point of view in this set of essays. All of the opinions contained in it are solely my own.

Quick hit: “How Git shows the patriarchal nature of the software industry”

The most seemingly trivial design decisions in a software project can show who is not present as part of that project. And the absence of people in minority groups can result in decisions that exclude people in minorities from joining, in a feedback loop of self-reinforcing exclusion.

Git is a distributed version control system that has gained increasing popularity over the past few years, especially in free and open-source projects, despite a user interface widely regarded to be user-hostile. While most of the issues with git’s user interface are equal-opportunity annoyances, there is one that is specific to trans people who change their names, people who take or drop their spouse’s surname on marriage or divorce (who in Western culture are usually women), and the overlap between the two groups. Megan at “A Megahbite of Feminism” shows how the design choice to make the committer’s name and email address part of the data that determines the unique identity of a given commit can have a negative effect on women and trans people:

To try and put it simply, the author of a commit is tied in to the identity of the commit itself. If you change the author, it’s treated as an entirely new commit. Anyone who has grabbed a copy of your original commit and made subsequent changes on top of it finds themselves orphaned from the history of the project. To use a crude analogy, it’s like you rip the trunk of a tree out, while the branches are magically left hanging in the air, connected to nothing and isolated.

Of course, it’s not that the designers of Git tried to make it difficult for committers to change their names. It’s likely that most of them just didn’t think about what would happen if a developer needed to change their name retroactively, because most of the people who have worked on Git are cis men. They aren’t expected to change their names if and when they get married or divorced, and having cis privilege, they don’t need to change their name to something more consistent with their gender. Nevertheless, the inability to change one’s name retroactively without disrupting others’ work can mean that trans people — particularly trans women, who are likely to face harsh social stigma in any space where their trans history is known — will have to cease to contribute to their projects when they transition.

What other seemingly innocuous software design decisions contribute to exclusion?

Update: I’ve had to moderate a lot of comments for ‘splaining. When replying, avoid arguing from authority and keep in mind that other people have had experiences that are real even if you haven’t personally experienced them.

Second update: I’m continuing to moderate comments that are condescending or dismissive, because comments like that aren’t constructive and don’t create a useful discussion. Please familiarize yourself with our comment policy. Particularly, note that anonymous comments (those with an email address that can’t be tied to a consistent identity, such as anonymous mail services) are not permitted here.

A Problem With Equality

This post is cross-posted to Tim’s blog on dreamwidth.org.

“Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. ” — Rebecca Solnit, “Men who explain things”

A Problem with Equality

In March 2012, Gerv Markham, who works for the Mozilla Corporation dealing with issues of community and governance, ignited a controversy about what kinds of content Mozilla tolerates on its Web properties. That debate opened the broader question of whether the Mozilla Corporation should have a code of conduct for its employees, as well as whether the Mozilla project as a whole should have a single code of conduct for its employees and volunteers. An internal — but world-readable — discussion on Mozilla’s online discussion group, mozilla.governance, ensued, examining the nature and desirability of community standards for inclusion.

That was about as neutral and objective as I’m going to be in this essay. In what follows, I analyze the controversies of March and April, while sharing a hefty quantity of my own feelings and opinions about them. These opinions are my own and solely my own. While I’m an employee of the Mozilla Corporation, in what follows, I am speaking only for myself. I’m not writing from the perspective of someone who has formal education in political and social analysis; the only authority I claim to have is on my own lived experiences. Thus, I don’t have citations at hand for every idea; moreover, much of what I am saying here has been said before, by people who make it their calling to interrogate sexism, homophobia, racism, and other social structures of domination. I’m writing for an audience of people who think critically, reflect openly, and draw their own conclusions.

Disclaimers: please read them.

What happened

In what follows and in the subsidiary links, I’ll frequently use the sociological concepts of power and privilege. If you don’t feel familiar with notions of power and privilege as they play out in everyday life and interaction between people, or if you don’t understand how the same person can have power over others in one situation and be powerless in another, I’ve written a brief primer about these concepts.

