Standing out in the crowd: my OSCON keynote

If you weren’t at OSCON this morning, here is what I spoke about in my keynote, Standing Out in the Crowd. I’m including most of the key visuals, so my apologies for the image-heavy post. I’ll also be uploading to (with voiceover I hope) and I’m told there will be video up at the OSCON channel in due course. (ETA: it’s up.)

Anyway, on with the show.

They asked me to speak about women in open source, and most specifically about two recent open source projects that have a majority of women developers. But first, I need to give a bit of context.

Linux Kernel Summit 2008 -- 80 men, 1 woman
Image credit: Jonathan Corbet,

This is a normal sort of open source project. I’ll give you a minute to spot the women in the picture. Sorry, make that woman. She’s on the right. Can you see her?

This is normal for open source.

In 2006, the FLOSSPOLS survey (a broad survey of open source usage and development, funded by the EU) found that only 1.5% of open source contributors are women.

Visual: 98.5% men (blue figures), 1.5% women (pink figures)

In 2007, my survey of the Perl community — both contributors to Perl and users of Perl — found about 5% women. The Drupal community is doing even better, around 10%. And in technical professions and in computer science in universities, reports vary: it can be anywhere from 10% to 30% depending on who you ask and how they’re slicing it. Let’s say 20%.

Tech industry: 80% men, 20% women

So in most technical communities, women are in a minority. But in open source communities, we’re in an even smaller minority — by a factor of about ten or more.

So what does it feel like to be a woman in open source? Jono Bacon, at the Community Leadership Summit on the weekend, said — addressing the guys in the room — that if you want to know what it’s like to be a woman in open source, go and get your nails done at a salon. He did this a week or so back, and when he walked into the salon he realised he was the only man there, and felt kind of out of place.

Another example someone suggested is walking into a sports bar on game night wearing the wrong team’s jersey. It can be the most friendly sports bar in the universe, but you’re still going to feel pretty awkward.

So as a woman in open source, it can be a bit like that. You walk into a space, and you feel like you stand out. And there’s enormous pressure to perform well, in case any mistake you make reflects on everyone of your gender.

And that’s just the subtle stuff. There’s also more blatant problems, like sexist jokes, pornographic presentations at conferences, harrassment, and even death threats against women in the open source community. I wish I was joking, but I’m not.

The FLOSSPOLS survey asked open source contributors whether they had witnessed sexism, harrassment, or discrimination in our community. Here’s what they found:

Bar chart: 80% of women have noticed sexism, 80% of men haven't

80% of women had noticed sexism in the open source community. 80% of men never noticed anything. That’s a pretty big gap.

Well, enough of this depressing stuff. Let’s talk about something more cheerful.

Majority-female open source projects

There are two new open source projects I’ve been involved with this last year, which are have a majority of women developers.

The first is the Organization for Transformative Works’ Archive Of Our Own (AO3 for short). The OTW supports creators of fan fiction, fan videos, and all other creative things that fans do, like this:


They’re lobbying against the DMCA, they have an academic journal called Transformative Works and Cultures, and they’re working on creating a fanfic archive, by fans and for fans, that won’t cave to over-enthusiastic takedown notices or pressure from nervous advertisers.

When the OTW decided to create the archive, they set up an open source project and they went out recruiting developers. But not necessarily experienced programmers — just anyone who was interested in taking part, and had a passion for making this project work. In fact, they made an effort to include non-programmers early on, and decided to choose a language based on what was easiest for non-programmers to learn.

You can see their process in this LiveJournal post. Basically they said flip a coin: heads is Ruby, tails is Python. Go learn that language to a basic level, install the development toolkit on your computer, and write a simple “Choose your own adventure” style program with a couple of conditional statements in it.

They got about 70 people to do this — all non-programmers, and almost all women from the fan community — and used their feedback to choose Ruby as their programming language of choice.

The AO3 project now has about 60k lines of Rails and Javascript and HTML and all that (the count is for non-comment non-whitespace LOC). There are over 20 developers who have submitted code, and every single one of them is female. (There are some men in other parts of the project, like sysadmin, but as far as I know none have submitted code to AO3 itself.) I’ve put together a Google spreadsheet with vital statistics about the project.

The second project I wanted to talk about is Dreamwidth, a fork of the LiveJournal codebase, which means it’s a blogging and community platform. It was founded by two ex-LJ employees, one male and one female. It’s currently in open beta and has about 40,000 users, 210,000 lines of Perl etc, and 40ish developers of whom 75% are female. You can check that same Google spreadsheet for more stats.

Like AO3, Dreamwidth makes a point of encouraging new developers, who they call “baby devs”. For instance, there is an IRC channel called #dw-kindergarten where they can go for non-judgemental help. Dreamwidth also provides hosted development environments called “Dreamhacks” for anyone who wants them.

From the very start, Dreamwidth has had a diversity statement that welcomes developers from every walk of life:

We welcome people of any gender identity or expression, race, ethnicity, size, nationality, sexual orientation, ability level, religion, culture, subculture, and political opinion.

Their disability/accessibility policy is also great, and has led to a high proportion of developers with disabilities:

We think accessibility for people with disabilities is a priority, not an afterthought. We think neurodiversity is a feature, not a bug.

The result is an open source developer community that looks like this:


Or, to be more exact, like this:

Dreamwidth developer group photo

I surveyed women on the Dreamwidth and AO3 projects and asked them about their experiences. You can read a fuller report of their responses on my earlier blog post, Dispatches from the revolution.

One of the first things I asked them was whether they had previously been involved in open source projects. They gave answers like:

I’d never contributed to an open source project before, or even considered that I could.

I didn’t feel like I was wanted.

I never got the impression that outsiders were welcome.

I considered getting involved in Debian, but the barriers to entry seemed high.

Those who got a little further along still found it hard to become productive on those projects:

It’s kind of like being handed a box full of random bicycle parts: it doesn’t help when you don’t know how they go together and just want to learn how to ride a bike.

People without a ton of experience get shunted off to side areas like docs and support, and those areas end up as the ladies’ auxiliary.

But on Dreamwidth and AO3…

What I like most is that there isn’t any attitude of “stand aside and leave the code to the grown-ups”. If there’s something that I’m able to contribute, however small, then the contribution is welcome.

And this one, which is my favourite:

Deep down, I had always assumed coding required this kind of special aptitude, something that I just didn’t have and never would. It lost its forbidding mystique when I learned that people I had assumed to be super-coders (surely born with keyboard attached!) had only started training a year ago. People without any prior experience! Women! Like me! Jesus! It’s like a barrier broke down in my mind.

So, what can we learn from this? Well, one thing I’ve learnt is that if anyone says, “Women just aren’t interested in technology” or “Women aren’t interested in open source,” it’s just not true. Women are interested, willing, able, and competent. They’re just not contributing to existing, dare I say “mainstream”, open source projects.

And this is great news! It’s great news for new projects. If you are starting up a new open source project, you have the opportunity to recruit these women.

Here are some tips based on what I’ve seen on Dreamwidth and AO3.

Recruit diversity.

From the very earliest days of your project, recruit the diversity you want to see. The first two or three members of the project will set the tone for what follows. People will look at the project and think, “Is this somewhere I can see myself fitting in?”

If you’re working on a desktop app, recruit desktop users. If you’re writing a music sharing toolkit, recruit music lovers. Don’t worry about their programming skills. You can teach programming; you can’t teach passion or diversity.

Say it. Mean it.

Get yourself a Code of Conduct or a Diversity Statement, or possibly both. Use it to set expectations around how your community should treat each other. And don’t just mouth the words. Stand by your policy, and uphold it.

Tools. (Tools are easy.)

Put up a wiki and make sure it contains plenty of information for new developers. Set up your bug tracking system to flag easy tasks for beginners to do. You could even provide a hosted development environment like Dreamwidth’s Dreamhack system, with all the tools and libraries and configuration already in place, to get people hacking as quickly as possible.


Communicate. Not just to existing developers and users, but to newcomers and outsiders as well. Take the time to show what’s going on inside your project — teams, sub-projects, internal processes and communication — so that people who are interested can envision what it would be like to be a part of it.

Of course, all these things are easy to do when you’re starting a new project. It can be harder to implement them in an existing project, maybe one that’s been around two or five or ten years, because you have a lot of inertia in place. Which is not to say you shouldn’t try, but I recognise that it can be difficult and frustrating.

So here are some things that you can do as individuals, no matter what project you’re on.

Don’t stare.

If a woman joins your project, don’t stare. Just welcome her (politely but not effusively, because that can be creepy), give her any information she needs to get things done, and thank her for her contributions.

Value all contributions.

Large or small, code or docs or bug reports or organisational tasks. All are valuable to your project. Say “thank you”. You don’t have to be the project leader to do this; anyone can do it, and it makes a big difference.

Call people on their crap.

If someone’s being an asshole, call them on their crap. How do you tell if someone’s being an asshole? Well, if there’s a naked woman on the projector screen, that’s a good sign.

Let them know that their behaviour is making people feel unwelcome, and that you don’t like it.

Pay attention.

