Programming WISE women in computer science

Discoveries About OSS Culture

Danbo on Flickr II
Credit: Flickr / Andrés Nieto Porras

I was hanging out with an OSS-dude (OSS = Open Source Software) for a while, and I learned a couple of things.

Firstly – don’t try and buy committed OSS types books. It’s a complete nightmare.

Secondly – I’ve reached a better understanding of harassment and open source. And particularly the pushback, which comes from a place of “we all put up with this”. It’s not that OSS people think this behaviour is acceptable (although no doubt there are exceptions), it’s that they don’t know how to change it.

Death threats are a common occurrence; he gets them regularly, even if they are rarely talked about publicly, and there are no public meetups around a project he works on in a city because there is a guy who is sufficiently threatening.

The threats and harassment are – seemingly – trying to assert dominance. The way that men assert dominance over other men is different from the way they assert dominance over women, and the difference in threats reflects that.

There’s an attitude from some of “I put up with this, so why not you?” and the short answer is no-one should put up with it. Willingness to tolerate threats and harassment is a high bar for a career, let alone a hobby (but 50% of OSS work is actually done as part of someone’s job).

But as I observe to him, the worst case is it’s a 6-foot dude, how worried is he? He laughs and says, “well I am a 6 foot dude”.

As someone who is not a 6-foot dude, for me the worst case scenario is pretty terrifying.

As in all cases where the argument “but [person / culture] is vile for everyone” it’s worth considering:

  • Do some groups have reason to feel more threatened?
  • Is this behaviour historically gendered or racial (even if you are claiming it isn’t this time)
  • Is it possible that people feel more comfortable exhibiting this behaviour to already marginalised people? (Less likely to experience repercussions, because marginalised people tend to have less power).

In any discussion on Open Source, it’s worth linking to Ashe Dryden’s excellent essay The Ethics of Unpaid Labor and the OSS Community.

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