Planet Mozilla (“Planet” from here on) is a blog aggregator that aggregates the blogs of people in the Mozilla community — both paid Mozilla Corporation employees, and community volunteers — who choose to maintain blogs and include themselves in the Planet newsfeed. The sidebar states: “The content here is unfiltered and uncensored, and represents the views of individual community members.” Glancing at Planet, most content is related to Mozilla projects, but some personal posts from community members, about non-Mozilla-related topics, appear — some people syndicate their entire blogs to Planet, while others only syndicate posts that have a particular tag (or keep completely separate technical and personal blogs). For example, I syndicate my work-related posts on my Dreamwidth blog to Planet Mozilla Research (not part of the main Planet) by tagging only those posts with the tag “research”. My posts about politics or what my cats are doing don’t show up.

I look at Planet sometimes, but don’t read it every day. Some Mozilla employees, however, are required by their managers to read it regularly, in order to stay abreast of what’s going on in the community.

On March 6 while I was getting off Caltrain to go to work and reading email on my phone, I saw an email on the Homozilla (internal Mozilla LGBTQ and ally group) mailing list about the fact that a post from Gerv Markham [Content note for homophobia and advocacy of legislative violence in post and some comments], a Mozilla employee who works remotely from the UK, had written a blog post encouraging people to sign a petition distributed by the Coalition for Marriage, a homophobic hate group, that would endorse the legal codification of marriage in the UK as “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others”. This post appeared on Gerv’s personal blog, but as per his settings, all of his personal blog posts were at the time syndicated to Planet. Thus, without him taking explicit action, a post encouraging people to support social inequality and discrimination against a group into which many Mozilla contributors fall appeared on a Mozilla Web property.

I’ve only been at Mozilla for a year and a half, so I don’t have too much context, but people who have been at Mozilla longer have said that the discussions that resulted were the most intense of any of the debates that have occurred about what content is acceptable on Planet. A number of Mozillans, both people who are out as LGBTQ and people who are allies, wrote blog posts or tweeted saying that it was wrong for a Mozilla Web property to be used to spread hate, and that we needed to set a clearer standard for what content is acceptable either on Planet specifically, or on mozilla.com and mozilla.org domains in general. I think most or all of the people in this category would agree with what the person who posted the first Homozilla email said: “Gerv is entirely entitled to have his opinions on gay marriage, but I absolutely do not want to see them in Planet Mozilla, just as I don’t expect to see pro gay marriage posts there or posts about the upcoming US election.” Another Homozilla member wrote, “Even at work, we’re not free from being reminded that some say we’re different, not normal, and not worthy of the same rights as everyone else”, which is something that I agree with and that I’ll attempt to explain and flesh out in much of the remainder of this post.

Posts from Al Billings [Content note for homophobic derailing in some of the comments, but not in the post itself], Graydon Hoare, and Christie Koehler [Content note for derailing in some comments] soon after March 6 describe why many of us found the presence of Gerv’s post on Planet objectionable and why some of us feel that it illustrates the need for community conduct standards at Mozilla. I’ll avoid repeating what they already said very well. I wrote an initial reaction as well on the 6th.

The same day, the Planet Mozilla Module Team (made up of both Mozilla staff and volunteers) published a response [Content note for derailing in both post and comments] to the concerns raised by people like Al, Graydon, Christie, and myself, as well as to a letter from Homozilla people that was sent privately, and possibly to other private communication. The line of reasoning in this response is an old one: speech like Gerv’s must be allowed because of a social-libertarian commitment to freedom of speech, which is assumed to be part of Mozilla’s mission. Somehow, this means that Planet Mozilla must be a forum even for content not related to the project, so long as one project member wants to use the megaphone for that purpose.