Pay attention to your own behaviour and the behaviour of others. This is possibly the hardest piece of advice I’m going to give. You’re not used to noticing this stuff. 80% of you haven’t noticed the sexism in our community.

As men, you are able to glide through life ignoring these things. If you are white, and straight, and speak English, and are university educated, there are a bunch of other things you’ve been able to ignore so far, too. I’m asking you to try not to ignore them. Keep your eyes and ears open and be aware of how things feel to people who don’t share your privilege.

So, those are a few tips I’ve picked up from Dreamwidth and the Archive Of Our Own. They’re only two projects, and they’re both still new, but I think it’s a start.

I’d like to leave you with a parting thought.

What do you think would happen to this picture if we got more women into the open source community?

98.5% men (blue figures), 1.5% women (pink figures)

Do you think some of those little blue figures will turn pink? Do you think there will be less of the blue?

That’s not how it works. Any step you take to improve the diversity of your project will work to increase the developer pool overall.

Previous picture, with men shifted over and a lot more women added beside them

We’re not far enough along in our plans for world domination that we can afford to turn anyone away.

Thank you.

If you attended OSCON and saw my keynote, please take a moment to rate it. You might also be interested in this write-up by Robert Kaye on the O’Reilly Radar blog.

ETA: Both Mark Smith and Denise Paolucci (the two Dreamwidth founders) have posted about their experiences at OSCON and conversations they had there about Dreamwidth and its development processes and community: Denise’s post, Mark’s post. Very much worth reading. Check the comments too.

ETA2: Comments are moderated. Anonymous comments are not permitted. Anything excessively argumentative, vicious, or personal will not be posted. I don’t mind constructive criticism or differences of opinion, but I won’t take abuse. Thanks.

102 thoughts on “Standing out in the crowd: my OSCON keynote

  • Erik Engbrecht

    re: sexism
    I think that men and women have different definitions of sexism. Men think of it as a more overt act that is committed either intentionally or through negligence. Women have a much subtler definition.

    re: motivations to contribute (or not) to OSS
    I took a look at Denise and Mark’s posts, and at the comments. It’s unfair to judge a community based on so little exposure, but based on what I see the Dreamwidth community is not one that I would join. I don’t know the right word, but there’s a mushiness to it similar to (albeit much happier) what I have to deal with at work every day. I turn to OSS to escape that type of behavior because it makes me feel uncomfortable, probably in the way that some very intense hyper-technical and occasionally excessively detailed arguments (e.g. nerd pissing contests) make others feel uncomfortable.

    Different people are made comfortable and uncomfortable by very different things. A community that doesn’t offend anyone will most likely appeal to no one because all the passion will be gone.

    Let each community cater to their own values and desires. People can decide with their digital feet which communities will thrive and which ones will wither. It’s a big world, and there’s plenty of room for projects with a wide variety of cultures.

  • Skud Post author

    @Erik: I agree with you to some extent that different communities have different cultures and that we can “choose with our feet” as you suggest. Where I feel it breaks down is when a large array of community spaces tend to exclude people in the *same* ways, leading to a systemic inequality, and I find this particularly disappointing in a movement where we tend to talk a lot about freedom and changing the world.

  • Mark Smith

    @Erik: Absolutely, the feel of the Dreamwidth community is very different (intentionally so!) from the feel of (e.g.) MySQL or Linux kernel hacking.

    We do have a small number of contributors who have no use for our “mushy” style, so they do their development through Bugzilla and skip out on the developer support communities, IRC, etc. They still contribute without the social interactions they’re not interested in, which seems to work fine for them.

    At any rate, I would argue that all people, even hard-core geeks who like to spend their time talking about the thundering herd problem and cache lines, would benefit from a more positive social environment in their projects and lives. You don’t have to take it to the level where it feels “I love you, you love me”, but building a community where you take the time to say “Hey, that was cool, thanks!” can only be a positive.

  • Erik Engbrecht

    @Skud: You can’t propagate freedom by trying to deny a community the freedom to set its own culture. Change is directional, often it’s easier to change for the worse than to change for the better. On top of that, the definition “better” is highly subjective.

    You make a lot of very, very good points. There is a huge untapped pool of potential contributors who are repelled by the “traditional” culture of OSS projects, and therefore an opportunity for community leaders who can establish different types of cultures to significantly grow the OSS pond.

    I think you weaken your arguments by framing them in terms of criticism of what’s established rather than simply as an opportunity to create something new. You pick a fight where there doesn’t need to be one, and in my opinion hurt your own cause in the process. You get people like me saying things like “I wouldn’t want to be part of that” and community leaders saying “we have a strict meritocracy, and therefore cannot be sexist because gender is not a form of merit.” These reactions cast an undeserved negative air on projects that have the all the values you advocate, while simply calling attention to the success of those projects and the way the culture contributes would most likely produce a positive reaction from the other communities.

  • Jeremy K

    Skud, thanks for sharing your talk. I am dismayed by some of the statistics, but inspired by the stories you share about how to improve them, and the reminders of why we might give a damn to add some more heterogeneity to the existing developer bases.

    Erik: when you say:
    “I think you weaken your arguments by framing them in terms of criticism of what’s established rather than simply as an opportunity to create something new.”
    hey, you know, maybe @skud actually *likes* the existing community, and wants to see change there? or maybe she *doesn’t* like it, but still believes in the projects that they’re up to — where do you get, from what she wrote, that she has to faction off and form her own group, just because you don’t want to see the change and growth she advocates?

    I think it would be more worthwhile for guys like me to spend our time considering why the existing OSS communities are so rigidly in the mode of (male-dominated) nerd-pissing-matches that you so eloquently describe above.

  • Skud Post author

    @Jeremy, you’re right that I do like the existing community — not 100% of what the community does, but I like it more than I dislike it. I have been in the open source community for around 15 years, and contributed to a great many projects, because I believe that we’re doing something amazing and world-changing and worthwhile. I have many excellent friends in the community, and it was great to spend time with them this week at OSCON. And I have a deep love for good code, and for communities that value excellence in software design and implementation. So, you know, I’m not just standing outside the open source community pointing and saying UR DOIN IT RONG.

  • Erik Engbrecht

    @Mark: Thank you for not taking my expression of personal preference as an attack on your community. Building a successful open source is a major accomplishment. I hope your community continues to thrive with its own spirit.

    I agree that most projects…and most people could learn to be more productive in their interactions with others. But you have to remember that people are varied. I personally get irritated when someone says “Hey, that was cool, thanks!” to me when I’ve done something that I view as simple and expected, because I feel that complimenting non-achievements degrades real achievements, or is an indication that the complementer can’t tell the difference.

    Making assumptions about individuals is a dangerous business. Essential encouragement to one may be insulting to another. Matter-of-fact constructive criticism to one person may be devastating to another. This can all be independent of the actual content of the message.

    It’s a very difficult business.

  • Skud Post author

    @Erik I think thanks need to be contextually appropriate, for sure. If someone knows you and you’re a regular contributor on a project, perhaps it would be more appropriate for them to drop you an email before a conference and say “Hey, will you be at $event? I’d like to buy you a beer.”

    But while a gruff “Patch applied.” (as was common in Perl when I was contributing, for example) might work for some people, and be all that an experienced contributor requires, for *new* contributors — by which I mean people coming from outside the existing open source community — I think it’s reasonable to err on the side of friendliness.

    (True story: Dreamwidth uses mercurial, which I’m not familiar with, having mostly used svn. I dropped into the #dw-kindergarten channel to ask for help and the people there were, perhaps, a little too supportive/friendly/effusive for my tastes. So I said, “Hey, just FYI, I’ve been doing open source for 15 years. It’s just the mercurial specifics I’m not sure about.” So the people there said, “Oh, OK!” and we got down to business. No harm no foul.)

  • Erik Engbrecht

    @Jeremy: I don’t think @Skud would take the time to put together and give her presentation if she didn’t like and care about the OSS community as a whole, and I rather doubt she would have been invited to do a keynote at OSCON she wasn’t well respected. I also don’t think you or I would be posting our comments here if we didn’t think thinking about these things was worthwhile. I assumed those things go without saying.

    I don’t see how I am suggesting the @Skud should go form a separate faction. It isn’t like the OSS community is a single nation with various factions vying for control over its direction. This isn’t an either/or situation. The cultures of different OSS projects are already fairly varied. What she’s suggesting may be outside the norm, but it’s not outside what exists.

    The more successful projects adopt elements of a more inclusive culture, the more other projects will borrow those ideas. We are, after all, talking about open source.

  • Jeremy K

    @Erik, I quote you:
    “Let each community cater to their own values and desires. People can decide with their digital feet which communities will thrive and which ones will wither.”

    This suggestion seems to be the social equivalent of “if you don’t like it, fork it”, which is *not* the only solution (e.g., “if you don’t like it, patch it,” which retains the unity of the group). That’s where I was reading “separate faction”.

    I have my gripes about the Perl community too, (just to give an example), but I am not going to “vote with my feet” and abandon CPAN, despite my irritation with some of the code owners.

  • Erik Engbrecht

    @Jeremy Directing comments at the open source world as a whole is very, very different from directing them at an individual project, especially one where you are a member.

