On diversity

I agonised a bit before writing this post, partly because it deals with someone who pays my wages, but mostly because I wasn’t entirely sure what ground I stood on, morally and philosophically speaking. I’m going to write it anyway, however, because it’s an interesting enough problem that I think writing it out will help me get my head around it.

You may or may not have heard about the comments that Mark Shuttleworth made this week in his Ubuntu Open Week session with regard to diversity in the Ubuntu community and solving bug 1. For the record, I’ll reproduce them here:

12:31 <@akgraner> <MarkDude> QUESTION how important is having a diverse group of contributors (women & minority folks) to solving Bug 1?

12:31 <+sabdfl> not especially, but it makes the project more interesting

12:31 <+sabdfl> next

12:57 <@jcastro> <MarkDude> FOLLOW-UP QUESTION … did you just say that primarily white dudes are able to address the solving of Bug 1? Women and minorities just make it more interesting? Please clarify.

12:58 <+sabdfl> MarkDude, if you think i can’t see a baited trap from this close, you’re mistaken

12:59 <+sabdfl> i said that having diversity in the project is a wonderful goal. but it’s no more a requirement to fix bug 1 than it is a requirement to do most other things. fundamentalism is something i despise, and that goes for overdone activism too.

12:59 <@jcastro> (that was the last question)

Now, at first when I read this, I thought that I semi agreed with Mark, in that I thought that diversity as a goal was orthogonal to solving bug 1. However, I still didn’t feel as though that was quite the right answer. A comment from Mackenzie Morgan over at geekfeminism.org kicked my thinking into gear, though:

The only thing I’m going to say is that since women are 51% of the population, if all women used Windows, it would be impossible for Microsoft to have a minority marketshare.

I don’t think this needs any more explanation, but it’s it’s absolutely a key point. We can’t hope to solve bug 1 if we don’t have a diverse community. And by that, I mean a more diverse community than we already have. That my fiancée uses Ubuntu is wonderful (that she regularly rages against Windows Vista, which she has to use for work, is also pretty cool), but it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the fact that in the tech world women are still marginalised and excluded, either explicitly or implicitly.

Another comment on the GF post caught my eye and made me think, too. In response to Jono‘s comment about Mark’s intent and nature (which, for the record, I view as not really relevant to the discussion), Carla Schroder said:

Jono, you’re not a woman so it would be surprising if Mark treated you like one. The oft-cited FOSSPOLS study says 80% of women perceive sexism in FOSS, but only 20% of men. What that means to way too many folks is all them derned (sic) women are wrong.

For a while, I sulked about this, and Skud’s comment that:

… I want to remind you that as a feminist space we’re primarily interested in women’s experiences here.

But once I actually applied some thought to the situation, I realised that I was entirely chuffing up the bong pole (as Mr Bacon himself would put it).

The fact is that as a bloke, particularly as a bloke in the community within which this discussion is taking place, I can’t possibly appreciate just how these comments affect women in the community, how they make them feel or think about their own involvement. I can try, but oftentimes I need to think very hard about it because I’m just not in a position to be able to empathise (I’m working on this; I can spot sexist comment far better than I used to be able to).

To quote Skud paraphrasing Avenue Q, "Everyone’s a little bit sexist sometimes." That includes me. That I admit to it, helps, I think, and I work very hard at examining what I’m doing and saying and thinking to make sure that I discard sexist notions, however mild they may be.

To come back to the point then, I disagree with Mark’s assertion that diversity in the community is "no more a requirement to fix bug 1 than it is a requirement to do most other things." I think it’s entirely a requirement. At base, as Mackenzie pointed out, if we don’t actively seek a diverse community we’re automatically losing out on a huge wedge of the human race. More to the point, though, there’s absolutely no reason for us to exclude anyone, and every reason for us to work towards including everyone in what is a pretty damn excellent community.

Ubuntu means "humanity towards others," and I think we need to recognise that we need to be active in practicing that notion rather than just being passive about it.

5 thoughts on “On diversity

  1. … can’t possibly appreciate just how these comments affect women …

    You don’t have to be a woman to appreciate the thoughts or sentiments of a woman.

    Back in 1988, female friends affectionately described me as a "mental lesbian". In retrospect, it wasn’t because I thought any more like a woman than other men/blokes amongst that group of friends. Rather, we were simply a diverse group of people with our barriers down. The lovely thing about the community that sprang up around Section 28 – and since then I have never encountered such a true sense of community – was that the men and women had so had few preconceptions of each other.

    80% of women perceive sexism in FOSS, but only 20% of men

    If the 80% could know the 20% a little more personally, less statistically, with less focus on the differences: both ‘sides’ could get more enjoyment from – and give more to – the things that they have in common.

    • You don’t have to be a woman to appreciate the thoughts or sentiments of a woman.

      It’s possible that I’m being too harsh on myself in that comment, but I don’t think so. Maybe I should rephrase it as "I’m not automatically able to appreciate…".

      The point I’m trying to make is that I try to be very conscious of what I do and say in this sense because I’m not convinced that I’m perfect, and I’d rather have to work hard to get it right than assume I’ll get it right and get it wrong, if you see what I mean.

      If the 80% could know the 20% a little more personally, less statistically, with less focus on the differences…

      That sounds like you’re saying that the onus is on the women in the FLOSS community to "know the 20% a little more personally…" Is that a correct assessment of your point?

  2. Thanks for sharing your perspective on diversity in the Ubuntu project, and for showing your support of people involved in activism.

    To me, success for the project means much more than closing Bug #1. Ubuntu was founded on the concept of a principled community, under the belief that cooperation was an essential part of fulfilling the vision. A community which only cooperates with like-minded people is missing out on key insights from other points of view.

  3. If the 80% could know the 20% a little more personally …

    … I might have (should have) added "and vice versa". Really, no onus on anyone or any one group. Indeed, writing about these things can be agonising.

    http://blog.shrub.com/archives/tekanji/2006-03-08_146 is great, and via Matt Zimmerman’s blog I found http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/So_you_made_a_mistake and other very thoughtful pieces; thanks.

    How to actively seek/create a diverse community? I think of the catalyst skills outlined at http://freenode.net/catalysts.shtml — much of what’s there is applicable beyond IRC/freenode. If enough voices within a project can echo those qualities, I guess that diversity will come naturally.

    Realistically, do we know anyone who exhibits all those qualities 24/7? I don’t … and if I did, I might find that person just a tad boring.

    How to respond to bug #1 in Ubuntu? I can’t give you an unbiased answer — I’m a Mac man. With less focus on the OS: I recommend reading Mobile Opportunity: A quick history of software platforms: How we got here, and where we’re going (highlights) in particular Michael Mace’s description of the ‘metaplatform’.

    From a metaplatform viewpoint: I think that voices are increasingly diverse …

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