Through private communication, it became clear to me that the Mozilla HR department and legal team do not see any legal liability on their part to allowing unrestricted (more later about whether it’s really unrestricted) free speech on a mozilla.org Web site. As far as I can tell, they do not believe that speech that helps construct the inferiority of a particular social group creates a hostile working environment for employees, because they believe that nobody is required to read Planet as part of their job responsibilities. However, that belief is simply incorrect: some people are required to read it. And they do not appear to believe that such speech damages Mozilla’s reputation, because they believe it is clear that Planet, as its disclaimer said, “represents the views of individual community members” and not of the Mozilla Corporation or Foundation as a whole.

User interface design principles suggest that the guiding principle for an interface should not be how its developers prescriptively think its users should understand the interface, but rather, how its users will understand the interface, even if those users’ understanding is incorrect or naïve. The idea is that if the user comes to a wrong conclusion from looking at the interface, that’s the responsibility of the interface designers — they should have made the interface less confusing — rather than the user’s fault. That’s because computers should be tools for people rather than people serving computers.

Likewise, if people outside Mozilla read Planet and assume that the opinions there are representative of or endorsed by the company or the community, the answer to that is not to say they’re wrong, but to either make the user interface of the site clearer (not everyone will read a disclaimer in small text away from the main flow of the page), or simply avoid including content that could go against the company’s values or damage its reputation. At least in this sense, the customer is always right.

Separately, I’ve written about my personal views on the issue of same-sex marriage (the term I prefer is “universal marriage”) and why I find opposition to universal marriage to be baffling and incoherent, for those who wish to appreciate what someone who is simultaneously regarded as more than one sex and gender by government agencies might think about restricting marriage by sex or gender. Otherwise, there’s so much that’s already been said about universal marriage that I don’t feel the need to say more. Anyway, this post is about general patterns that occur in discussions about many different forms of social power imbalances, and not primarily about the specifics of homophobia or heterosexism.

The conversations that happened as a result of Gerv’s post and of the response from the Planet Mozilla Module Team eventually led Mitchell Baker, the chair of Mozilla, to initiate a
thread
[Content note for more or less every kind of psychologically/emotionally abusive comment directed at minority groups that's possible, not in the original post, but in the replies] on the open mozilla.governance mailing list/newsgroup. In the unstructured discussion that followed, I saw some comments that were far beyond the level of harmfulness and hurtfulness that I would expect from colleagues. I read a number of open Internet fora, and some of these comments were worse than I would routinely expect from those fora.

In the rest of this essay, I won’t talk much about Gerv’s original post. I don’t mean to make him into the bad guy. I am less concerned about individuals and their opinions or decisions than about systems and processes, and I’m going to talk about how underlying, external systems of oppression — systems that Mozilla did not invent, that predate its existence by centuries — were nevertheless replicated inside Mozilla during the community discussions that followed. Again, my choice of the word “oppression” is quite deliberate, to emphasize the real, damaging nature of being treated with unequal respect and dignity. Being oppressed as queer people corrodes our self-esteem and limits our life chances. It also stops us from contributing all that we can to whatever endeavors our talents and desires would normally allow for.

Why it matters

First of all, I am writing about the Mozilla community as a member of the community. I am as much a member of the community as anyone else who is involved in Mozilla’s projects, and I belong here as much as any other Mozillan does. If you want to ask me why I don’t just go somewhere else, the answer is because this is my community too, and I like it here. Out of all of the parts of the world that I could choose to focus on changing, I choose to focus on the community of people who work on software — and specifically in that part of the community that happens to employ me — because it is home to me, and I don’t have another home. If you’re still wondering why I bother or what my stake in it is, here you go.

In the discussions on mozilla.governance and on various blogs, many people claimed (implicitly or explicitly) that there was a tension between protecting free speech and protecting people in minority groups. They claimed that there was a tension between the right of people in minority groups to feel safe and comfortable in a space, and the right of people in majority groups to say what they want.

