Mars Needs Women

Linux is pretty much an all-male project. Let's change that.

Here at Linux Journal, nearly 100% of our subscribers are male. So are all of our editors and regular writers, with the single exception of the one in charge. Meanwhile, our publisher and Webmistress are both female. In fact, so is our entire ownership. I bring this up because I believe women have leadership advantages that most guys—especially in tech—fail to respect, perhaps because we guys have been poorly taught to respect them. Garrison Keillor explains this in The Book of Guys:

Here's what they won't tell you in class:

Girls had it better from the beginning, don't kid yourself. They were allowed to play in the house, where the books were and the adults, and boys were sent outdoors like livestock. Boys were noisy and rough, and girls were nice, so they got to stay and we had to go. Boys ran around in the yard with toy guns going kkshh-kkshh, fighting wars for made-up reasons and arguing about who was dead, while girls stayed inside and played with dolls, creating complex family groups and learning to solve problems through negotiation and role-playing. Which gender is better equipped, on the whole, to live an adult life, would you guess? ...Is there any doubt about this? Is it even close?

...Men adore women. Our mothers taught us to. Women do not adore men; women are amused by men, we are a source of chuckles. That's because women are the makers of life, and we aren't. We will never breast-feed. We get more than our share of loot and we are, for some reason, incredibly brave and funny and inventive, and yet our role in procreation basically is to get crazy and howl and spray our seed in all directions.

So we carry adolescence around in our bodies all our lives.

Later he adds this:

Spectacular dumbness is a guy type of gift. We are good at great schemes and failed brilliance, and some eras seem to encourage this.

He wrote that in 1993, one year before Linux hit v1.0 and Linux Journal was born, and two years before the Net as we know it today (graphical browsers, ISPs, Amazon, Craigslist, cookies) came together. Since then, great schemes and failed brilliance have been running non-stop in the technology world, even through bust cycles. And, with too few exceptions (for example, Linux Journal), guys have run the show.

It's easy to see this as a matter of leadership. In "Silicon Valley Has a Code Name for Sexism & Racism", Vivek Wadhwa says:

...with a couple of notable exceptions, women are rarely found in the executive ranks of tech companies. The Valley's echo chamber—what I call the "mafia"—is oblivious to criticism about this. It doesn't seem to care about the imbalance. Note the Twitter IPO filing. It shows that all of its board members are male, as are all of its executives—other than one lawyer whom the company added a few weeks ago—and all of its investors.

After digressing into an exchange of insults with Twitter CEO (and former comic) Dick Costolo, Vivek gets down to business:

This exclusionary behavior is also harmful to companies and their shareholders. To start with, having women on boards produces better outcomes. Research by analyst firm Catalyst shows that companies with the highest proportions of women board directors outperform those with the lowest proportions by 53%. They have a 42% higher return on sales and 66% higher return on invested capital. When it comes to entrepreneurship, the advantages of diversity become even clearer.

Firms founded by women are more capital efficient than those founded by men. Women-led high-tech startups have lower failure rates. Venture-backed companies run by a woman have annual revenues 12% higher than those by men; and organizations that are the most inclusive of women in top management positions achieve a 35% higher return on equity and 34% higher total return to shareholders.

I don't doubt that Linux Journal would be long gone today without women running the magazine. That's not a knock on men (or on our founder, Phil Hughes, who remains a leader in spirit). It's just that, from what I've seen, women are more likely to see business as a way to serve customers while men are more likely to see business as an form of sports or war: in other words, as a grown-up version of what they learned in back yards as boys.

Case in point. A few years back, when Guy Kawasaki was running Garage Technology Ventures, he said he liked to vet start-up business plans with women first, because men tend to talk in those plans about how their new company will kill other companies. Women, he said, know that killing other companies is not what makes a business succeed—or what customers want. If, as John Gray famously put it, "men are from Mars and women are from Venus" (the title of his bestseller), our planet needs a mass migration of Venusian immigrants.

Focusing on founders and CEOs isn't a bad thing, but focusing on the tops of pyramids misses the depth and scale of the problem. Mars needs more programmers, more engineers, more scientists, more mathematicians, more hackers of all kinds. When I look in the LKML for lists of contributors to Linux, I tend to see something that looks like our subscriber list: all-male or damn close. We have a long way to go.

