An inside look at being a woman in open source

A few weeks ago, I blogged about how widespread sexual harassment at open source conferences is and suggested that open source conference organizers should adopt an official policy taking a stand against all forms of harassment at their conferences. Easy, right?

It turns out that writing a practical and useful anti-harassment policy is a lot of hard work. I know because I spent the last three weeks writing one in collaboration with Esther Filderman, Beth Lynn Eicher, Mary Gardiner, Sarah Smith, Donna Benjamin, and many others. Our goal was to create a policy that could be easily customized and adapted to any open source, computing, or technology conference, and to collect useful resources for people considering adopting a policy. After long discussion with the organizers of many conferences and beta testing it with the generous help of OSDC, we made the first official public release of the policy on Tuesday.

To help raise awareness of the need for a policy, I interviewed nine women about their experiences at open sources conferences and wrote an article about them for Linux Weekly News. As usual, it’s subscriber-only for one week, but if you email me I will happily send you a free link.

The dark side of open source conferences

If you would like to help make open source conferences more welcoming to women and people of all kinds, please consider blogging, twittering, or emailing the organizers of your favorite conference. This Geek Feminism blog post includes the contact email addresses for many popular open source conferences.

Finally, I want to say, holy crap, it’s hard to write about sexual harassment in public – and I’ve been doing it since I wrote HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux 8 years ago. If you do write a blog entry, send an email, or otherwise show public support for this cause, you have my heartfelt respect for your bravery. Thank you.

32 thoughts on “An inside look at being a woman in open source

    1. On the date of your comment it was only 1 month since the last pure technology blog post. Not long at all. :-)

  1. It’s “being a woman”, not “being a women”… women is plural. :P Otherwise, interesting read.

    1. I do that all the time – “woman” -> “women”. I used to have a habit of searching for those two words and checking their use when I write, guess I should start doing that again. Thanks!

  2. As an enthusiastic Open Source user I’m sad that this type of document is still needed these days. I had hoped that the F/LOSS corner of the universe was more grown up and such juvenile behaviour was behind us, but I guess not. People are people, open source people or not, I guess and a percentage are going to be idiots or whatever.

    It may have been hard work to write, getting the wording just so often is I believe, (not something I’m good at), but the results look, and read, very well and hopefully will provide template for all types of conferences and events, not just OS ones.

    1. I don’t think it’s the free software corner so much as the general atmosphere of conferences. For example, I never heard of such harassment at SIAM conferences or the more math/CS IEEE & ACM conferences I’ve attended despite the gender skew[1]. Those conferences are considered professional conferences; misbehavior will be remembered and will impact your career. That should be the level of many of Ms. Aurora’s examples.

      On the flip side, Dragon*Con has been leaning more and more towards insanity. This year there were many direct sexual assaults, physical assaults, and other things. Some folks shrug it off because “that’s the atmosphere” even when it shouldn’t be. I only just started attending might not go next year even though I live by Atlanta.

      [1] I haven’t *heard* of it happening. Still will contact a few folks over the holidays to see about formalizing the issue in case anyone has been afraid of speaking up.

  3. Why don’t you top whining for a change? Stop making excuses for lack women lack of interest.
    Are they also harassed in BOINC voluntarily project, so their participation rate is miserable there too? You think that women are so weak that they can’t handle few childish jerks? You underestimate women, feminists are the biggest obstacle for women emancipation because they don’t teach them to take responsibility for they actions and results of these actions but instead blame men for failing.

    There are jerks and they are jerks towards men as well but you don’t see the men complaining all the time. There is no such thing as 50-50% it’s just in the minds of mindless feminists who want artificial constructs instead of natural ones.

    1. Thank you Valorie, it takes a lot of guts to address these issues. (Sadly, in this here 21st century.) The culture of denial is strong and very vocal. If only a fraction of that energy were devoted to something useful. Never stop speaking out! It’s another way of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ — the more of us that stand up, the more that will stand up.

