Responding Sanely to Sexism in FOSS

Filed under
OSS

I've been watching the latest kerfuffle about sexism in the FOSS community with a combination of concern and dismay. Concern, because it's an issue I care deeply about and dismay because both sides are so busy screaming at each other, no one is stopping to listen. Instead of bickering, where are the actionable steps people can take to educate each other about how to get along in a community where everyone's end goal -- the advancement of free software -- is ultimately the same?

People who make sexist remarks fall into one of two categories: social clods or bullies. Neither deserves a free pass, but berating either type of offender accomplishes nothing, and here's why.

Let's start with the social clod who tells a woman that her presence at a FOSS conference "really dresses up the place." Chances are, the guy honestly meant it as a compliment and no offense was intended. Sure, it's hard to be noticed for something superficial instead of important skills you worked hard to cultivate, but that doesn't detract from the intent of the comment -- it was intended as a compliment. There's no harm in tactfully responding that you're there to contribute your skills to the community but jumping down someone's throat for an innocent mistake achieves little, if anything.

Bullies, on the other hand, require a different approach.