This is a known issue, and well-documented on the prescriptive side, starting with Val Henson's "HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux", at The Linux Documentation Project. From the "About the Author":

Val Henson is a Linux kernel developer, an active member of LinuxChix and female. Her interests include operating systems research, women and computer science, and fine beer. Many other women collaborated with her to produce this HOWTO, including Raven Alder, Suzi Anvin, Poppy Casper, Claudia "Texchanchan" Crowley, Steph Donovan, Joy Goodreau, Telsa Gwynne, Amy Hieter, Hanna Linder, Anna McDonald, Marcia Barret Nice, Miriam Rainsford, Carla Schroder, Jenn Vesperman, Jenny Wu, Megan "Piglet" Zurawicz, Safari and others who choose to remain anonymous.

That the document was last revised on October 29, 2002—more than eleven years ago—speaks volumes. So does the slow pace of posting on the LinuxChix home page/blog and its mailing lists, or at least those I checked.

But I am encouraged to find a LinuxChix post from February 2013 titled "Joseph Reagle on the gender gap in geek culture". Joseph is a colleague of mine at the Berkman Center and a wise dude who knows what he's talking about. His book, Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia, belongs in the Canon on Collaboration, should there ever be such a thing. The post from last February leverages this text from Jerry Brito's "Surprisingly Free":

According to Reagle, only 1% of the free software community and 9% of Wikipedia editors are female, which he sees as emblematic of structural problems in the geek community. While he does not believe that being a geek or a nerd is in any way synonymous with being a sexist, he concludes that three things that he otherwise loves—geekiness, openness, and the rhetoric and ideology of freedom—are part of the problem inasmuch as they allow informal cliques to arise, dominate the discussion, and squeeze out minority views. Reagle also comments on a unintentional androcentricity he has observed even amongst free software community heroes, highlighting the ways in which this behavior can be alienating to women and prevents geek culture from growing beyond its traditional base.

Reagle prescribes a 3-step solution to sexism in geek culture: talking about gender; challenging and expanding what it means to be a geek; and not allowing the rhetoric of freedom to be used as an excuse for bad behavior.

So we're taking the first step here. Let's talk about it.

Mars photo via Shutterstock.com.

______________________

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

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Only three unique units of

sollen's picture

Only three unique units of the Lamborghini Veneno will be built and sold. Its design is consistently focused on optimum aerodynamics Excavator Work Lights and cornering stability, giving the Veneno the real dynamic experience of a racing prototype, yet it is fully homologated for the road.

Tired of all the whining

Jerry B.'s picture

As a guy, my philosophy is to not treat people any differently based on whether they are a guy or a gal, and I say if I mess up on that in some repect, tell me privately, and I'll make it up to you.

The thing is, I get really tired of being painted as a part of the problem or treated like it need to give women special treatment because I somehow owe it to them even though I haven't participated in discriminating against them.

Seriously, if you do see something sexist, take it up with the person being sexist, not the guys who haven't descriminated against someone.

Starting the conversation is the first step.

K. Wong's picture

Thanks for this article. As a woman in technology I've encountered intentional as well as unintentional sexism. For example, early on people would say demeaning things like "oh, you sent the girl" or call me pet names or go through my personal HR files or even show me inappropriate videos at work under the guise of having accidentally clicked on something. Concurrently, and as time went on, I was often asked to do organizational and people oriented tasks instead of the technical things that I preferred. Some of my close coworkers (who happen to be men) and I attribute it to my ability to be polite and that that politeness (please read female conditioning) is mistaken for being a people person and wanting to manage projects (which I utterly deplore). This has slowed my development of technical skills and I have to make up for it by studying obsessively at home while my toddler plays around my feet.

Regarding the point above as to why bother, I think of it like this; there is a huge untapped wealth of ability in populations that have until now, been left out (maybe not intentionally, but due to circumstance) of the technical and mathematical world. Imagine the missed genius throughout history in populations that didn't have the chance to explore these areas. When things are exclusive, we're only functioning at a portion of our potential. The "why bother" argument has been made with regard to segregation, educating women and minorities, etc. It's faulty and defensive at its core and has only ever served to perpetuate suffering and hold back innovation.

Your ideas here underscored that my contributions matter and cause me to consider my role on a larger scale. Funnily enough, I stumbled upon it as rocked my 20 month old to sleep.

