My response to "Women Fed Up With Open Source Community Creeps"

Girl Geeks    2010-12-18

Women Fed Up With Open Source Community Creeps [Jezebel]

The above article, published back on December 4th, was a follow-up to Valerie Aurora's piece "The dark side of open source conferences" [LWN]. I'm a few weeks late in getting this response up, but it's the holiday season, and we're launching a half dozen new sites at work before the winter break, so I've been a little busy.

Before I'm lambasted as a traitor to my own gender, let me make this clear: my response is to the Jezebel article and nothing else. As a woman, I would never dismiss or devalue the experiences of another woman, particularly in this arena. But I feel strongly that the Jezebel post was unfairly slanted, promoting a malicious stereotype purely for the sake of grabbing traffic, and giving everyone the impression that the incidents Aurora describes are common when in fact they are not.

I was incensed enough to write a response to the editor of Jezebel. I have yet to receive a response. Aside from a few introductory sentences at the beginning, here is my response in its entirety:

... When I saw that Jezebel had picked up the story I was horrified. I've been a fan of Jezebel for years, I know that it's a feminist blog, but I couldn't believe the unfair treatment this topic received.

The author used the Jezebel brush to paint a broad stroke picture of all geeks as creepy misogynists, when that's so far from the truth.

There's another side of the story that I wish you'd consider telling. I've been active in the open source community for years, mostly in Python (an open source programming language) and Django (a code framework based on that language). The men that I know - and I know a lot of them - are balanced and progressive thinkers. A lot of them have wives and families, sisters and daughters. Some of them are more rabid feminists than I am.

I go to several conferences a year, and I've never experienced any form of harassment. Occasional unexpected flirting, yes, but that's been the extent of it. That's not to say that the incidents described in Valerie's post shouldn't be taken seriously. Of course they should be investigated and dealt with, particularly in Noirin Shirley's case. But that's not what this letter is about.

Perhaps it's true that sometimes men need to be educated about sensitivity issues and about how to behave appropriately towards women. But I've never known men to be so open to learning those things as the ones I've met in the open source community. We all recognize that there is a serious gender imbalance and are working hard to encourage more women to participate.

I remember the Yahoo Hack Day lap dancers incident - when pictures from that party started circulating, there was a huge outcry, mostly from men in the community. Likewise, there was some very loud and public shaming when pictures of bikini models showed up in a presentation at a Ruby conference. I believe that men in open source do not want the behavior of a few bad apples to reflect badly on all of them. In short, bad behavior might happen, but it is called out when it does.

I think a little context is needed in this whole discussion. Incidents of sexual harassment are not systemic of the open source community; if anything, they're systemic of any environment where men so greatly outnumber women. Creepy men can turn up anywhere.

It's unfair to point to open source as the problem - open source is a place where we find solutions. I can only speak to my own experiences in the Python/Django communities, but the leaders of those communities work very hard to encourage diversity and tolerance, not just when it comes to gender, but also race, sexual preference, religion, etc.

As of last year, the Python Software Foundation has started offering grants for women, to assist with the cost of attending the conference (PyCon):

The Python Software Foundation does, itself, have an official diversity statement as of last year:

There also exists a mailing list dedicated to discussing and promoting diversity in the Python community:

These are just a few examples of the strides the open source community is taking to make everyone feel welcome, and while they don't directly address harassment, they do address the larger issue of giving everyone a safe place to participate. My concern is that a story like "Women Fed Up With Open Source Community Creeps", which leans so heavily towards promoting a negative stereotype, will just frighten more women away from technology instead of encouraging them to be a part of the solution.

At the end of the day, these are my friends, my colleagues, my peers, even my boyfriend we're talking about here. None of them are creeps.