I challenge the precept that this tension is difficult to resolve. In part, I think the apparent tension arises from the logical fallacy that doing nothing is the neutral choice. Actually, adopting a laissez-faire “free speech” policy in an organization is to take a political position: it means taking the position that existing power dynamics from the larger society will and must recreate themselves in your organization. To do nothing is to let bullies be bullies, because bullies always bully when they get the chance to and when there are no checks and balances against bullying.

So in reality, the choice isn’t between taking a laissez-faire, neutral position; and adopting a code of conduct that excludes some form of speech. The central conflict is:

Shall we implicitly exclude people in socially stigmatized minority groups, or shall we explicitly exclude people who cannot or will not behave with respect?

Another way of asking this question is to ask “In a conflict between abusers and people who are being abused, should we side with the abusers or the victims?”

To some people, the language of “oppression”, “abuse”, and “victims” may seem harsh or strident. To some people, speech that proclaims the inferiority of a particular social group may seem like “only words”, words that are only as hurtful as the recipient chooses to let them be. I disagree, and have written a number of subsidiary essays to explain why. Together, they add up to a lot of words, but I hope that after reading them, most people will at least be able to understand why I see the choice between excluding minorities and excluding people who choose not to behave with respect as the central choice here, even if they disagree with my conclusions.

That one form of exclusion (tolerance of disparaging remarks about minorities) is implicit and the other form (formal codes of conduct) is explicit doesn’t make the implicit kind of exclusion any less real. You may believe that you, personally, don’t exclude anyone, and that you never do anything to exclude people who are socially stigmatized. Even if you don’t intend to exclude people, you may still be engaging in behavior that has the effect of excluding people, and you’re still responsible for the consequences of your actions even if you don’t intend those consequences.

There is no neutral choice. No matter what position the leadership takes, someone will be excluded. If this is unclear, please keep reading. If what I’m writing makes you feel guilty or defensive, please take a moment to step back and think about why.

Roadmap

What I’ve just written may raise a number of questions for some people. I’ve tried to anticipate, and answer, some of those those questions.

  • “Why are you talking about power so much? I don’t have power over you.” Power and privilege operate in ways that often make people who have power unaware that they have it.
  • “How can I be engaging in behavior that oppresses or excludes? I would never intend to do that, after all; have you ever seen me treating an LGBT person badly?” Understanding how systematic patterns of behavior act themselves out through individuals may help answer that.
  • “Don’t you think it’s rather harsh, describing your pain as ‘oppression’? Isn’t that a word that refers to things happening in a far-off country or in the distant past?” Here’s what “oppression” means to me, and why I don’t see any satisfactory synonyms for it.
  • “Is it really that bad, what happened? Can’t you just ignore it and not let it have power over you? After all, no one meant harm, and anyway, if you’re so angry, how do you expect anyone to listen to what you’re saying?” These questions are a form of emotional invalidation, an insidious set of learned social behaviors that have the effect of making people in oppressed groups question their own understanding of reality in order to silence discussion of abuse.
  • “No, really, is it that bad?” Well, yes, it is; for me, being told I’m inferior is painful, and I’ve tried to explain what that’s like.
  • “So what should we do about it?” I don’t have a single answer, but here are some possible solutions.
  • “What does all of this have to do with Mozilla’s mission? And why are you being so critical?” My conclusions might answer that.

Everything I’ve written in the linked-to posts is an attempt to clarify some aspect of the single question above, about explicit versus implicit exclusion.

Summing up

It may appear that we’re stuck excluding some people one way or the other, and if exclusion is always bad — if the badness of intolerance means we must also tolerate intolerance itself — isn’t there no way out?