    I think members of OSS projects have civic duty, if you will, to try to steer the culture in a constructive direction. Mostly I think that’s best done by leading by example, but occasionally it requires directly communicating ideals or chastising members who behave in a counter-productive manner.

    I would consider what I’m suggesting to be akin leading by example. I think that’s the only effective way you can do it with the OSS community as a whole, because it is too varied and too big. You can’t fork it, but you can shift the norm by creating or influencing individual projects, and success associated with that shift will accelerate it.

  • Jeremy K

    @Erik [1] “I think you weaken your arguments by framing them in terms of criticism of what’s established rather than simply as an opportunity to create something new.”

    @Erik [2] “occasionally it requires directly communicating ideals or chastising members who behave in a counter-productive manner.”

    Erik, do you see how this reads as holding a double standard? It sounds like you’re saying that “when *you’re* kicking and screaming, UR DOIN IT RONG, you should go get your own; but when it’s a cultural norm that *I’m* used to and comfortable with, sometimes we grownups need to kick and scream to enforce the boundaries”. It’s kinda weirding me out here.

  • Erik Engbrecht

    @Jeremy Yes, it could be read that way, but reading it that way would be wrong. ;-)

    I’m saying it’s preferable to lead by example than through general expression or specific correction of undesirable behaviors. One should always strive to lead by example. The other methods are for more judicious use.

    Chastising should almost always be reserved for specific actions, such as flaming a newbie or being exceptionally rude when explaining why a patch is bad. The standards for flaming or being exceptionally rude are community dependent.

    If you and @Skud feel the OSS is in need of chastising, then it’s your right, even obligation as community members, to do so. In my opinion @Skud’s objectives would be better served if her message did not take a chastising tone because it would be more openly received by her audience.

    But that’s my opinion, and it was her presentation, not mine.

  • Jeremy K

    for what it’s worth, I wasn’t at the presentation. but the slides strike me as an excellent example (ha!) of leading by example; a reminder to the community from others in the community of things to look for.

    Here’s the thing. It *sucks* for our community that the people who are currently left out (women and people-of-color are at the top of the list here) are the ones who have to point out that “hey dudes, we’re being left out here!”

    It’s *awesome* that @skud has the tenacity and patience to keep telling a room full of people who don’t really want to see (the 80%/20% graphic is pretty strong evidence here) that they should pay attention, but it’s really *our* job, the guys’ job, to notice that this is missing.

    Complaining that her “chastising” is making you uncomfortable is sorta saying “I was *happy* when I didn’t realize how exclusionary I was being — how dare you mess with my bubble!” and all that is a variant of the Tone Argument derailment: “how can you be so *mean*?”

    @skud is not “chastising”. She’s asking, rather politely and remarkably patiently, to be included. (Rage and calls to burn the fucker down would be completely justified, IMHO — Stallman’s behavior and the couchdb debacle being particular cases-in-point.)

    Identifying the specific behaviors is really above and beyond the call of duty — the duty is mostly ours, as people-of-privilege — but it’s welcome, because those are specific things *we* can watch for, in ourselves and in our IRC conversations and lists.

  • Erik Engbrecht

    @Jeremy I didn’t see the presentation, either, but her blog did not make me uncomfortable.

    I took the gist of it to be the culture common in many open source projects makes many potential contributors uncomfortable, and therefore they feel unwelcome and do not participate.

    My counterpoint is that what constitutes welcoming culture is highly subjective. Shifting the culture to make it welcoming for one group of people is likely to make it unwelcoming to another. I think it’s unreasonable to suggest that a community should shift in a manner that would make it unwelcoming to its existing members in order to make it welcoming to others. Doing so is destructive and ultimately reduces the strength of the open source community as a whole. Building new communities and reinforcing ones that already have common values is constructive, and increases the overall strength of the open source community.

    @Skud is really selling an idea to a very broad community. I’m offering constructive feedback on how she could refine her methods to better achieve what I perceive to be her objectives. Judging by her responses to my comments I think she’s absorbed what I think and will now do with it what she will.

    Freedom of association and freedom of expression are inalienable human rights. I don’t see anything going against that in @Skud’s blog/presentation. If I did I would have simply ignored it. I do see it in some of your word choices and phrasing. I hope it’s just the heat of the debate and unintentional.

  • Jeremy K

    Erik, we disagree where you think that it is unreasonable to ask a community to shift when it might make some of its members uncomfortable. It made my hometown of Atlanta very uncomfortable to desegregate its schools, but it was the right thing to do; OSS contributors may find it uncomfortable to talk to women and non-nerdy men in a non-objectifying and non-dismissive way; I still contend it is the right thing to do.

    also, please do not play the “you’re infringing on my free speech” game when I — or @skud — disagree with you and say so. You have every right to say what you want, and I have every right to disagree with you. Making you uncomfortable is not infringing on your freedom of speech.

    This debate is now derailed into tone arguments for sure. I don’t have much more to say.

  • Fin

    I’d be interested in hearing how you dealt with the genderqueer people working for Dreamwidth in figuring whether they tickied your ‘male’ or ‘female’ boxex, or were they not counted at all as they didn’t fit neatly in either?

  • Skud Post author

    @Fin: There were a few trans* and genderqueer people in the DW developer community, who I know from the IRC channel. I approached them individually, explained what I was doing, and asked what gender they identified as. They all said “female” so I counted them as such. For AO3, I didn’t talk to all the developers individually, but relied more on some of the lead developers to report on the rest; the 100% figure for AO3 is based on what they told me.

  • Alierak

    Thank you for doing this. But I couldn’t help noticing your infographics “suck at math”, e.g., 20% described != 18.7% shown and 75% described != 67.3% shown…

  • Skud Post author

    Ha! You’re right. Though I prefer to think of it as “suck at graphic design” since I did those images in possibly the most horrific way possible, with way too much cut and paste in Keynote. (Hey, it’s got alignment guides!)

    I bet I was getting a little punch-drunk by the end, there. Looks like each row has an extra figure on it, giving 107 overall. If I give the talk again, I’ll make sure and update it.

  • Andrae

    Skud, Thanks for the presentation. I wasn’t at OSCON, so I appreciate the opportunity to read it online.

    I am appalled by the numbers we see in the FLOSS community, not because we are worse than industry, but because we should be so much better.

    We create our communities almost from scratch; we get to establish our own norms; and our underlying political rhetoric is inclusive and based on principles of equity. Moreover, there are several geek communities that manage strong female participation, so I had hoped we might have emulated them rather than industry at large.

    If we don’t have substantial female participation in the FLOSS community then there is something broken in how it is structured/run – and personally I think the 80% of male participants who haven’t noticed the sexist behaviour in the community is the most damning statistic.

    Personally I don’t really understand this level of self-denial. The behaviour is so blatent, and sufficiently prevalent that I don’t understand how anyone could be unaware of it.

    Still, for all that, I don’t consider the comparison to the tech-industry participation figures to be fair. I simply don’t believe those figures for a second. Having tracked down some of the surveys that report 20+% female participation in IT, the ones I found conflated the entire IT sector, and included management, HR, sales, marketing, and other ancillary roles. The raw number for actual development/tech-support/documentation/etc was much closer to what we see in the FLOSS community.

    As a simple sanity check on these figures, consider the participation rate at tech conferences. I did a quick and dirty estimate of the speaker ratio at semtec2009, and the result was only 9%; substantially less than what we see at LCA or OSCON (~15%).

    So as I mentioned above, my concern is not that we are worse than the wider industry, I don’t believe we are; but that, given all our advantages, we aren’t doing much much better. I am excited to see that there are projects that are reporting such success at attracting and retaining female interest – thank-you for bringing them to our attention.

  • Fin

    Thanks for responding, Skud.

    Why would you need to include the trans people in asking them what gender they identified as? Certainly not all, but a good majority of trans people clearly identify as either female or male, the only confusion would be if you were conflating the sex assigned at birth with what they identify as.

    With regard to the genderqueer people, though it’s certainly better that you asked rather than just assumed, it does strike me as if you’ve asked people who explicitly do not ascribe to a binary gender “well, I know you don’t ascribe to male or female, but I’ve this project, and the only options are ‘male’ and ‘female’, so see, I’m wondering what you REALLY actually are?” I’m hoping that for the purposes of commenting on a blog, you were just brief, and that you didn’t actually just explain your project and then ask them which of those two genders they wanted to be identified as, and that there was a lot more to it than that.

  • Skud Post author

    @Fin: I was brief in my comment, yes :) Though I fail quite often, I hope I am reasonably aware of the issues around gender binaries.

    I asked the trans folks (well, one specifically) because I wasn’t assuming anything. She only came out as trans recently, I’ve only just met her, and I wasn’t 100% clear on how she was identifying. I said, “I’m assuming you want to be counted as female, but if I’m wrong, please let me know!” Wrt the genderqueer developer I approached, we go way back (heading up on 20 years), and I certainly hope we were able to communicate well enough that sie didn’t feel I was forcing hir into a gender binary, and I didn’t misunderstand hir agreement to be counted as female for this purpose. (EDIT: pronoun tweak; AIUI, the gq developer in question doesn’t mind she/her but prefers sie/hir.)