People skill != extroversion

Lisa Andersen's picture

I would point out that ability to work with people and negotiate is separate from being a "people person". As an example, I'm definitely an introvert. But after working for quite a while in technical support in a small US-based ISP that does technical support locally (and wants customers happy after talking to tech support, no matter what they called us about), I feel like my people and negotiating (and I say negotiating as in finding a win-win solution) skills have improved quite a bit, but I still am an introvert and would rather just work on something technical rather than deal with people.

In your case, it could well be that your technical skill is just as good as anyone else's on the team, but that you are also good at (notice I said good at, not enjoy) dealing with people. The team my have a certain level of work that deals with dealing with people, and the team my be picking the team member best suited to deal with that work -- you -- to do it. Unfortunately, this takes time away from technical work and can slow your technical advancement. It may not be so much that their choice is anything sexist, but that the industry (and your team) desperately needs more people that communicate well AND are technically savvy.

On the other hand, it could be (reverse? Is there such a thing?) sexism. It could be political correctness coming back like a boomerang, where it could be higher ups promote women just because they are women, so they can say they aren't sexist. Of course, if that is the case, at the core that is a decision that is sexist. Of course, that is also hypocrisy.

Looking at it from a purely career and money making success standpoint, if the mother's skills are in greater demand in the workplace, then the father should be the one caring the for the kids (and forfeiting any work time that might require). But having never been a mother, I suspect that most mothers do not define success purely from a career or financial standpoint.

People skill != extroversion

Lisa Andersen's picture

I would point out that ability to work with people and negotiate is separate from being a "people person". As an example, I'm definitely an introvert. But after working for quite a while in technical support in a small US-based ISP that does technical support locally (and wants customers happy after talking to tech support, no matter what they called us about), I feel like my people and negotiating (and I say negotiating as in finding a win-win solution) skills have improved quite a bit, but I still am an introvert and would rather just work on something technical rather than deal with people.

In your case, it could well be that your technical skill is just as good as anyone else's on the team, but that you are also good at (notice I said good at, not enjoy) dealing with people. The team my have a certain level of work that deals with dealing with people, and the team my be picking the team member best suited to deal with that work -- you -- to do it. Unfortunately, this takes time away from technical work and can slow your technical advancement. It may not be so much that their choice is anything sexist, but that the industry (and your team) desperately needs more people that communicate well AND are technically savvy.

On the other hand, it could be (reverse? Is there such a thing?) sexism. It could be political correctness coming back like a boomerang, where it could be higher ups promote women just because they are women, so they can say they aren't sexist. Of course, if that is the case, at the core that is a decision that is sexist. Of course, that is also hypocrisy.

Looking at it from a purely career and money making success standpoint, if the mother's skills are in greater demand in the workplace, then the father should be the one caring the for the kids (and forfeiting any work time that might require). But having never been a mother, I suspect that most mothers do not define success purely from a career or financial standpoint.

People skill != extroversion

Lisa Andersen's picture

I would point out that ability to work with people and negotiate is separate from being a "people person". As an example, I'm definitely an introvert. But after working for quite a while in technical support in a small US-based ISP that does technical support locally (and wants customers happy after talking to tech support, no matter what they called us about), I feel like my people and negotiating (and I say negotiating as in finding a win-win solution) skills have improved quite a bit, but I still am an introvert and would rather just work on something technical rather than deal with people.

In your case, it could well be that your technical skill is just as good as anyone else's on the team, but that you are also good at (notice I said good at, not enjoy) dealing with people. The team my have a certain level of work that deals with dealing with people, and the team my be picking the team member best suited to deal with that work -- you -- to do it. Unfortunately, this takes time away from technical work and can slow your technical advancement. It may not be so much that their choice is anything sexist, but that the industry (and your team) desperately needs more people that communicate well AND are technically savvy.

On the other hand, it could be (reverse? Is there such a thing?) sexism. It could be political correctness coming back like a boomerang, where it could be higher ups promote women just because they are women, so they can say they aren't sexist. Of course, if that is the case, at the core that is a decision that is sexist. Of course, that is also hypocrisy.

Looking at it from a purely career and money making success standpoint, if the mother's skills are in greater demand in the workplace, then the father should be the one caring the for the kids (and forfeiting any work time that might require). But having never been a mother, I suspect that most mothers do not define success purely from a career or financial standpoint.

Sorry for the triple post

Lisa Andersen's picture

For some weird reason, when I post a comment, I get taken to a blank page. Sorry for the triple post.

