Gender has been in the news quite a lot in recent years with some folks feeling that the field of technology needs to have more women involved. The GNOME Foundation has recently run into some financial problems as noted by Phoronix below. I took a peek at the PDF file file that contains some of the recent budget numbers and it was notable how much spending has increased on women’s outreach while spending on hackfests and other things has declined significantly. Does spending so much on women’s outreach really make sense? I don’t think so and I’ll tell you why in this column.
Gender and open source software
I took a look at the issue of gender in open source a while back in an article on ITworld. I noted in that article that I had worked for and with many different women over the last twenty years in my technology career. The women I worked with served in many different roles: IT managers, vice presidents, art directors, web producers, editors, editors-in-chief, marketing managers and plenty of other roles.
The GNOME Foundation has run into cash flow problems and as a result is freezing non-essential expenses. The GNOME Foundation has eliminated their cash reserves leading to this dire situation, but should be recoverable in the months ahead. The GNOME Foundation got into this situation through its Outreach Program for Women (OPW) and managing the program (and funds) for a number of other participating organizations. The GNOME Foundation staff and board fell behind in their processes with being overwhelmed by administering OPW. GNOME’s Outreach Program for Women is explained as “The Outreach Program for Women (OPW) helps women (cis and trans) and genderqueer get involved in free and open source software.” They’ve had around 30 interns for their most recent cycle.
Image credit: GNOME Foundation
In short, the women I’ve worked with over the course of my career have been at pretty much every level in technology publishing. But, as I noted in the ITworld article, they all had one thing in common: THEY. JUST. DID. IT. They didn’t get into technology because of an outreach program, they got into it because it was the career that they desired based on their own individual personalities.
So I’m quite skeptical about the value of outreach programs such as the one run by the GNOME Foundation. And remember that I’m going back more than twenty years here in my recollections about working for and with so many different women. It seems quite strange to me that any woman would even need an outreach program to pursue a career in open source or any other technology related field. Why? What does an outreach program have to offer than individual desire and initiative don’t? Nothing as far as I can see.
I also find it offensive that such programs seem to regard women as victims that need assistance in pursuing technology careers. Ugh. When did we regress backwards in our thinking? The women I worked with were strong individuals and didn’t want or need to be coddled in their careers. They were respected because of their abilities and work ethic, not because of their gender. They didn’t require “validation” by anyone because they were strong in themselves and moved forward without needing the artificial encouragement of an outreach program.
The road to you know where is paved with good intentions
Don’t get me wrong here, I don’t think the GNOME Foundation is deliberately trying to put women into the victim role or anything like that. I think that their motives are quite noble, but the effect is more or less the same. Women are being indirectly told that in order for them to come into the field of open source software they need to be specially welcomed based on their gender, and that’s not a good thing at all since it disrespects them as individual human beings. You know what they say about the road to perdition being paved with good intentions and all that.
I included a video from Xena: Warrior Princess in my ITworld article and I’ll include it here as well. I’m a big fan of that show, and I always appreciated how the Xena character was a strong person and never saw herself as a victim of men or of women. I think she’s a far better role model for women in technology than the “you’re a victim and you need our help” mentality that has been put forward by some people. In some ways she reminds me of some of the women I’ve worked with in technology over the course of my career.
What about other programs run by the GNOME Foundation?
One of the disturbing things about the data in the GNOME Foundation PDF is that the organization seems to be sacrificing other programs in a misguided attempt to bring more women into technology. Is it really fair to do this? And exactly how successful has the outreach program been in the larger scheme of things? How is the GNOME Foundation judging the success or failure of it’s program? I haven’t seen anything that explains this but please note it in the comments if you have.
One-sided gender egalitarianism in open source
Some of this gender egalitarianism seems to be oddly one-sided too. For example, human resources and nursing are both careers that are overwhelmingly dominated by females. And yet I have never heard of outreach programs designed to bring men into those field. I’m fine with that because I doubt such programs really work in the long run anyway. I can’t imagine a man deciding to suddenly change careers and go into human resources because of an outreach program, nor do I see most women doing anything similar either. Individual women and men will make the career decisions that make sense for them, in their own time and for their own reasons based on their needs and interests.