I reject that premise. To exclude people based on who they are — based on qualities that either cannot be changed or that there is no good reason for them to change, such as gender, sexuality, race, ability, age, shape, and so on — is to exclude needlessly, to harm the community by excluding people who would otherwise contribute to it. To exclude people based on what they do — engaging in anti-social behavior — is fair. It says that anyone can be part of this community as long as they’re willing to observe community standards; to do what’s best for the community; to play fair. If my employment agreement says that I must protect confidential information and trade secrets, and that I will use company resources wisely, I don’t see that as an unfair limitation on my rights. I see it as something I’m being asked to do to maintain a healthy community. I think the same should go for a request to behave in a way that’s inclusive and welcoming. Expressing speech at work that is racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or that otherwise maligns an entire group of people based on identity rather than based on behavior hurts the company and project as a whole, by making it harder for some people to contribute. (If you see being queer as a matter of behavior that any individual can give up without fundamentally compromising who they are, and are not willing to trust the lived experience of many queer people when they say it’s no more possible for them to become heterosexual than to become a redwood tree, I suppose I have nothing more to say to you.)

I’m disappointed that some Mozillans objected to other people’s objections to being demeaned in the workplace. I understood their arguments as essentially saying they felt that being asked not to be an asshole was a violation of their rights. I’m disappointed that some of my colleagues would respond to a request to stop hurting people by asserting that they have the right to hurt people.

I’m also disappointed that Mozilla leaders entertained the “free speech” argument. The majority must not determine minority rights — that never ends well for minorities, and in fact, it doesn’t end well for the entire group, because the community needs minority members’ contributions. That’s why it’s so important for leaders to take a stance in favor of inclusion. I didn’t see the leaders do that — instead, I saw them fumble about whether it was more important to them to include everyone who’s capable of contributing to the project respectfully, or to protect the freedoms of the minority that claims it’s their right to abuse others. Mozilla can retain its commitment to the free exchange of ideas while also declining to be a forum for ideas that attack people in vulnerable groups. This decision would violate no one’s freedom of speech, as everyone is free to say anything that’s legal in their home country when they are not at work or using their employer’s computing and networking resources. The fundamental flaw in the “free speech” argument is the supposition that freedom of speech means freedom from having to face the consequences of one’s speech. It does not.

Leaders have to make a choice about who to exclude. Including everyone is not an option: every community excludes people who harm the community and do not respond to requests to stop doing so. The question, then, is who in the community merits protection from harm. I think the answer to that question should be “everyone”, not just the people who conform most closely to social norms about gender and sexuality.

We can exclude people based on who they are, or we can exclude people based on what they do. I prefer a community built on norms for healthy behavior, one that has a mechanism — to be used as a last resort — for excluding people who repeatedly violate those norms. I think such a community is better and safer for me to work productively in than one that is built on a hierarchy in which a smaller sub-group rules, and excludes others capriciously, for no reason other than being different. If your response is that a community like Mozilla doesn’t need the contributions of people in minority groups, I guess there’s no way I can persuade you otherwise, but I would wonder why you think we can afford to turn people away for reasons unrelated to their technical and collaborative ability. I think that protecting the open Web is a job that requires the help of everyone who’s willing to commit to it.

I think we can do better, and moving forward, I hope that we do better. I hope that the community participation guidelines serve to make Mozilla a more inclusive community and that in the future, dialogue will be less about people defending their privileges and more about people listening to the experiences of those who are unlike themselves. Ultimately, even though I know some of the intellectual reasons why, I still don’t get why we can’t build great open-source software and protect the Web while also setting standards for ourselves about how we treat each other while we’re doing it.


Acknowledgments

I thank Gwen Cadogàn, Ellie Collier, Jessamyn Fairfield, Graydon Hoare, Carolyn Hogg, Christie Koehler, Lindsey Kuper, Sheree Schrager and Alley Stoughton for reading drafts of this essay and providing useful feedback. Several other people also gave valuable feedback who did not grant permission for me to thank them by name; my gratitude to them is no less. I also thank Juli Mallett for originally drawing my attention to “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. Inclusion on this list does not necessarily imply agreement with or endorsement of any point of view in this set of essays. All of the opinions contained in it are solely my own.