There are factors which are

Dimi's picture

There are factors which are rarely considered in discussions of gender and STEM.

1) Women are more risk-averse than men. (Some will argue this is socialisation. I agree with that assessment, to an extent. I do think biology also plays a part.)
Programming can be risky, especially the more commercial aspects of it.

2) Women prefer careers where an extended absence (due to pregnancy) won't threaten their employment.
If you're absent for a year, you may have some catching up to do. If you're gone longer than that, good luck finding an employer.

3) Women place more value on good working conditions and on work/life balance, and less on money, than men do.
Programming can be lucrative, but it tends also to be stressful and onerous.

In the developed world, there are plenty of options for women to choose from, so they prefer not to go into IT because other work better caters to their priorities. It is interesting to note that in the developing world, women are much more extant in IT. Why? Because they don't have that many options, and they're more likely to have poor working conditions whatever profession they pick, so they may as well pick one that remunerates them better.

Most people who develop Linux are also programmers by profession. Now, when you consider the number of women who willingly enter the field ... It's quite obvious to me why there's such a gender disparity, and it's not going to change any time soon, not unless you fundamentally change how the IT industry in general works.

Sexism may play a part-- some women tell me they've never experienced it, others tell me they experience it all the time-- but it's not a primary contributor to the gulf.

on the ground

Laura Farrell's picture

There are actually quite a lot of women working in Linux. I definitely agree though that few go beyond work boundaries. From what I can see most of them just don't have time. Institutional factors play a big role too I think.

since i have read the title i

tivasyk's picture

since i have read the title i can't get rid of the question "what for?"

are you trying to multiply… or are you doing something (writing about it in general and foss in particular) that ideally shouldn't be influenced by height, weight, skin color, sex… even language if possible?

i'm all for mutual respect and equel rights (krams has worded it much better than i could have). but maximum you can and should do is ensure that you do not impose any restrictions on who can access linux journal, who can writte for you etc. having done that just leave the system some time to reach it's own equillibrium. allow women the right to decide what's interesting to them.

As much as I share your point

krams's picture

As much as I share your point that the tech scene, and especially the open source community would do better with a higher percentage of females, I do not completely agree with the (implicit) analysis converning the real cause of the current situation. Your quote from Brito points to sexist behaviour/cliches in the community that alienate women (and other minorities) and keep them away from contributing. But this reproduces in some way the old stereotype of female hypoagency - that women are unable to act, to make decisions about their life. The percentage of women studying computer sciences rose from 17% in 2006 to 23% in 2012 here in Germany, so there's apparently a lot of them having the qualification to contribute to or to start FLOSS projects, but only very very few do so. Why? Setting up a new, small, cool open source project solving a problem for your own needs is really nothing where you are dependent on current, maybe hostile/sexist structures (contributing to debian or the kernel is another thing, but that's not the point here), you can do it pretty much on your own. Still I do very rarely see projects started by female individuals or teams. So what's stopping them to do this? Apparently not a lack of programming skills. It's probably a perfectly rationale decision for their lives that they do not invest their time into FLOSS, because there are other activies more rewarding in their eyes. So in my opinion, rather than complaining that the FLOSS scene is sexist, it would be more helpful to convince women that it's cool and rewarding to be part of it. And maybe complain a bit that they don't contribute ;). Because that's another side of the story: despite the recent commercialization a lot of things are still done unpaid, during the spare time of many volunteers, and there's much more than 1% female users of open source software.
Dont get me wrong: sexism in the FLOSS community exists, and an open discussion about this is important. But I'm missing sometimes a little bit of the "Don't ask what FLOSS can do for you, ask what you can do for FLOSS"-spirit ;).

FLOSS-spirit

Doc Searls's picture

Thanks for a thoughtful reply, krams.

My purpose with this post is not to blame, but to start constructive conversation. Your bottom line is a great one to act on.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

FLOSS-spirit

Doc Searls's picture

Thanks for a thoughtful reply, krams.

My purpose with this post is not to blame, but to start constructive conversation. Your bottom line is a great one to act on.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

So girls had it better ?

Anonymous09's picture

So did you say girls had it better since the beginning ? That's a very, very strange and controversial idea that pretty much looks like masculism https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masculism

Masuculism?

Doc Searls's picture

I didn't say it. Garrison Keillor did, and his tongue was in his cheek.

If gender differences were off-bounds for humor, we'd be laughing a lot less.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

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