    The fact that I had only 15 minutes to present made it particularly difficult. I would have loved to get into this more deeply, and in fact I asked O’Reilly whether they could give me a 45 minute slot, but they wouldn’t. So I had to skim over a whole lot of stuff. *sigh* Luckily the Internet doesn’t have the same limitations, so there’s more room for us to discuss it here.

    (FWIW, and in the interests of full disclosure and self-criticism, the Perl Survey I ran in 2007 had an “other” option for gender, and 0.5% of respondents chose it. I didn’t mention this in my keynote, because of time constraints. I would be very open to ideas on how to address this stuff in this kind of environment without getting bogged down in it. I’m kind of flailing at the moment.)

  • Ian Monroe

    Some projects can take large amounts of novice programmers, some can’t. Women do make up a bigger portion of CS programs and the profession then they do open source, so fishing for non-programmers looks like an excellent technique to attract more diverse programmers but it shouldn’t be required.

    So there’s something more at work here then non-welcome-to-newbs open source projects, possibly sexism. And if you look at the gender in CS programs graph over the last 30 years its really sad (in the US anyways). Personally I think whatever the reason is for the fairly dramatic decrease of women in CS is probably related to their near non-existence in open source. One report I read on this subject even blamed the growing association between the CS degree and being a computer nerd as the reason for the drop-off in the 80s and 90s. Well spending your free time coding is a bit nerdy, there’s no doubt. :) Anyways people looking at what happened to the CS major, and people researching women in open source should get together and compare notes.

    That said, lowering the entry barrier for new contributors is something all projects should strive for (though not necessarily by welcoming complete programming novices :P). There’s always turn over, so any project that doesn’t attract new developers will perish and those that are good at it are thriving.

  • Nix

    Excellent stuff.

    Some of those little blue figures *do* turn pink, but not many. What really knocked the low percentage of women in for me (unobservant male that I am) was the realisation that I knew more male->female transexuals in the free software community than people who’d been born female. There were that few women around.

    (nice to hear from you again!)

  • Skud Post author

    @Nix: yes, it’s true some do. I originally had a comment about that in my talk but took it out because I didn’t want to sound flippant just at that point. OSCON keynote barbie says: 15 minute presentations are HARD!

  • Jacinta Reid

    Let me express my gratitude to you for that damn fine presentation, Skud. You made your points clear calmly with humour and compassion but without in any way pandering to prevailing sexist bias. I hope to do as well when I discuss these things.

    The information you have provided is simple profound, useful and memorably presented. I, and many others who’ve read/seen/heard what you’ve said, are now equipped with information we can draw on in debates around sexism in the IT industry, and we have your example of how to deliver it.

    Thank you.

  • Michael R. Bernstein

    Kirrily, thanks again for doing this keynote, and the BOF as well. I would love to watch a 45-minute version of your presentation. You should talk to the O’Reilly folks about doing it as a webcast. I can put you in touch with the right person there if you like.

  • William Pietri

    Fantastic! Great content, well presented. I’m especially pleased to hear of the two projects bucking the trend.

    Please ignore the cranks and grumps you hear from on this, especially the ones who take not seeing a problem as proof that the problem doesn’t exist.

  • Evan Prodromou


    Great talk, and thanks.

    As a side note, here’s a link to Angela “Webchick” Byron’s talk from OpenWebVancouver which we discussed before your talk. Same kind of gasp-and-jawdrop response at the 1.5% slide.

    Slides here:

    I’ll say it on record**: Open Source projects with strong female participation are more interesting and *just*better*software* than ones without. I hope Laconica can catch up.

    * Sorry, but I just can’t call you “Kirrily”. Is that wrong?

    ** Where “on record” == “in blog comments”.

  • :m)

    Thank you for your speak!
    What you describe there is perfectly how I’ve felt repeatedly when trying to help and do some development.
    (And I’m male.)
    I often feel that for some reason I get quick answers which are polite but no so helpful in order to get me started and I am perhaps to shy to ask a second or third time because I don’t want to spoil the precious time of the top-notch guru developers.

    What I’ve been thinking a lot over the last few days is why I never see discussions like “are you interested in me as a dev.?” “yes, of course!” “where could I possibly start” and so on. I even can say that I don’t get (much) response when saying things like “I like your project and would like to do some hacking for you. Can you help me?” Most projects are far too huge for a newbie to be understood by themselves in reasonable time. Surely as long as I am the newbie.

    Thank you as well for your words about sexism. Truly shocking. This needs to be addressed.

  • George Willis

    What if I actually like naked women on a projector screen? I really do, and that doesn’t make me an asshole. I’m just a heterosexual man, that’s all. I’m kind, intelligent and I’m very correct in dealing with anybody. I respect the laws. Per se, there’s nothing wrong about naked women. Or naked men.

    If I like something, I have exactly the same right to express my feelings as those who don’t like the very same thing have the right to express their feelings. Hey, it’s freedom of speech, after all. As long as attending a presentation isn’t mandatory, I don’t see the problem. It’s author’s/presentator’s freedom. It may be bad style, but it’s still her or his honest and true feeling and freedom. Anybody is free to walk out of the room if she or he feels irritated.

    What if the presenter uses a font or background color for her/his slides I really can’t stand? I’d probably walk out, but I’d never push anybody to only use the fonts and colors _I_ happen to like.

    I value this higher than political correctness. Once we don’t have the freedom of expression anymore, it will be very difficult to discuss about anything. That’s why I clearly state that I don’t like these american(?) tendencies of soaking everything in political correctness. One day, we’ll drown in political correctness and we won’t even be able to talk about that anymore “thanks” to all the taboos and prohibitions.

    We need to work towards a future world with less taboos, not with more.

    Of course that’s not what people want to read here. But it’s my personal opinion from the bottom of my heart. I hope you respect it. As much as I respect yours.


  • Moshe Zadka

    I’m sorry, but I have to say that this is the most sexist post on the subject I have ever seen.

    Are you saying that women will only join OSS project if the project has a “coddling” framework, that helps people get started? I happen to know a few excellent women programmers, who wouldn’t need any coddling, who can jump straight in as well as any man. Why do you assume women can’t do what man can??

  • George Willis

    Besides, what also irritates me: Where are all the people fighting for gender equality in ballet, obstetrics, childcare?

    And if there’s really no difference between man and woman, why do we care so much about an “equal gender distribution”? I call BS! From a logic perspective, it shouldn’t matter at all, neither in computer science nor ballet. Do we care about the proportion of red-haired people in open source projects? Heck, no! As it simply doesn’t matter.

    The whole thing probably tells more about prejudices by those people who raise a matter that really isn’t any than about those people who see the whole thing a bit more natural and more relaxed and never had any issues with it in the first place.

    Somehow, this reminds me a lot of early-stage feminism in the sixties. Ladies, gents, transgenders: It’s 2009! Equal rights has been reality for a long time already.

    Hope you value my contribution to the discussion.

  • George Willis

    BTW, just noticed you’re red-haired (toned). No pun intended, really. Didn’t know about your looks and honestly, I couldn’t care less about anybody’s look (or gender) in regard to code quality.

    As Linus says “show me your code!”. In a software project, be it open source or not, that’s what counts, ultimately.

  • Anil

    George, you’ve made a comment about what you like and want, predictable though it is. But this isn’t a conversation about your preferences or defending the status quo, it’s about observing that some communities have succeeded in broadening the types of people who participate in their efforts. And they’re getting better results of having a more diverse community.

    You have every right to say or do whatever you want. And you’re right — political correctness is totally stifling those who want to use racist epithets against minorities or who want to use sexist presentations to make a technical point. Here’s what I recommend: Get louder and more intrusive with your non-political-correctness. In fact, make the use of sexist and offensive commentary an even more intrinsic part of the fabric of the technologies you create. Regale complete strangers with the fact that you can’t distinguish between “pictures of naked women” and “an atmosphere that’s hostile to participation”.

    Because if you aren’t willing to concede that technology is better when it’s inclusive, or you’re not willing to read the most thoughtful and heartfelt discussions of what it takes to be inclusive, and if you’re determined to respond to anything that offends your position of privilege, then maybe the best thing you can do is to make explicitly clear that the technology you create has the same insular, exclusionary values that you do.

  • Fin

    @George, is all very well and good for a man to tell a woman that the fight for gender quality is over ‘for a long time already’, mm? It does demonstrate that you’ve not actually listened to what Skud has to say, however, which sadly disproves your point. Please think about this– a woman has pointed out something that she feels is a problem, and your response to her was to demand that you’ve a right to use her sex as a means of entertainment because “you like naked women”, you’ve a right to express opinions with the implication that this exists even if those opinions insult or objectify her, to ask why she’s wasting her time as implied in the question of why she’s not fighting for equality in other things (which conveniently don’t concern you so much), tell her that her ideas are “BS” and illogical, and to fairly directly imply that it’s SHE who is prejudiced.

    You’ve stated that your a heterosexual male. That right there tells us that you are in two positions of privilege. It can be very difficult for people in positions of privileged to come to terms with that because it inherently means that there are people who are not afforded the same benefits as yourself.

    It’s that privileged which affords you a sense of having a right to whatever you like, no matter the cost to others, and leads you to believe that equating someone’s sex (or race, etc) to the colour of fonts on slides to be an appropriate correlation.