  4. It really sucks that there are so many jerks out there. I wonder if it’s exacerbated by the FLOSS person’s stereotypical social issues? Stereotyping is bad, but I work in a very computer science heavy office and I’d say that about 20 of the 25 people in this office do not have normal social behavior patterns. So throw in social awkwardness with women and …. craziness comes. I’m not saying that to excuse it. It’s just that I’ve been to lots of photography conferences (it’s my biggest passion after FLOSS software) and nothing like this happens there.

    So, hopefully, these rules and guidelines will help those with no tact realize that they’re being mean. That should hopefully get rid of like 99% of the problems. The remaining 1% are just the same jerks that have been jerks since kindergarten.

    1. Hi Eric,

      Many people have raised the idea that harassment occurs as a result of people who have difficulty following social cues for one reason or another, whether it’s a biological difficulty or lack of socialization or plain awkwardness. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to match with the real-world experience of myself and others, when the people doing the harassment are perfectly capable of interpreting social cues but choose to act rudely or cruelly. It’s hard enough being socially awkward with having to take the rap for people who are being mean – and I say this as someone who is socially awkward in the extreme.

  5. What do you mean by “harassment?” Guys saying hi to you? Trying to talk to you? Oh, the horror! What can be done to stop this intolerable situation? I’m going to suggest earplugs, and maybe a burkah, or maybe you could try gaining 50 pounds, or wearing an appropriate warning label consisting of a highly appropriate adjective? Or, don’t go – move back in with your same-sex “gender studies” peers, and leave the normal people alone.

    I’ve never seen anything even remotely resembling the things described in either of your articles – probably because these things never happened.

  6. I’ve only attended a few FOSS events in Ireland. I haven’t seen this type of harassment.It might be because we are lucky to have some great people who organize the events. some are women and some are men. However being a man I think Id probably have been oblivious to it if it was happening, I’d widen the remit of a policy that people should not be harassed on the basis of sex, sexual preference , race or religious beliefs. I do think that maintaining a gender balance if possible in the community is a good thing.

    I do think we need to name and shame people for this behavior.
    This quote came to mind.

    1. Hi Sam,

      I’m not sure what the exact point of your article is, but in any case I’m glad you are helping to raise awareness of the problem of harassment in the open source community. Thanks!

      1. I expect Steve got that impression because your list of colleagues included no males. An easy misunderstanding if such it is.

        “I know because I spent the last three weeks writing one in collaboration with Esther Filderman, Beth Lynn Eicher, Mary Gardiner, Sarah Smith, Donna Benjamin, and many others.”

  7. As a member of a labour organization which has had to deal with various types of discrimination and harassment over the years, I find our “equality statement” covers pretty much what is needed to rebuff the aggravating behaviour. It is read aloud at the beginning of any meeting, and larger meetings, (conventions) have ombudspersons at the ready to deal with complainants. Take from it what you will.

  8. Read the policy, don’t see anything to restrict it to “open source, computing, or technology-related conferences.”

    I am imagine it would also be suitable for arms fairs or Women’s Institute meetings!

    However, the use of the word ‘offensive’ troubles me since I know longer know what it means (due to over use). Could a less subjective word be used?

    1. Hi Felix,

      Thanks for your feedback! With regard to scope, I agree that the policy can be used in many contexts and have had several people tell me they are using it as inspiration elsewhere. However, I only feel expert enough to make a recommendation in the area of open source, computing, or technology-related conferences.

      I agree, describing behavior that is considered harassment is difficult to do well. I would rather use something more specific than “offensive verbal comments.” Do you have any suggestions?

  9. Thank you kindly for taking the time and effort, and having the courage and tenacity, to write so many valuable articles on this topic. The Conference Anti-Harassment Policy is another great contribution that, in conjunction with would-be attendees’ requests for its implementation, will do much to help ensure a safe and enjoyable conference for everyone.

    I am one of the organizers for an upcoming tech conference, and am pleased to report that this Policy was brought to my attention by the men on our committee. We will be using it for our event, and I have gone on to suggest its use at a FLOSS conference in my city, whose reputation in this regard is less than stellar.

    1. Thank you for your kind comment! If you let me know what your event’s name is, I would be happy to add it to the list of events using the policy. And please let me know if I can assist in customizing the policy for either your event or the FLOSS conference.

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