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Women in F/OSS (and why the Ubuntu community rocks)

I’ve been feeling good this year about the status of women in F/OSS. The percentages are still low (in spite of the Google bursary, the number of female attendees was abysmally low at the UKUUG spring conference) but there are a number of factors contributing to my optimism:

  • Hey cool, female computer scientist Barbara Liskov was awarded the Turing Award for 2008! How inspiring!
  • Ada Lovelace Day was an outstanding success. While I didn’t take part (was busy!), hundreds of other bloggers, men and women alike, did. Wow! I read some amazing posts and learned a lot that day.
  • On a personal level, I much less frequently encounter people who are surprised to see a woman involved
  • In a similar vein as the last, I encounter far less discrimination as I once did
  • The number of women on the Ubuntu Women Mailing List and IRC channel continues to grow steadily, as do the number of women involved with Ubuntu in general
  • Without trying, I’ve found myself working on F/OSS projects with women much more frequently

For the first time I am starting to feel accepted and not out of place within F/OSS communities.

Then the situation with “that Ruby presentation” came about and reminded me that while we’re on the right track, we’re not there yet. For those who aren’t aware of the situation, Audrey Eschright wrote a fantastic blog post about what happened and how she felt about it: Dear Fellow Rubyists. She articulated many of the feelings I’ve had over the years when it comes to scantily-clad women being used in presentations at conferences, of which I’ll only post a snipping of here:

Women are a tiny minority in the Ruby world, and we know it. Even before someone says, “hey, it’s cool to see women working with Ruby”. (These sorts of comments are often heard as “holy cow, there’s a chick in this room.” It’s not an issue of intent. It’s that we already felt like we have a blinking arrow over our heads.)

And since we’re a minority, and we often encounter awkward responses to that, we feel marginalized. We also tend to feel marginalized when we encounter sexualized images when we’re in a room full of men we don’t know very well. Even women who like porn can feel that way. It doesn’t have anything to do with whether we like sexual content, it’s whether we’re okay with seeing it in a professional context. Some women may be fine with this (especially if they know the presenter), some may find it tacky and awkward, and some may have the immediate urge to flee the room and be anywhere else right now.

I was also pleased with her follow-up which worked to address the situation: So now what? To me, this screams “We’re not helpless victims and we are not content to simply complain. We want to actively fix things.” Bravo! I’m not involved with Ruby (I’m not even a programmer, I’m a sysadmin!) so the blog entry storm addressing Ruby and the fallout within the community haven’t really interested me, but in the general Women In F/OSS arena there have been a few blog posts that have stood out these past few days:

  • Selena Deckelmann’s What works? Getting more women involved in open source. and her follow-up success story: What’s changed? Portland as an example of increasing women’s participation. I can only hope that female participation in Philadelphia continues to grow similarly, I certainly work hard to implement these same techniques and encourage others around me to do the same.
  • Hackety.org: A Selection Of Thoughts From Actual Women. It was excellent to read such a cross-section of thoughts from women on the situation. Predictably there were women who were all over the board with their thoughts (women are just people, after all, and we all have our opinions). The general consensus tended to be that most of us aren’t specifically offended by porn being included in a presentation at a professional conference, but that we didn’t feel it was appropriate in that setting and that it tends to make us uncomfortable.
  • Catherine Devlin’s right to complaint. I think her first sentence sums of what was most striking to me about her post: “It’s not that the community needs to ensure offensive content never happens, or that the community needs to find a single standard of what is appropriate.” Absolutely. In any community there will be a few folks who are going to be out of line, but it’s the reaction within the community to poor behavior that is vital. It makes me hand out this link often: Dorothea Salo’s What Some Folks Can Do, If They Choose which explains how important it is when men within the community speak up when they see disrespectful behavior.

Guess what was on my mind on Wednesday evening as I was finishing up preparations for my Ubuntu Open Week presentation on Ubuntu Women? I was so nervous! The last time we had an Ubuntu Women presentation for UOW was back when Gutsy was released and we had to moderate the channel. While there were some good questions, the whole session was very stressful. The next time I was approached to do an UOW session on the project I declined.

So 23:00 UTC rolls around last night and I start my presentation in #ubuntu-classroom. There are lots of people in #ubuntu-classroom-chat piping up with discussion. The session went amazingly well. There were fantastic questions, there were no issues that even made us consider moderating the channel, people were engaging and overwhelmingly excellent. A full log of the session is up now: MeetingLogs/openweekJaunty/UbuntuWomen (it’s a shame -chat wasn’t logged, because the discussion there was great).

Following the session we moved the conversation over to #ubuntu-women and continued going over key project points in a discussion where there were dissenting views and opinions but everyone remained polite and open-minded. At the end of the evening I believe disagreements remained, but everyone chose to respect each other and our different opinions and part as friends.


Thank you to the members of the Ubuntu Women project who came by to be supportive and help me answer questions.

Thank you to the members of the US Pennsylvania LoCo team I’m part of for coming and lending their support.

Thank you to everyone who attended the session and asked such engaging questions.

Thank you to those who couldn’t attend but offered words of support.

Thank you to those who had differing views but chose to express them in helpful, polite and constructive ways.

Thank you to the Ubuntu community for making the Ubuntu project a place I can be genuinely proud of being a part of.

You all rock!


  • Bugsbane


    Glad to hear the presentation went well, and thankyou for posting the link to what “men who aren’t mysogynists can do to help”. It’s a great reminder that even if you’re not in the mistreated minority, that you still have the power to make a change. I’m reminded of one of my favourite sayings “The only thing that must happen for evil to triumph is for good men (and women) to do nothing.”
    Thanks for reminding us that doing nothing is not an option. :) Men often pride ourselves on strength. This is a great opportunity for us to use that identity to stand up for the common good.

  • LucidFox

    Yes, the situation is changing – both the attitudes and the gender ratio. Slower than I’d like, but still. Even on a Russian Linux forum I frequent, which otherwise is as misogynist is one can get, the “zomg a gurl!!1” mentality seems to have mostly faded away.