  • Skud Post author

    @George, I disagree with much of what you say, but appreciate the civility with which you said it.

    The problem with sexually-oriented presentations at tech conferences isn’t that we don’t like naked women and/or men. Hell, I love them! I just don’t like them when I’m trying to work, especially when I’m trying to work in a predominantly-straight-male environment, because I don’t want people’s minds to be on boobs while I’m trying to get my job done with a pair of them attached to the front of my body. A really good read on this subject is Liz Keogh’s Avoiding unavoidable associations (on the CouchDB “Program like a pr0n star” talk).

    Another thing to consider is this: when someone gives a presentation intended to titillate or amuse (presumably straight) men, he’s saying, “I assume that my audience are straight men.” Any women (or gay guys) in the audience will tend to think, “What am I, chopped liver? Does he realise I’m here? Is anyone even noticing or valuing my work?” This is part of the insidious problem of invisibility: people assume that geeks/programmers/etc are guys, so any women are more or less treated as if they don’t exist.

    Certainly we are free to walk out if we don’t like something, and for the most part we do. We walk out of presentations, projects, companies, and entire industries because of this stuff. If it were an isolated incident, that wouldn’t be a big deal. But when people repeatedly say, “We’re going to do something that excludes and marginalises one group, and if they don’t like it they can leave,” that is a big problem. That problem has a name, and I suspect you won’t like hearing it, but I’m going to say it anyway: institutionalised sexism.

    Let’s bring this back to a really simple example. Say I’m a young Ruby programmer, and a woman. I live somewhere on the West Coast, and I ask my boss whether he can send me to the Golden Gate Ruby Conference. “It’ll be great professional development,” I say. So off I go, starry eyed and enthusiastic. When I get there, I find there’s a talk called “CouchDB: Program like a pr0n star.” I really want to learn about that, so I go to the talk, hoping it won’t be too awful. But the first couple of slides really put me off, so I leave the room. Next week, back at the office, my boss asks what I learned. “Did you get to any talks on CouchDB? We’re going to use that in our next project.” “Um, no,” I reply, “Didn’t get to see that one.” So now someone else gets put on the CouchDB project, and both me and my boss have the feeling that conferences just aren’t that great or worth sending me to. Next year, someone else is keener to go and gets sent instead. I don’t make a point of attending conferences much, and when I do, the bad experience is reinforced. So I miss out on more learning opportunities, and networking with other people in the community. When a round of layoffs is necessary, I’m out of work and I don’t have as many resources as the guys around me when it comes to job hunting.

    I won’t draw it out any further than that; I’ll just say, there are a lot of reasons that women form a very small proportion of the tech industry, especially in open source fields, and that sexually-oriented presentations are a part of that web of problems.

    As for whether someone is an asshole for giving one: I’d say the asshole part is that they’ve managed to make it to adulthood and to some fairly advanced point in their professional life without realising or caring that certain behaviour can make people feel uncomfortable and unwanted. That takes a certain kind of obliviousness. But the real assholishness usually comes out afterwards, when someone points out, “Hey, that’s not cool,” and the response is usually defensiveness and throwing the blame back on those who were made uncomfortable in the first place. I have only seen one instance of a sexually oriented conference presentation where this didn’t happen. For all the other occasions, yes, I’m fairly comfortable using the “asshole” term. I don’t say that there’s a perfect correlation between sexy slides and assholes, but as I said in my post above, it’s a good sign.

    Finally, on “political correctness” and “freedom of expression”. I have found, in discussing this sort of issue a lot online, that these terms tend to be used by people who are feeling defensive because we’ve asked them to act like decent human beings. Nobody’s saying we can’t talk about sex, or argue, or whatever. I’m just asking that we consider the effects of doing so, and if the effects (excluding a group of people from a community that claims to value openness) are not something we want, then to moderate our behaviour.

  • Skud Post author

    @Moshe, no, I am not saying that at all. I am saying that two projects I know of — admittedly a small sample — have had success at encouraging women to join and write code by being welcoming, and that if other projects wanted to encourage more women to try, they could do likewise.

  • heather gold

    Many thanks for a really lovely post. These approaches apply well to race too.

    Making people feel welcome, valuing inclusion and drawing others out are key “soft” skills that make the “hard” work possible. You will find that many women have these skills too so that adding more women to the mix may let you not only expand the participation base but strengthen the bonds between people, increase satisfaction with the experience and introduce skills and people from which you can learn.

  • Aaron Roe Fulkerson

    EXCELLENT! While I was working on my CS degree at UNC I had the good fortune of having Diane Pozefsky share numerous stories from here extensive experiences in software engineering about how the lack of diversity led to poor engineering decisions. I was so inspired by Diane that I became very active in National Engineers week and began speaking at High Schools to women and minorities about engineering as a career. Today MindTouch, the open source company where I CEO, employs 22% women overall and 25% women on the product team. Thank you for your insightful and important post. I want to add that I think it is important all engineers and software companies make an effort to encourage and recruit minorities and women into the field of engineering. You have inspired me to again become active during National Engineers week. :-)

  • Jemaleddin

    Wow – thank you so much for this!

    The most exciting thing about what you’ve done – to me – is that you’re encouraging developers to make getting involved more accessible for everyone.

    And the sad thing is the pushback above. What’s wrong with us guys? Sorry!

  • JB

    Skud– this is a very interesting post. Perhaps you can share your thoughts on something I’ve been wondering about, specifically related to:

    “If someone’s being an asshole, call them on their crap. How do you tell if someone’s being an asshole? Well, if there’s a naked woman on the projector screen, that’s a good sign.”

    To what extent do you think the general asshole-ness of a lot of OSS projects is alienating to women? I mean, I realize even asking that reveals some sex discrimination tendency on my part, but…hey, KNOW IS HALF THE BATTLE RIGHT?

    Here’s what I’m thinking of: a couple days ago, my friend, who is male, as are nearly all of my friends who are involved in technology crap are, was talking about trying to figure out some problem in Rails. He was working on a project as a contractor, and the work had revealed to him something that could be a bug or perhaps a confusing design ambiguity in Rails. So he logs into IRC to try to talk about it. Immediately, he gets 1500 people assuming he’s a n00b saying “Well, you shouldn’t be doing it THAT way only idiots do it THAT way so your question is fundamentally invalid.” He’s like “Uhhh…ok, I know that. This is the codebase I was given. The fact that the way my code works is odd does not in any way invalidate the Rails issue I’m trying to discuss here.” He was really annoyed by it, as usual, but he’s also able to slough it off easily, for a variety of reasons.

    Now, I don’t know whether this is by nature or nurture or whatever else, but there is definitely in many male centric cultures a lot more value put on posturing, cockiness, machismo, etc. Man, it sounds absurd to describe a bunch of nerds on a mailing list as “macho” but I hope you see my point. At least among hetero-identified women, this seems to be a lot less common. So basically my question is to what extent do you think the general dickishness of hacker communities contributes to this problem? I think it actually alienates a lot of het male developers too who just don’t want to deal with it, but there are enough who will deal that we don’t notice it. I.E., maybe the blue side of your last chart could expand considerably to the left as well.

  • LoriHC

    Thanks for this! Not having been there, I’m kind of glad it was a 15-minute presentation — makes it more digestible on the web. :-) I’m struggling with where to start on an open source project now, and while I’m not sure I want mushy hand-holding, I’d rather ask what might be stupid questions in a welcoming forum than have to e-mail a rockstar developer personally. Regardless, I hope to be one of the fuchsia dots on your chart next year.

  • Sheila Scarborough

    I came over here from the link in your comment on Geoff Livingston’s post about women being snubbed as social media conference speakers.

    Although I had not heard of you before and don’t know a thing about open source coding, I would now kill to hear you speak at SXSWi or any other geek conference. :) Thanks for a dynamite preso.

  • Neil Kandalgaonkar

    Re: the “coddling” argument. Just two observations…

    Right now, many of the women with the aptitude for programming (or even the experience) have been dissuaded from it, one way or another. So, it is not wrong to look for new ways to bring them back into the fold.

    Also, the female ratio problem is just one manifestation of a deeper rot. Some time ago there was a long email thread about this at Google and a lot of the men chimed in they had been nearly dissuaded from leaving programming themselves due to the culture, many times. I myself dropped out of a science and programming education for similar reasons (the web sucked me back in). So in my view, the education system and culture surrounding programming rewards behaviors that are not male per se, but are only typical of a certain *kind* of male.

    This idea of using hosted ‘hack’ environments might be a great step forward for teaching computing in general.

  • Ted Mielczarek

    I enjoyed your keynote at OSCON! I think it’s definitely important to be aware of the culture we create in our projects. Alienating any potential contributors, regardless of gender, is bad for the health of the project. Initiatives like the “kindergarten” for developers to get up to speed in a non-judging environment are a great way to attract new developers who might be frightened of all the established process. We’re doing something similar in Mozilla, our channel is #education (since it was primarily targeted at students). It’s great seeing people get interested and becoming contributors who might have otherwise been scared off just by being too frightened to ask their newbie questions in the development channel.

