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Shuttleworth and the Raging Inferno of the Great Sexism Debate

Shuttleworth and the Raging Inferno of the Great Sexism Debate

Is the ire over Mark Shuttleworth's keynote address at LinuxCon overblown, or is the fact that so many insiders feel compelled to rush to his defense more evidence that the open source community is stuck in "guys club" mode? "Carla Schroder hears sexism. I hear a brilliant, insightful leader of the FLOSS community call things as they are," said blogger Robert Pogson.

By Katherine Noyes LinuxInsider ECT News Network
10/05/09 4:00 AM PT

If the success of a conference can be judged by the duration of the conversations that follow from it, LinuxCon was a hit beyond measure.

Here it is, two weeks later, and the repercussions are still being felt.

Linux geeks are still debating the ballooning of the Linux kernel -- inspired by Linus Torvalds' remarks at the event -- but that's not all. What we might call "The Great Sexism Debate" gained considerable fuel there and, in fact, is now raging out of control.

Put those safety glasses on!

'Explaining to Girls'

First -- following her editor's note on sexism in FOSS a few days earlier -- Linux Today's Carla Schroder noted the persistently "bearded" faces of Linux participants at the conference.

Apparently even more incendiary, however, were comments made by Mark Shuttleworth in his keynote there.

Noting his heavy use of the word "guys" to describe Linux contributors -- along with an unfortunate ejaculation pun and a comment about "explaining to girls what we actually do" -- Schroder took Shuttleworth firmly to task in a blog post last week.

'An Apology Is In Order'

"Everyone keeps saying what a nice guy Mark is," Schroder wrote. "Well, maybe so, but even nice guys have their blind spots. I don't believe that nice guys belittle and exclude women, and that is what happened in this keynote.

"I believe that an apology is in order, both for the unfortunate thread of exclusion and sexism that runs the entire length of the talk, and for not understanding that dumb stuff like that distracts from the talk itself," Schroder asserted.

More than 30 comments followed in short order on Linux Today, even as other bloggers -- including several men, it must be noted -- took up the theme themselves. (See, for example, here, and here, and here, and here and here.)

Men 'Will Be Driven Out'

Bloggers on LXer, meanwhile, soon picked up on the topic as well -- to the tune of a possibly record-setting 100-plus comments, delivered in multiple threads -- as did those on Bohol and on the newly minted Boycott Boycott-Novell site, to name just a few.

Think the views expressed the first time around were extreme? Then check this one out: "The women of the 'geek feminism' movement will be just as effective at excising men from the movement as Nina [Reiser] was at systematically destroying Hans Reiser's life untill he saw no reason, nothing left in his life, that could hold him back from striking back," wrote MikeeUSA2 on LXer, for instance. "We will be driven out."

That comment, not surprisingly, was ultimately removed, but let's just say the topic has created a conflagration the likes of which are very rarely seen -- or perhaps have never been seen before -- in FOSS. Linux Girl bravely put on her asbestos suit and took to the streets of the blogosphere to find out more.

'Hostile to Female Coders'

"I personally cannot imagine a factor in the FOSS community more hostile to female coders than the Great Sexism Debate," Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, told LinuxInsider. "The simple factor is that nobody wants to be involved in a project where everyone is always questioning whether they get a far shake or not."

The LedgerSMB project has one woman on the steering committee of four, two women with commit rights out of six people, and "nearly a third of our contributors are women," Travers noted. "Our numbers are fairly close to what one sees in commercial, closed-source software engineering. Every engineer on our project has gotten where he or she is on the basis of effort and contribution."

Shuttleworth's "explaining to girls" comment "wasn't about female coders at all but rather the stereotype that FOSS coders are lonely guys or romantically desperate geeks," Travers said. "The 'girls' would be romantic interests" who "aren't interested in Linux or Linux coders."

In other words, the joke plays up the stereotype of Linux coders as "romantically impaired geeks living in their parents' basements," he added.

'Stop Worrying and Get On with Things'

The best thing the FOSS community can do is "stop worrying about the issue and get on with things," Travers asserted.

"I think we have to put this in context," Slashdot blogger hairyfeet told LinuxInsider. "We are talking about a guy AND a geek here. Sure he is a rich geek guy, but he is still a geek guy."

