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 editor-in-chief of Linux Journal, where he has been on the masthead since 1996. He is also co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto (Basic Books, 2000, 2010), author of The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), a fellow of the Center for Information Technology & Society (CITS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an alumnus fellow of the Berkman Klien Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He continues to run ProjectVRM at the Center, and co-founded its nonprofit spinoff, Customer Commons. Contact Doc through ljeditor@linuxjournal.com.

Load Disqus comments