  • George Willis

    @Skud. Thanks for your comment. I agree to most of your statements. Believe me, if we knew each other personally, we’d get along very well.

    I agree that using pictures of or references to naked women (or men) on slides of a presentation isn’t a good thing to do (unless it’s a presentation about underwear, anatomy or so, of course). That’s why I called it “bad style” (and I should have actually called it a total “no-go” for an OSS presentation).

    Regarding political correctness. I may sound like I’m misusing this term for defensive, pro-status-quo matters. Sure, a lot of people do. In my case however, this has solely to do with my fear of censorship (let’s not forget that for ages in human history, censorship has been used not to protect minorities, but to prosecute them). I think it’s absolutely necessary for any debate to be able to talk about things freely, no matter what subject. This doesn’t mean we shall use the freedom of speech as a fig-leaf for discrimination. There needs to be a healthy, commonly agreed balance between opposing freedoms and that’s what the constitution and laws are generally good for (things that do not need regulation, generally aren’t regulated). Supposed these laws have been established in a democratic process, which isn’t always the case (BTW, as we all know, even the fairness of democracy as a principle is debatable. Democracy, as a matter of fact, is a “dictatorship of the majority”. Personally, I do think it’s the best of all dictatorships to live in, however.)
    Freedom of speech is a particularly important freedom in that it is an essential base for many other freedoms and our ability to actually discuss these other freedoms.

    Some of my statements are rather provocative, agreed. I just like to question things regardless of common believes or political correctness. That doesn’t necessarily mean that my questions are any indication of my personal opinion. My statements are here to be discussed, not necessarily to be followed.

    @Anil, @Fin: Believe it or not, but I agree with most of your points. Regarding my “privileged” position: That may be true for OSS projects in that I’m a heterosexual man (which I indeed never considered to be of any importance in an OSS project until now). However, I’m not privileged in general. E.g. I live in a very small, highly democratic country (our world is ruled by the big, ruthless and powerful ones), I’m an environmentalist (only a small percentage of people actually care about our environment), I value our constitution and rights highly (most people of my age don’t care about them that much). And last but not least, I happen to like Windows. You see, I don’t fit into a particular scheme.

  • Ben Brophy

    Wow, great piece, thank you so much. I am a designer, and worked on a big open source project for years, and felt the sting of the exclusivity in a different way. I work in commercial software now and manage a team, and your post is relevant in this setting as well. It’s sad to me though that the social interactions and diversity in this commercial in environment are so much more rewarding that they were in my open source experience.

  • Fin

    @George, please read “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, both I (white privilege) and II (straight privilege).

  • Ju

    @Skud – this was awesome. My friend is one of the team division heads for OTW and was delighting in your keynote – i can now see why!

    For myself I have had an interest in coding previously, but have always felt like it had to be something I already had skill in in order to learn – nothing ever seemed to suggest that I could start from scratch and learn from an organisation or project and become someone who had the skills.

    When I’m less swamped with university, I’ll be volunteering with OTW in order to learn coding – I /know/ that they’ll happily teach me from the ground up and that I’ll get to contribute to others being able to do the same thing.

    I love the fact that OTW is all about voices being heard, and those voices being preserved and celebrated.

    Thank you again!

  • Jeremy K


    Fin has already pointed to an excellent resource, but I want to specifically speak up from one white straight man to another.

    Identifying the areas where you’re *not* privileged doesn’t get us off the hook for examining the privilege we *do* carry around. I’m not religious, and I live in the US, where declaring your devoutness has certain political benefits under many circumstances, but I still benefit tremendously (and without any effort on my part) from being white. and straight. and male.

    it’s *extremely* easy for white straight guys to take a stand for “the liberty to say whatever we want” — the truth is, *we already can*. We can’t be hurt by slurs on our whiteness, on our maleness, or on our straightness. Those words just don’t hurt, the way the words hurt that crap on people who are not white, not male, or not straight. “male chauvinist pig” is quaintly outdated and lacks the power to silence, while “bitch” has stayed in fashion, alas.

    I think everyone here — *everyone* — supports freedom of expression and freedom of conversation. Nobody has suggested that men be silenced. By taking a stand for “freedom of speech” here, you seem to be suggesting that Skud’s talk — or the other commenters here — want to silence people. But read carefully: the request is really “you’re hurting me, and making me want to go away from your community. please stop, because I’d like to be part of it.” This is not a request “please never speak out” or “men should be punished”.

    It’s uncomfortable to know that we (the white straight guys) have been given something we didn’t work for — the liberty to say whatever we want, and to hear whatever we want, and know that we won’t be doubted or dismissed on account of our race, sex, or sexuality. For me, it makes me uncomfortable because I don’t like the feeling that the communities that I care for (OSS among them) aren’t as fair and free for everyone as they are for me.

    I have a defensive reaction to that uncomfortableness: I want to say “no! really, it *is* fair and open, and I know because it feels that way to me!” and I suspect you’re having such a reaction too. Please check. if you are, consider that Skud’s original post addresses this question with statistics and suggestions, and no implication — anywhere — that men should be silenced.

  • emma

    a few things.

    regarding genderqueer/trans issues: perhaps you can count up all the bio (maybe even straight) males and then put everyone else together in an “other” category, instead of forcing them to pick female. i prefer not to have to pick between one of the two standard genders, but i definitely don’t fit under “bio male.”

    second, i really appreciate what you’re doing. it is incredibly difficult to get people to be aware of their prejudices. often, i notice that people think they are not being prejudiced or discriminatory just by keeping the status quo. however, i think the status quo tends toward prejudice. to truly challenge this, we must act to change things. i’m glad to see you call out specific methods for changing behavior in the OSS community — perhaps you could add some more questions that individuals could ask themselves to reveal their prejudices? not easy, i know but perhaps worth looking into for future presentations where you have more time.

    as many of the posters have pointed out, there is a definitely a ton of posturing going on. i work in IT (there are NO women programmers at my company) and i’ve been in grad school for cognitive science. the amount of work i’ve needed to do just to prove that yes i can and do understand what’s going on….well it’s truly a waste of everyone’s time. i’m not sure how to change this general attitude other than to make people more aware of it when they do it and to constantly challenge their prejudices by bringing more minorities/women/etc into the technology fold.

    finally, i wish all my coworkers and all schools would read through this and try to understand it. that would be a major success in promoting some level of awareness. at least this is out there now and hopefully more and more people will stumble upon it, as i have.

  • Addie

    Skud, thanks so much for this outstanding talk, and shining some light on the exceptions to the rule in open source culture.

    I need to especially thank you for how effectively you’ve responded to the same old “counterarguments” presented here in the comments. These counterarguments can be especially deflating when reading the comments sections of any blog posts touching the issue of women / minorities in programming, and I’m thrilled to have your responses as a reference for these occasions. Kudos for your conciseness, clarity, and understanding the value of speaking up!

  • George Willis

    @Fin thanks for your suggestion.

    @Jeremy K Did I ever mention my ethnicity? Ok, you’re right, I am a white guy indeed. I hope nobody minds. Rest assured that my ethnicity doesn’t affect the quality of my code.

    I agree we might not always be aware of our privileges. And I support equal rights and fight discrimination. The unfortunate thing is that people often confuse equal rights/chances with quotas. And that’s a very different thing.

  • William Pietri

    I already said above how great this post is, but wanted to amplify JB’s point. I am a confirmed and long-standing guy, and I contribute less to open-source projects than I otherwise would because of the relatively unsupportive, sometimes jerky atmosphere that’s so common. If I’m going to deal with that, it’s not going to be for free.

    It may be that women are on average more inclined to want or create a less hostile, more inclusive, and more welcoming atmosphere; I dunno. But I can promise that it’s not only women who want that. I want it. Many *people* want it, regardless of their particular naughty bits.

  • Barce

    I really have a hard time with the logic behind generalizations. We shouldn’t make generalizations because a generalization will never fit all the facts. Yet in saying that you’ve said something about “all the facts.” Our words and how we group people always seems to leave something out.

    I know what it’s like to be left out, and that’s what I really connected with in this piece.

    The question that’s always been in the back of my mind is why do people leave other people out?

    @Anil wrote, “Technology is better when it’s inclusive.”

    Then doesn’t that mean that the only solution, the only political solution that will work is one that doesn’t leave anyone out?

    In the world I walk in, I don’t want to view things through the lens of race, class and gender. Yet that lens seems to be created by those that believe half-solutions that leave out people are the only way. Maybe we all have to try harder for whole-solutions.

    No more secrets.

  • Kristen Ankiewicz

    Moshe Zadka, I agree with you whole-heartedly. This feels sexist to me. Let’s not encourage diversity by coddling “baby devs” — let’s improve the state of the american workplace and education system. As the only female engineer in most of the engineering teams I’ve been on, I appreciate how gender issues can have an impact on one’s life. However I don’t appreciate the implication here: “Coding is HARD! Let’s make it easy so women can play!”

    And holy moly am I the only one creeped by the big fat graphic of kirk kissing spock?

  • Skud Post author

    @Kristen thanks for your thoughts. I certainly didn’t meant to imply that coding is hard, merely that getting into an open source project can be hard — as the interviews show. In fact, most of the DW and AO3 devs I’ve spoken to have found coding surprisingly easy once they got over their initial hesitancy.