Quick Hit: a GF approach to events

I help plan technical events at the Wikimedia Foundation. I think we’ve improved in making them more welcoming and inclusive over the course of my time there. We just recently filled to capacity on registration for an upcoming event, and I thought I’d share a few things we’ve done:

  • A friendly space policy
  • Event info page shows photos of people of different genders, allows people to opt in to sharing their names/attendance
  • Registration form doesn’t ask for sex or gender; instead, it asks what kind of t-shirt we should provide (including a “None, thank you” option) and “If you need accommodation: would you prefer to share a room with a woman or with a man?” (options: “women’s rooms”, “men’s rooms”, “either will be fine”)
  • We’ll aim to document as much of the event as possible in realtime text
  • We’re ensuring that at least one of the social events is not booze-oriented
  • I’m working to ensure people can put whatever names they prefer on their badges, including handles/nicks for those who don’t want to share their wallet names
  • Free to attend, and we provide travel sponsorships to encourage participants from far away
  • Hostel very near the venue

I failed at:

  • childcare – just didn’t put in the time to ensure we could provide this
  • ensuring our venue is accessible to those with disabilities (I’m not sure, and didn’t emphasize this as a key criterion when my contact in Berlin was scouting venues)
  • clarifying many of the points above to prospective attendees
  • and probably more

What have you done to make your geek events more welcoming?

Google Summer of Code 2012

My goal: inform women’s colleges about Google Summer of Code

Google Summer of Code 2012

Google Summer of Code 2012 - help me publicize this to college women!

If you have contacts at women’s colleges, let’s work to get a GSoC presentation there before March 20th. I’ll help.

Google’s open source team has now announced that Google Summer of Code 2012 will happen. Undergraduate and grad students at accredited colleges/universities around the world can get paid USD 5000 to work on open source projects as a full-time three-month internship.

Upcoming deadlines: 9 March, mentoring organizations need to submit their applications to participate. 6 April, student application deadline.

Open source software development is a rewarding and educational way for students to learn real-world software engineering skills, build portfolios, and network with industry and academe. Women coders especially find GSoC a good entry point because they can work from home with flexible hours, they get guaranteed personal mentorship, and the stipend lets them focus on their project for three solid months.

The best way to get in good applications is for organizers and students to start early, like, now. Students who download source code, learn how to hang out in IRC and submit patches in early March, and apply in late March are way more likely to get in (and to have a good experience) than those who start on April 2nd. So I want students to hear about GSoC (and hopefully about MediaWiki, my project) now. I’m willing to work to publicize GSoC this year and even if my project doesn’t get accepted, the other projects will benefit.

I successfully got multiple good proposals from women for my project last year, and this year I’d like to double that number. To that aim, I want to ensure that every women’s college in North America that has a CS department or a computer club gets informed about GSoC between now and March 20th, preferably with an in-person presentation. I started this effort in February and have already gotten some momentum; I spoke at Wellesley last week to much interest, and Scripps College held an info session today. But I need your help.

If your college isn’t on the list I set up, add it. If you can find contact information for one college listed on the wiki page, send them a note, and update the wiki page, that would be a huge help.

If you want goodies to hand out at a meetup, you can contact Google’s team. Let them know when you decide on a date, time, and location for a meetup so they can put it on the calendar. People have already prepared resources you can use: flyers, sample presentations, an email template, a list of projects that already have mentors listed, and more.

And of course, if you’re interested in applying, feel free to ask questions in the comments!

P.S. I’m only concentrating on North America because I figure that’s a limited and achievable goal; there are only about 50 women’s colleges with STEM curricula.  But GSoC caters to students worldwide. If you know of accredited women’s colleges outside North America that have CS curricula or programming clubs, please inform them and add them to the page. Thanks!