Oct. 6th, 2012

Direct harassment and overt sexism are certainly a significant part of why the gender ratios in the Linux community[1] are so skewed, but they're not the whole story. Part of feeling comfortable with a community is the knowledge that those in positions of power can be relied upon to engage in appropriate action when undesirable situations arise - no matter how compelling your code of conduct, no matter how detailed your diversity policy, if someone contravenes them and nothing happens, those documents are worthless and your community is unwelcoming. You can't rely on enforcement unless the community can trust its leadership.

Setting a good example in terms of behaviour is obviously vital, but it's not sufficient. Leaders who engage in sexist behaviour or who harass community members are clearly untrustworthy and undermine any attempts the rest of the community may be making. Failing to step in when they see examples of unacceptable behaviour is as bad. But less obvious is that it's possible to destroy that community trust without clearly contravening those community standards.

An example of this is Todd Akin, a candidate for the upcoming US Senate elections. In August he justified his support for making abortion illegal even in cases of rape, on the basis that women can't become pregnant through being victims of "legitimate rape". Of course, this had little to do with his fiscal or wider social policies, positions that are more directly relevant to most of his potential constituents, and in an election year that's primarily about the economy and healthcare it might be expected that a single issue would have little effect on the election standings. Instead, there was a huge uproar and a previously safe victory has now turned into a real chance of a loss.

Why? A significant part of it is because many people now have difficulty believing that they can trust him to represent them. If he understands women so little that he's willing to make entirely spurious justifications for his positions, how could any woman trust him to consider any other problems they may face? If he's willing to use fake science to back himself up, how could anyone trust him to consider any issue involving science? Through a single statement to a journalist he demonstrated to many that he was unsuited to be their representative in government. Many people who would otherwise have voted for him simply don't feel that they can rely on him to be there for them. Whether he wins his election or not, that distrust is going to remain and it's going to compromise his ability to work with his constituents.

It's the same in technical communities. If a member of a project's technical leadership frequently and loudly expresses their disdain for Python coders, anyone advocating for increased use of Python in that project is unlikely to feel that they can get unbiased opinions from that leader. If the project as a whole is uninterested in adopting Python then that's probably for the best, but if the rest of the project is open to using Python then there's a problem. People working with Python are less likely to join the project, and perhaps the project will lose out as a result.

But it's worth remembering that technical communities are still communities. If a member of a project's technical leadership vociferously argues that slavery benefited minority groups in the long run, members of those minority groups are going to feel that they're not going to be well represented by that leader. If they blog about how homosexuality is a lifestyle choice then homosexuals are unlikely to flock to the project. Likewise, if they downplay the prevalence or impact of rape, women are going to feel marginalised and find something better to do with their time.

It's impossible to separate these things. No matter how technically competent a community leader is, no matter how much code review they perform or how much mentorship they provide, if they're expressing unacceptable social opinions then they're diminishing the community. People I know and respect have left technical communities simply because people in positions of responsibility have engaged in this kind of behaviour without it causing them any problems.

We shouldn't be willing to give people a pass simply because they aren't actually groping anyone or because they're not members of the KKK. Those who drive people away from the community on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation deserve vocal condemnation, and if they're unwilling to change their behaviour then the community should instead act to drive them away.

We're pretty bad at that in the Linux world at the moment. Too many people have behaved in this way and are left with positions of power or responsibility. There's no easy solution to the problem, but the Ada Initiative is continuing to work to improve awareness and work with communities to reduce the alienation that results from this kind of behaviour. If you want this to be anything other than a straight white male dominated community, you should give them money.

[1] (and computing in general, though to a lesser extent)

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Matthew Garrett

About Matthew

Power management, mobile and firmware developer on Linux. Security developer at Nebula. Member of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board. Ex-biologist. @mjg59 on Twitter. Content here should not be interpreted as the opinion of my employer.

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