Any woman "who has had any dating experience" knows that "we men have this nasty habit of sticking our foot in our mouth, and we geeks have it even worse because when we 'talk shop' our brains aren't working from the side that controls social graces," hairyfeet explained. "I don't know how many times I've been in conversation with my GF and had her go, 'alright Mr. Spock, wanna back that up and translate that for those that speak English?"

'Smells Too Much Like Quotas'

Tech guys have jobs "that are NOT glamorous, or cool, or hell anything that 90+% of the male population would care to know a thing about, even less for the females out there," hairyfeet added.

"So yeah, in this age of 'personhole covers' Shuttleworth probably should have been more PC about his statements, but is his statement provably false?" hairyfeet asked. "Despite Ms. Schroder, for a good 97.999% of the population that statement proves true."

Whether OS development needs more women "is debatable," he added. "I believe a woman should do what she loves, same as a man. If that is Linux development I say welcome to geekdom, here is your pocket protector. But unless there are obstacles being placed in the way of women developers, saying we need 'more' of a certain race or sex in a chosen field just smells too much like quotas to me."

'A Waste of Energy'

Not only that, but "most women have accepted the fact that we guys aren't exactly the brightest bulbs in the sign, no matter how many degrees we stick by our names," hairyfeet concluded. "That is why it takes so long to train us to pick up after ourselves. Wasting all this time and energy worrying about some geek guy putting his oversize clodhopper in his mouth just seems a waste of energy to me."

It's important to experience the video of the keynote "before stabbing Shuttleworth in the back like this," blogger Robert Pogson told LinuxInsider. "Carla Schroder hears sexism. I hear a brilliant, insightful leader of the FLOSS community call things as they are and steer the community towards better FLOSS."

The audience at the event was "largely male," Pogson noted, and "the word 'guy' comes from Guy Fawkes, a symbol of silly camaraderie for children in much of the English-speaking world."

Most girls "are *not* interested in the details of FLOSS development and need some explaining," he added. "That is why they flood nursing and education and home economics. There are not enough women to flood all professions -- that is not about sexism excluding women; it is what women want."

'Out of Context'

The Ubuntu community, in fact, "is one of the most welcoming to women," Pogson asserted. "They have Ubuntu-Women; a woman, Jane Silber, is COO of Canonical; and 50 percent more women participate than on the average FLOSS project.

"Shuttleworth even stated design should be done before anything else in the release cycle, and design is something women can get excited about," he said.

In short, "Carla is taking the presentation out of context and treating one of the great leaders of FLOSS badly," he concluded.

'Don't Assume He's Some Monster'

"I hate to be a fence-sitter, but here goes: I think both factions benefit from candid introspection," Slashdot blogger yagu told LinuxInsider.

"Mr. Shuttleworth delivered a presentation on which I'm certain he expended blood, sweat, and tears. His crime? He didn't pay due diligence to constantly distinguishing and emphasizing his underlying chauvinism, or lack thereof," yagu explained. "I suspect the latter."

He used the "guys" term "everywhere," yagu added. "For the record, a separate demographic could pile on and claim disrespect, demanding their Shuttleworth apology because he glibly dismissed them by not calling them 'men'. Say a lot of things and one is likely to offend."

Shuttleworth "could have been more careful with language, but it's a shame the message is drowned out by the noise," he asserted.

The angry mobs need to "chill," yagu advised. "Be confident in your self-image and stride. Demanding apologies for these slights seems trite. Shuttleworth may not show grace in lexicon or idiom, but don't assume he's some monster."

'Don't Expect and Demand'

Rather, "be annoyed," he added. "Admonish with e-mail or notes. Don't obfuscate community goals with indignation and wounded egos."

Shuttleworth "gives more than he takes," yagu said. "Appreciate that. Ask him to consider better language, but don't expect and demand.

"I've seen people with pure hearts beaten down for their poor -- or just misinformed -- choices in speech and language," he concluded. "Nudging, cajoling, and educating seems fair. Demanding apologies seems narcissistic."

All in all, "I guess Shuttleworth made one joke too many," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider. "It happens, and now I hope he issues an apology so everyone concerned can learn from this experience and move on."


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