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Shady Illuminations

The Boys’ Club

by John Shade

Generic image illustrating the article
  John takes on gender attitudes in the open source community using comic book references.  

“This new creature with the long hair is a good deal in the way. It is always hanging around and following me about. I don’t like this; I am not used to company.”—Mark Twain, “Extracts from Adam’s Diary”

A presenter at a Rails conference builds his slideshow around images of naked women in degrading roles, then attacks his critics when called on it. A presenter at a Flash conference mimes humping the podium and subjects a female audience member to lewd comments. Mark Zuckerberg gets dumped by a woman and in a bitter rage invents Facebook to get back at her. OK, I don’t get that last one, either. It sounds like the origin story for a Batman villain. Everything I know about Zuckerberg I got from tech journalist Megan Angelo (by way of Ben Mezrich's best-selling allegations).

Do we have a problem here?

We Have a Problem Here

Megan Angelo says “prehistoric woman-bashing is making a comeback” in Silicon Valley. Ted Neward says that we in the open source community sometimes sound like “a bunch of 13-year-olds giggling over the fact that somebody said ‘Boobies’.” Programmers with experience working in long-established companies report being shocked at the attitudes and actions that are prevalent in open source. Long-hairs who pioneered the personal computer industry lament that a frat boys mentality has infected the field. A Rails spokesman resigns because he feels that the leadership of the Rails community actively supports sexist behavior.

And after each incident, heated discussions break out online, mostly wrangling over the definition of sexism.

Because, I mean, how could we in the open source community be sexist? We’re like all egalitarian and everything and we judge people solely on their ability. Right?

Suuure. And how does that work out in practice? Here’s how: when a woman finds herself on a open source project working with a bunch of guys, she has to fit into one of three roles. If she isn’t better than ninety percent of the team, she’s an outsider, a suit, a zero, a non-geek. If she’s really good, she can either be The Freak (a woman who can hold her own against us rock star programmers) or Invisible Girl (aka Honorary Male: we can’t reconcile your ability with your gender, so we’ll refuse to see your gender).

This is not a column on sexism. I won’t get sucked into the argument about sexism in the open source community, because it’s just a smokescreen covering the real issue. Which is misogyny in the open source community. About which there is no argument. It exists, and it’s as ugly as a Batman villain.

Guys 101

Unlike sexism, misogyny has just one definition: hatred of women. Why, you may ask, would a guy hate women? Here’s where I need to explain guys to any reader of this column who is not of the male persuasion. But who am I, you may ask, to explain guys? Am I a trained expert in psychology? Or guychology?

You sure ask a lot of questions. What I am is an expert on rejection. I trained in the School of Getting Dumped. I have a Master’s Degree in Rejection. So take my word for it: there are two kinds of guys, which we may call, for convenience, by which I mean my convenience, drips and dweebs. They are differentiated by their reaction to rejection.

At some point every boy gets rejected. This point in their relations with the opposite sex is their one moment of free will. The rest of the time they are completely driven by hormones. But then they have a choice in how to react to rejection, and what they decide will condition their attitude toward women for the rest of their lives. That’s my theory, and I am the Renaissance Man of Rejection, so you should trust me.

Half the guys you will encounter met that initial critical-period rejection by writing the girl’s name on the bathroom wall, slandering her to their friends, and calling her the B word (rhymes with Barbara Bush). In extreme cases, they founded Facebook. These guys are the drips.

The other half curled up in a foetal position and whimpered. They are the dweebs.

These are the only kinds of guys there are. These are the choices. I know. I’m sorry, gals. But while their basic nature can’t be changed, their behavior can.

No Girls Allowed

So that explains Mark Zuckerberg, but it doesn’t explain the unusually high amount of misogyny in open source. But I can explain that, too.

It’s the boys’ club phenomenon. Little boys spend idyllic days frolicking in a kind of innocent Eden until the sex thing comes along and complicates their lives. Then come the painful social encounters, the emotional roller-coaster rides, the self-worth issues in the locker room, the not wanting to be around when Mom’s washing the sheets. Naturally, the boys want to keep the girls out of the clubhouse. Girls are weird and will change everything.

In the boys’ clubhouse that is open source, it’s worked extremely well. Researchers at Cambridge University undertook a study of gender in F/LOSS communities in 2006. They were inspired by an NSF report that the percentage of women in commercial software, while low, was roughly twenty times as high as in the F/LOSS community. At that time women made up less than two percent of F/LOSS programmers. Even today, there are remarkably few girls in the clubhouse.

It’s unfamiliarity, not familiarity, that breeds contempt. If you don’t encounter a particular class of people in significant numbers in your community, it’s easy to develop attitudes toward them that would be hard to maintain if you were working with them every day in that environment. This is useful if you’re a military operation trying to desensitize a bunch of teen-agers to kill strangers on order, but one likes to think that the open source community has other goals in mind.

So the boys’ club thinking is correct: if you let girls into the clubhouse, they will change everything. In particular, they will change boys’ minds.

The Solution Is Simple

That Cambridge study recommended just that: get more women into F/LOSS, and minds (and behavior) will change. What could be simpler? I imagine they were inspired by the X-Men.

Chris Claremont, the writer most associated with the X-Men, had a rule. When developing a new superhero, he always stopped at a certain point and asked himself, “is there any reason this character couldn’t be a woman?” If not, he defaulted to female, thus helping to redress the lamentable gender imbalance among comic book mutant superheroes. Not quite up there with Little Lulu outsmarting Tubby and his clubhouse gang, but still a forward step for women in comics. Of such small victories is progress’s path paved.

There’s another, more difficult, way to remove that contempt-breeding unfamiliarity, too: it’s for the boys to get the heck out of the clubhouse now and then and spend more time around women. And strip clubs don’t count. I know, it’s a big scary world out there. But ultimately they’ll find it’s more rewarding outside the clubhouse than inside.

“After all these years, I see that I was mistaken about Eve in the beginning; it is better to live outside the Garden with her than inside it without her.” -Mark Twain, “Extracts from Adam’s Diary”

John Shade was born in Montreux, Switzerland in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning only confirmed his dark view of his fellow man, not excluding himself. He aspires no higher than to serve as an example that one can be a misanthrope without being a misogynist.