    I certainly agree that we can be doing things in workplaces (worldwide, not just America) and the education system. But the two efforts needn’t be mutually exclusive!

  • Ian Monroe

    @Kristen but you’re ignoring the fact that there’s a lot more female CS majors then female open source developers. There are problems in workplaces and educations systems… but its not obvious that addressing them would affect what happens in open source.

  • Avdi

    Terrific post! I blogged my immediate reactions here:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic lately, to the point of initiating a session on the subject at Baltimore BarCamp. A common theme both in the discussions there and in your presentation is that in order to bring more women in it is necessary to be more welcoming to newbies (of any gender). The question I’ve been wrestling with is this: how do I apply this at my day job (a small startup)? In my experience the only employers I’ve seen with sufficient slack to support the care and feeding of a fledgling programmer have been giant, stodgy, slow-moving corporations. Most small agile software companies don’t have the resources for education, so they try to hire only the best of the best. How can we get more women (and minority) programmers involved at the cutting edge, when we don’t have the resources to bring them up from novice to craftswoman?

  • Ian Monroe

    @Avdi there are women professional software developers. Look at the tech community graph. 20/80 is *a lot* different then 2/98 for everyone involved.

    So the issue is why women aren’t in open source.

  • Skud Post author

    @Avdi if you’re in an “agile” environment, as you mention in your blog post, I would recommend pair programming! It’s an awesome way to bring people up to speed, and also a great way to really see how they work and understand their skills and ability. I personally learn *so* much faster while pair programming, and I suspect that you could bring an inexperienced-but-smart person up to speed in no time flat that way.

  • Avdi

    @Ian in my experience the percentages for women programmers in cutting-edge Web-based software (dynamic languages; cloud computing; social media) are a lot closer to the OSS numbers. And there’s a lot of overlap – these are companies which use and contribute to a tremendous amount of OSS software. I believe 80%/20% for general Java enterprise development. Ruby on Rails? Scala? CouchDB? Not so much.

  • Avdi

    @Skud I swear by pair programming and I agree it is hands-down the best way to bring different members of an organisation to the same level of skill and knowledge in the shortest period of time. Still, I would never recommend a novice Ruby programmer for hire at my current company (a very small startup) – even with pairing in my toolbelt the time lost to ramp-up would be too great.

    Thanks for the comment, though!

  • Mackenzie

    I took it as “girls tend not to have the same early exposure to computers as boys. For women coming from that background, there’s some catch-up to be played.” Plus, only about 1/4 of people getting computer degrees are women, so the number of women already-trained is much lower than the number of men already-trained.

    Now, if only we could figure out why the ones who are trained don’t join us…. Probably something to do with being expected to do the laundry, dishes, make dinner, and watch the kids while the hubby hacks.

  • xian

    @George what do quotas have to do with anything? You seem to be grasping at straw men in your refusal to fully apprehend a challenging point of view; which is to say you are reflecting a political correctness all your own.

  • navi

    For those that haven’t, you really need to view the presentation. It’s not very long, and the text here does not describe it in its entirety. I really thought it was good. But then I’m a female observer of the open source community rather than a participant.

  • navi

    well it is pretty much here in its entirety but the gist of it is much better if you view/listen to it.

  • Geoffrey Hing

    Thanks for this. My freshman engineering honors program had fewer than a half dozen women, and by the end of the year, only 2. I think that we all suffered as a result of this. As men, we failed to get the chance to see different ways to approach problems, learn different ways of communicating, and to re-think the ways in which we used our knowledge and talents. While the blatant sexism was troubling, perhaps even scarier was our complete unwillingness to question why the demographics of our program looked the way it did, how that might impact our education and our lives, and what we might be able to accomplish if we didn’t just accept this framework. This reluctance seemed completely contrary to the rhetoric of innovation that popped up so frequently in our early engineering classes.

    Perspectives and questions like the ones in your talk are so important, not just within the FLOSS community, but in our culture as a whole. I’m excited to see the push to transform the way we make software things, however, because it seems like one of the least innovative and transformable spaces when it comes to thinking about how gender mediates the way we live and make. I appreciated that you highlighted examples that show that a different way of making things is not only needed, but possible.

  • Geoffrey Hing

    @Moshe, Kristen: I think that discussions of encouraging diversity always run the risk of fetishizing participation by some, and reinforcing stereotypes, in this case ones about gendered programming ability. However, I feel like with FLOSS (and lots of other things) there is already as much of a “coddling framework” for men (or the majority group in a given context) as the ones proposed in this talk and comments. I feel that the ones for men have just been so institutionalized that we don’t identify it as coddling. This makes me think of seeing the transgender professional mountain biker Michelle Dumaresq speak where she said that her greatest advantage over her born-biologically-female competitors was not of physical strength, but of growing up as a boy and the culture that encouraged boys aggressively skiing and riding.

  • Lynn Cherny

    I’m responding as a relative outsider to the OS discussion, although I’ve certainly watched it from the sidelines and been irritable about how male-dominated it seems to be. I’m responding as a user of LJ and Dreamwidth and a “fan” in the sense of OTW, and secondarily as a tech industry woman myself. (And years ago I edited a book called Wired Women about women on the internet – not a huge amount has changed since then.)

    First: Media fans online have been women, and users of technology, mostly self-taught, for a long time now. Long before Dreamwidth and OTW. They taught each other CSS, html, some scriptng, and set up story and picture archives without male help. They have conventions at which they teach each other nonlinear video editing for fan video making. Their work gets airtime in news articles and at academic conferences (DIY Video being one), but is often pointed to with amusement – “look at the weird obsessive girls and what they’re up to with Kirk and Spock” (among others). LiveJournal is primarily where they ended up after USEnet and mailing lists didn’t scale and/or weren’t private enough. LJ has problems with financial viability, and fans are a loose self-organizing community that exists independent of a technology platform. When LJ got press for eliminating jobs, fans on LJ got moving to Dreamwidth. DW was passed on as “a fan-friendly, fan-run” alternative.

    My long-winded point is that I believe many of the people involved in DW, at least the media fans, are doing it for a point that’s not about being a woman in open source or for the fun of being in open source at all, they’re doing it to create an alternative venue that’s needed. It’s a goal-driven project, for an existing community. Not an end-goal in itself. To vastly generalize, I think women in technology (and women in tech classes) are often more motivated by the end-goals than about the symbolism or getting patted on the back for being “hackers.”

    So one way to get more women in open source might be to provide more end-goals that are meaningful to them. That connect them to purposes they care about.

    Finally, I agree 100% with Mackenzie who said maybe women are too busy doing laundry and making dinner etc while their husbands hack at night. If open source is voluntary and after hours, you are competing with other things women are still doing with that time, if they are not single. Better have a good reason for them, like I said above.

    And lastly (really finally), as some posters above said, there are lots of ways to be marginalized in the tech industry. Social scientists among computer scientists, artists among developers, designers among engineers… these are all minority positions, sadly, who face minority-problems on their day-to-day jobs. And yes, a lot of these minorities are also women.

  • Anne

    Thank you. Your talk is SO cool.

    I can’t remember how many times I’ve had discussions along the lines of “Hey, but we’re nice and friendly and we don’t mind women (and they are/do) and I have no clue why women just don’t join – what can we do?”. From now on it’ll be this URL.

  • Ian Monroe

    @Lynn Cheney: I fail to see your point about end goals. Every open source project has a very clear end goal: the product produced. Why isn’t an awesome music player enough of an end goal?

    So perhaps what you mean with the example of Dreamwidth is that the development community was drawn upon an existing community, instead of the community growing up around a program as it happens usually in open source. Dreamwidth did do things a bit backwards: usually software creates a community which then creates software (hopefully a positive feedback loop). Dreamwidth skipped the first step as they had a community. :)

  • Michael R. Bernstein

    Ian, since Dreamwidth is a fork of LiveJournal, they had the software at the beginning too.

    But one of the things that makes this example unusual is that unlike most software projects, Dreamwidth/LiveJournal actually is software explicitly intended as community-forming infrastructure, so self-hosting takes on some added significance (blog and wiki software projects are unusual in this same way as well, as well as a few other categories, such as mailing lists and version-control systems).

  • Ian Monroe

    Well when you put it like that, I realize its software project community with the intent of supporting its own community. Its a bit zen. :)

    Most open source projects are for money or to build a fun application. Part of the fun is the creation of the community. But its not the goal itself. :P

  • Skud Post author

    @Ian, I think it’s naive to say that most projects are to build a fun application and no more than that. We’re complex animals, and we have lots of motivations. If we just wanted to build a fun application, why make it open source? Why invite people to collaborate with us? It seems to me that quite often we do these things because we want the application to have wide distribution, to benefit from other people’s skills, or to improve our own sense of self-worth or reputation. That’s quite apart from projects that have an external political goal or the like: I’m talking about projects that eg. provide a free version of something that’s encumbered with patents or other IP restrictions (Ogg players would be an example of this) or to promote a social good (eg. the OLPC). And that’s before we even go into free and open source software released by businesses to improve their reputation or interest people in their commercial offerings — I’m talking about anything from Open Solaris on down.

