Subtle discrimination

Note: this post was edited on 26th February 2009.

This blog post has been triggered by a discussion on LWN.net (a site whose editorial content is of a very high standard - if you have an interest in FOSS, I'd highly recommend subscribing - I comment on there as "farnz").

The particular subthread that set me off was one on the (relatively) low participation of women in Free Software; it began with a commenter suggesting that whatever was ongoing was not discriminatory, as all project work happens over the Internet, and it's therefore impossible to even guess whether someone's male or female.

We know that women are generally underrepresented in programming compared to the general population, but the numbers we have suggest that around 20% of programmers in the proprietary software world are women, whereas only around 3% of programmers in Free Software are women. It's clear from these figures that something is putting women off contributing to open source; the remaining question is what?

One argument is that women just aren't interested in programming, and those that are aren't interested in open source. This is a possibility, but before we can accept it as an explanation, we need to understand why women aren't interested; as yet, I have not seen anyone try to do this in terms that don't either beg the question, or assume a skills difference without evidence.

Another argument is that the people in charge of open source projects are openly and actively discriminating against women; in particular, if they notice contributions from a woman, they'll either actively campaign against her, or simply ignore her contributions until she gives up. As this requires an active anti-female conspiracy, and yet there are some known female contributors, who are not protesting sexist behaviour by the people in charge, it's a weak argument.

The third class of argument is the one I wish to focus on, as it's often ignored. It takes as an axiom that different groups of people have different views on what's appropriate behaviour for other people, and that those views tend to splinter down lines like gender and race. For example, in the culture I live in, men who argue vehemently against a view they disagree with are being "strong" and "decisive"; women who do the same are being "pushy" and "opinionated". English hacker culture respects people who stand up to authority and say "no, you're wrong, and this is why"; other cultures simply do not permit such behaviour, and actively cast out people who stand up to authority in such a crass fashion; you must instead influence authorities into recognising their mistakes themselves.

Following on from this, people learn to stay away from communities where they believe that there will be a culture clash; for example, women learn to not get involved if they believe that they'll be forced into arguing vehemently against something, as past experience tells them that if they behave equally, they'll be seen as pushy and opinionated. This applies even if the community wouldn't actually treat them that way; the perceived risk is much higher than the perceived gain.

At this point, there's a strong risk of a vicious cycle. The community is behaving in a way that puts off a group; there aren't enough people from that group to change the way the community behaves, and the existing community members don't see a problem. Sometimes, this vicious cycle is exactly what you want; if the group you put off cannot contribute in any useful way. More often, it's not actually helpful, as you lose useful contributors.

So, how does a community avoid getting caught in the vicious cycle? The first problem is finding out that you even have a problem; the people being put off won't speak up, as they've learnt that the consequences of doing so are bad. People outside the group being put off have to make a conscious effort to notice when the community is heading in a bad direction and speak up; note that you will be attacked for speaking up, as you are going to be telling people that they're behaving unacceptably, when they don't think that they are.

The good news is that in the long term, speaking up helps. By making it clear that the offputting behaviour is unacceptable, you create an environment in which some of the people who would have been deterred from contributing feel able to speak up if they're feeling that they're being discriminated against. In turn, this lets them join the community, and over time, their presence will shape the community into being welcoming of members of their group, too, not just the existing people.


An explanation that begs the question is one that includes the question in the answer; for example, "most women who could contribute to open source don't do so because there aren't enough female role models". There aren't enough female role models because not many women contribute, so this explanation begs the question.

An explanation that assumes a skills difference without evidence is one that asserts that the lack of contributions from a group can be entirely explained away by the relatively high standards of the community, without first showing that the group does not normally meet those standards. There are two common variations on this theme:

  1. This community wants higher quality contributions than whatever other community has a more even statistical record. We know that some people are better than others at this activity, ergo the bias is just because we want high quality contributions; when the group which is feeling discriminated against raises its game, the balance will even out.
  2. This community doesn't pay (or pays less) for contributions, whereas the other one pays well - that's why the bias.

The first of these needs evidence that the skills difference is really present; it's objectively measurable, so you could back it with something like "the proportion of women with 1st class degrees in software engineering as against women with software engineering degrees of any class matches this" - if 3% of firsts in SE are women, but 20% of SE degrees are women, the figure for open source versus proprietary has an explanation.

The second isn't an explanation; all it says is that money can persuade people to do things that are otherwise going to make them unhappy.

Edit on 26th February 2009:

A friend of mine has pointed out that I've been rather one-sided in this post. I've talked about ways in which men unintentionally deter women from participating, but I've omitted discussion of ways in which women end up excluded by their own social expectations.

In my culture, men and women are expected to resolve conflict in very different ways; men typically have it out as a big, big argument, after which everything is settled. Women typically acquiesce in the short term, but apply gradual pressure to individuals (often seen as manipulative "nagging" and "whining") to bring the final result round to something they can live with.

I would argue that the "male" way of resolving conflict is more appropriate for a group project; it results in arguments being resolved in the group as a whole, not in private discussions. Further, the "female" route leads to a perception that there's no point arguing against women who speak up; they'll get their way in the end, so you might as well give in now.

There's no FOSS-only solution to this; as a man, all I can do is avoid being suspicious of women's motives when they break this cultural model. Everyone needs to be aware of when their cultural conditioning is pushing them into bad habits or behaviours, and we need more general cultural change, so that we don't expect people to behave differently (as programmers) depending on gender, race, or other irrelevances.

1 comment:

  1. "For example, in the culture I live in, men who argue vehemently against a view they disagree with are being "strong" and "decisive"; women who do the same are being "pushy" and "opinionated"."

    There could be a whole 'nother post about this but yes, I agree.

    I am interested in FOSS; I've been a Linux user for knocking on eight years but am not active in the community. I have better things to do with my time than to get into arguments about semantics, as a general rule. And until I'm *not* seen as a shrewish harpy for standing my ground, that's not going to change.

    But then, it's not just limited to FOSS...