There was an article on Linux Journal that spurred my commentary on ITworld about gender. It was written by Susan Sons, a woman that had been in technology for quite a long time, and I think she’s a great example of a human being who made her own career decisions without having to be coaxed by any sort of outreach program. In her article she takes issue with those who would relegate her and other women to the role of helpless victims.
I came to the Open Source world because I liked being part of a community where my ideas, my skills and my experience mattered, not my boobs. That’s changed, and it’s changed at the hands of the people who say they want a community where ideas, skills and experience matter more than boobs.
Give me a young person of any gender with a hacker mentality, and I’ll make sure they get the support they need to become awesome. Meanwhile, buy your niece or daughter or neighbor girl some LEGOs and teach her to solder. I love seeing kids at LUG meetings and hackerspaces—bring them! There can never be too many hackers.
Do not punish the men simply for being here. “Male privilege” is a way to say “you are guilty because you don’t have boobs, feel ashamed, even if you did nothing wrong”, and I’ve wasted too much of my time trying to defend good guys from it. Yes, some people are jerks. Call them out as jerks, and don’t blame everyone with the same anatomy for their behavior. Lumping good guys in with bad doesn’t help anyone, it just makes good guys afraid to interact with women because they feel like they can’t win. I’m tired of expending time and energy to protect good men from this drama.
Do not punish hackers for non-hackers’ shortcomings. It is not my fault some people don’t read man pages, nor is it my job to hold their hand step-by-step so they don’t have to. It is not my place to drag grown women in chains to LUG meetings and attempt to brainwash them to make you more comfortable with the gender ratio, and doing so wouldn’t work anyway.
Unite people, don’t divide them by gender
I think these programs just end up being a waste of everybody’s money and time. I’d encourage the GNOME Foundation to rethink their entire approach to this issue. Has it really been worth all the money they’ve spent? If they must have an outreach program then shouldn’t they make it gender neutral? I think that makes much more sense than what they’ve been doing with it recently.
Instead of dividing people by gender or other characteristics, the GNOME Foundation should be welcoming all people into open source software. The important thing is to keep the doors open for everyone, regardless of gender, and to let each individual make his or her career choices in their own way and for their own reasons.
Update: I ran into an interesting message on Google+ by John Layt that has a different take on the program being run by the GNOME Foundation. Do check it out for an alternative point of view on this issue:
I’m sure most of you would have seen the sensationalist stories on Phoronix and Slashdot about how the Gnome Foundation is “running out of money” because it “spent 25% of its income” on the Outreach Program for Women, and the inevitable troll backlash blaming the “femi-nazi” agenda, etc, etc. Well, rather unsurprisingly, the real story is rather different, but as usual the trolls and click-bait websites don’t like facts getting in the way of a good story that reinforces their preconceived biases or earns them ad-views.
The Outreach Program for Women is a sponsored internship where participating organisations like KDE or Python or Gnome find sponsors to pay for interns to work on projects as a way to encourage more women to participate in free software, and has been a huge success in doing so. The Gnome Foundation runs this program for the other organisations, putting all the money through their own accounts, and charges an admin fee to cover their expenses in doing so. The problem that Gnome has is a classic cash-flow crises that often hits small businesses that try to scale up too big too fast: they needed to pay all the interns before the sponsors had paid the Gnome Foundation their promised money. As a result the Gnome Foundation dipped into their general funds to pay the interns, leaving them without any cash-in-hand to pay for their other activities. Once the participating organisations and sponsors pay their promised money then the Gnome Foundation’s cash reserves will be restored and they will be able to resume normal activities.
So the real story is that OPW was such a success that it out-grew the Gnome Foundation’s ability to run it in an efficient and prudent manner. I’m sure they will learn some important lessons and restructure the financial and admin side of OPW to keep the accounts separate and to ensure this doesn’t happen again, because both the Gnome Foundation and the OPW are valuable contributors to the ongoing success of Free Software and it would be a real shame to lose either of them.
The story is also a healthy reminder that if you value the work done by organisations like the Gnome Foundation or the KDE eV or the EFF, then you should donate to ensure that they can continue that work. These organisations run on shoe-string budgets and even small donations can make a huge difference.?
What’s your take on this? Tell me in the comments below.