    To be honest, I’m having trouble thinking of *any* open source software that doesn’t have some sort of social goal in addition to a pure software creation goal.

  • Donna

    @Skud – Thank you. Kudos to O’Reilly for giving you a slot to speak, shame it wasn’t longer. I second the calls for an opportunity for you to speak again.

    The thing about all this which amazes me every time the issue is raised is the number of people who step up to comment and defend our community’s lack of diversity by using the same tired old arguments like it’s some sort of natural order. It’s curious.

    So – on top of the great keynote, I also want to thank you for your efforts in founding the geek feminism site on wikia. It has become a truly fabulous clearing house for info, argument and anecdote. It’s a good place to look when trying to debunk those myths. I myself have stopped trying to argue against political correctness, free speech, ‘let me be myself’, and ‘we are all emotionally retarded and can’t bring ourselves to appreciate the needs of others’ type arguments.

    We should also remember this is a particularly western issue – there are more women coders in Iran and Malaysia, a lot more.

    And the low numbers of women coding in open source also has much to do with women – generally – having less time to hack and tinker. Women’s roles as care givers and home makers eats up more of their ‘spare’ time, often preventing them from contributing to open source projects. Dreamwidth, OTW and Drupal are also now showing the broader community that there is a different way of doing things.

    This is a complex issue – but it has been fought and won before.

    There are slightly more women graduating from medicine than men. Just as there are slightly more women in the population. The numbers of women graduating from maths, physics, chemistry and engineering also continues to grow, and yet in western countries the number of women graduating from computer science and software engineering has been falling. Why?

    We need to learn from those other so called ‘hard’ disciplines, that have been male dominated for so long, and see if we can borrow a strategy or two.

  • Ian Monroe

    @Donna good point about it something odd going on in our culture regarding women in computer science. OSS itself is mostly a western thing, so we can’t compare that I suppose.

    I disagree that it has much to do with the free time of women vs. men. A common reason for men to leave OSS is because they have children. Also I would want to see some evidence that women have less time for hobbies as you seem to be saying. I suppose its possible. Even so I’m sure it doesn’t account for much of the huge gender difference, especially given that plenty of people do open source as a job.

    So really we’re back to why the CS major (in the West) is weird. Good point regarding chemistry etc. I think it goes to the CS (and physics for that matter) major being seen as nerdy. I like this explanation since then its really the broader cultures fault for calling us nerds and/or having a problem with women nerds. ;)

  • Mackenzie

    See my comment regarding the fact that even today, not all couples share childrearing and housekeeping equally, leaving many women to cook, clean, and care for children while the hubby has fun.

  • Skud Post author

    @Ian: Will an OECD report on leisure time and gender do for you? Here’s a recent blog post about it:

    Also, take a look at the “second shift”, which in feminist terms refers to the fact that when women get home from their dayjobs, they usually have a second shift of home-related stuff to do, to a much greater extent than men do. It’s not hard to find reports online about the division of household labour. Here’s one:

    Did you bother to Google before asking us to provide stats?

    As for men dropping out of open source because they have kids… that might well be true, but I can think of dozens who have not. On the other hand, I’m having trouble listing women with kids in open source; there are some, but they’re few and far between. Can you name a man with kids in open source? A woman?

  • Ian Monroe

    Ok actually I’ve seen this study before, sorry I didn’t remember or try to google for it. :)

    Anyways lets put it this way: there are no developers with children in the all-male-programmers open source team I work with (some volunteers, some not, all started as volunteers). So just intuitively the free time gender gap didn’t make much sense to me (not saying the gap doesn’t exist for the childless, but I’m sure it looks much different). And I wasn’t saying it wasn’t a possible factor, just that I don’t think it accounts for much. We can all think of time-heavy hobbies dominated by women (fanfic being the example here I suppose). And women go to college just like men, more then men, which is the main aquafer of fresh talent for the volunteer open source community.

    I also think about this guy in our community who is underway in a submarine for half the time. Obviously he isn’t the most involved open source dev, but he still is one despite having little time. I would accept the gender gap as an explanation of why (in a hypothetical universe) women contributors contributed less time, but we’re talking about raw #’s of people.

    Why there is a gender gap betweeen programmers and non-programmers in open source communities? A free time gender gap doesn’t explain this either. Programming doesn’t take less time then managing the release cycle or a user support forum really.

    Plus I think we would’ve noticed if a disproptionate amount of women open source devs were Norwegian. :)

  • Skud Post author

    @Ian: I know you’re trying to understand why there is a gender disparity, but I don’t think we’re going to be able to explain it all here in comments on this blog. I, for one, don’t have the time or energy for it.

    I think you need to go read some books and stuff. One I would recommend is “Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women and Computing”, which breaks down many of the reasons why girls and women don’t go into computing. Your local library should have it, or of course it’s on Amazon etc.

  • Geoffrey Hing

    I’ve been following this thread for about a week and I’ve become increasingly frustrated with categorizing the ideas in the original keynote/post as simply advocating for politically correctness. I know that people across the political and ideological spectrum don’t take political correctness very seriously. I can understand this, but not because I think we should ignore the repercussions of our words and actions. To me political correctness has always been about (self) policing language because of worries about the repercussions of offending a particular group. This is problematic because it generalizes the expected response of what is often a group of people with diverse experiences. It also makes assumptions about those groups of people and how they’ll respond, often with little knowledge of, communication with, or accountability to that group. Finally, political correctness says that it’s good enough to change how we speak or behave publicly without critically examining our internal ideas and choices and how they shape our relationships, culture and institutions.

    The ideas in this keynote and subsequent supporting comments seem less like a call for just modifying speech and superficial actions and instead highlight the actual experiences of FLOSS developers with regards to gender. I think its harmfully dismissive to ignore people’s stories of being frustrated with developer communities because of gendered dynamics. Furthermore, I think it’s a conversation that developers of software so steeped in ideas of community and collaboration should be deeply concerned about. What might we be losing if our software ecology is a gender monoculture? Why are things the way they are? How could they be different. There aren’t easy or quick answers and people with all different orientations around these questions are likely to make false assumptions or generalizations about each other. The discussion will likely be heated and for those who haven’t been forced to think about how their lives are mediated by gender, a frustrating, confusing one (I know it has been for me). It’s really hard to see the advantages that one has had as disadvantages and the ways that one is used to making and communicating as needing major refactoring.

    This is complicated stuff. Dismissing this important dialog as mere political correctness does us all a disservice.

  • Mackenzie

    I do, however, think that how we speak can influence how we think. When I was younger, I would defend transfolk and recite the rhetoric regarding respecting them, even though in my head I thought they were freaks. I wouldn’t say it out loud though, because I felt like that would be bad and disrespectful. After a couple years, I went to college and we talked about transgender issues in Allied in Price (our LGBTQ group on campus), and I found out that some of the kids I knew there were trans. Knowing intellectually that hating someone for being gender non-conforming was a jerk thing to do made it easier to get over the surprise and stay friends with them (and gain more trans friends as the years go by). Now you’ll find me helping the local Trans Coalition with their grassroots campaigns.

  • Geoffrey Hing


    > I do, however, think that how we speak can influence how we think.

    For sure. Just as I think it’s okay to, as you described with your story, to have trouble bridging the gap between what we say (or what we feel is correct to say) and how we actually feel. Obviously what’s important is the consciousness of that disconnect.

    I was trying to comment more on the tendency to try to kill a discussion by simply labeling it as being about political correctness. It’s a loaded term and I think framing the debate in this way prejudices people against taking a more introspective look at the questions. I hope that however tough social questions are framed, people can try to look at them thoughtfully.

  • Moose

    Dreamwidth looks fantastic… on paper.

    I tried very early on to get involved with Dreamwidth. I am not a coder. I was pretty much shunted to “Blog about us!” status.

    I’m a sysadmin. My offers of sysadmin help were met with “Sure, you can help!” and then getting ignored when I would ask for details of where I could help (ie. “We need help with X” would not come with access to X). My offers of help with support stuff were met with, “We’re doing everything the way LiveJournal did it, only this time With Feeling!” Suggestions on how to improve/change/update things were ignored. Offers of assistance in various areas were ignored.

    I know you can’t change the world overnight, but it became apparent to me that the only “diversity” encouraged in DW are for coders and LJ-ex-cronies. After months of trying to get involved I redirected my energies for other Open Source projects that can use them.

    Yeah, I’m bitter about my experiences with DW. I wish them the best and I hope they’re still around 10 yrs from now. But everytime I read about how “open” DW is I can’t help but think, “Sure, it’s open for everyone but me – and probably others.”

  • Skud Post author

    @Moose: I’m sorry to hear that. I’m interested to hear what path you took to trying to get involved. I see you’re on the volunteers in waiting list; unfortunately that list didn’t work out so well. We should probably get rid of it or something, I guess.

  • Peter Boothe

    Excellent talk! I care a lot about the (painful lack of) diversity in CS, and things like this give me hope that it is an aberration, and not the “natural order”. Also: Concrete steps! That have helped in at least two cases! Thank you VERY much for those.

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