If you thought Physics was misogynistic, try open source software!

There are days when I want to stand on the rooftops and scream like Zuska.

I'm no longer in academia, but as those who are longtime readers of my blog know, I became painfully aware of how sexist the culture of Physics is and how amazingly unequal the playing field is for women— not just, or not even primarily, because of differential standards, but because of the atmosphere that is created by that culture. I also became painfully aware how amazingly in denial a lot of men (and even a few women) are about the pervasive and sinister effects of that atmosphere.

One would often see borderline open misogyny hiding behind protestations that Physics needed to maintain their "meritocracy" — the existence of which I have argued previously is a myth. (And before you get all huffy and point out that I'm just sour grapes because I "wasn't good enough" to stay in academia myself, bear in mind that not only did I win multiple awards for my research, including one from Vanderbilt itself, before Vanderbilt made it clear that I wasn't going to get tenure, but also that I held these opinions back when things were still looking promising for my future at that place.)

In Free Software, however it's far worse.

Whereas the number of women in biology and chemistry has improved a lot in recent decades, the number of women in Physics creeps up much more slowly. Meanwhile, in computer science, the number of women has actually be declining. As for the absolute values of those numbers, one need only look at a picture of a Linux Kernel Developers' Summit to realize that within statistical uncertainty, the number of Y chromosomes is the same as the number of people in the picture.

Recently on the "daily updates" (i.e. front) page of Linux Weekly News, there have been links to a couple of articles (one, two) about increasing the number of women actively participating in open source software development. What is most depressing about this is the storm of comments that come. Whereas sometimes I was a little shocked about how misogynistic physicists are in their honest protestations that men must just be "smarter", physicists are nothing compared to what the open source geeks are. It's really quite embarrassing.

One thing that you always see is studies pointing to different IQ ranges in men and women. This is a really common canard. Never mind the fact that IQ is widely recognized as being a test that is subject to sociological systematic errors, people seem to latch on to it (and other similar types of tests) as a completely reliable measure of "intelligence." There is also the fact that "intelligence" simply cannot be a single-valued thing. But, most egregiously, there is this implicit assumption behind all of these protestations that it is one's "intelligence" (whatever that is) that is the primary predictor of success and great contribution in fields such as physics or software development. That is, at best, a naive view. As with anything else, success is largely predicated on your ability to market yourself, how aggressive you are in pushing yourself and your agenda, and how good you are at networking with the other people who are going to be judging you and deciding whether or not you are able to stay in the field and hence to be able to keep making contributions. "Intelligence" of a certain level is a prerequisite, but you don't have to be the best to make great contributions, and being the best won't keep you in if you don't have the absolutely essential self-marketing abilities.

This is even more true in the wild-west, each person for his or herself nature of open source software development than it is in physics, where the molasses of institutional approval and policy can at times help to moderate the depredations of the most offensive individuals.

At Linden Lab, there are assuredly more men in engineering (operations and development) than there are women— just like in the community at large. But I believe that the disparity is lower, which I think says positive things about the culture that has been fostered largely from the beginning by CEO Philip Rosedale. When I read comments on lwn.net threads about how people have met and talked to women and "they" just don't share the interests and aptitudes that the commenter does about these techie things, it just makes me wince. I have met multiple women at Linden who are clearly every bit as much of a techno-geek as I am, if not more so. Just this last week I participated in a couple of code reviews with a woman who's every bit as much (if not more so) a Perl hacker as anybody else you could find— I don't know this woman well enough to have any clue about her fashion sense, but even if she doesn't dress "like a geek," I know everything I need to know about her, in some actual depth now, to have absolutely no doubts that her "intelligence" (whatever that is) about Perl-type development stuff is at least as good as mine. And I don't feel threatened by that... rather, I realize, hey, here's another person I can ask questions of if I'm trying to figure things out. (Which I've already done.)

On a side note: it's interesting to me how many subcultures like to congratulate themselves for being of above average intelligence. I've seen this on mailing lists for roleplaying gamers (who are convinced that they are more intelligent than the general community) and science fiction readers (likewise). Somehow, enjoyment of RPGs and reading science fiction are supposed to be evidence of intellgence; I don't get it, but it's a very pervasive idea. In physics and in software development, it's worse, for there everybody in the community is convinced that only the most intelligent are able to get into that community at all. They are convinced not only that are they smarter than everybody else, but they're all really out there on the extreme tails of the distribution, and that nobody not on those extreme tails is capable of making a contribution.

To which I say foo. Look, I know I'm smart, it would be false modesty to say otherwise. I suspect I'm of above-average intelligence. But I really, really doubt I"m out on the tail of the distribution; I think I'm probably just somewhere around one sigma on the high side of the distribution for most ways in which that distribution might meaningfully be measured (which, of course, is at the moment purely hypothetical). However, I am highly skilled both as an astrophysicist and as a software person, and able to make great contributions. What I really don't understand is why so many other people who are similar feel the need to sit around and convince themselves that they and everybody like them are way the hell out on the tails of the distribution. What's worse is when they combine that with various studies that seem to indicate that men and women occupy those tails differently to justify misogyny. It's just sick.

27 responses so far

  • Alejandro says:

    Good post. The latest xkcd seems strangely relevant...

  • Zeno says:

    By coincidence, it was earlier today (shortly after midnight) when I posted an article about misogyny in academia. It recounts an especially egregious example from back in the 1950s, although I regret to say that I was able to cite more contemporary examples. [Link]

  • Anonymous says:

    If it's any consolation, I glanced at a press release on finnish research showing large businesses led by women as more successful. (Can't remember if it was financially and/or strategically, didn't read carefully.)
    As businesses looks to the bottom line, I expect some reversal of male dominance in these areas if the results are confirmed.

  • laserboy@fusemail.com says:

    Most corporations are conservative and hardly ever seem to act in their best interests (it is the current management that makes the decisions and they preserve the status quo). So, not this won't change soon at corporate level either

  • Janne says:

    This attitude is embarrassing. It is counterproductive. It is needlessly, pointlessly pushing away a lot of bright women from the field (as well as some men that find this locker-room mentality to be cloying). But how to change it? No idea.

  • Rob Knop says:

    But how to change it? No idea.
    Well, the first thing is just to call it out.... Point out that it's there, raise awareness of it, so that those of us who don't like it will (hopefully) try to actively combat it when we see it.

  • Frank D. says:

    "This is even more true in the wild-west, each person for his or herself nature of open source software development"
    That's very true, and it means that there's no institution to appeal to in order to impose restraints on the misogynists. So what can one do? As you rightly point out, raising awareness is important, but so is supporting women who work in Computer Science or Software Engineering.
    What I'd like to see is a community by women for women that would produce critical articles on gender issues in Computer Science, provide advice and help for women starting out in the field, and maybe even start open source projects with the goal of 50% or more female developers.
    Who knows, maybe this community exists already, or is being developed right now. I sure hope so.

  • bigTom says:

    Rob, I suspect that OpenSource software is not a good example. Not being a member of the OpenSource inner circle myself I can only give my opinion from a distance. As I imagine it, the OpenSource community is largely a self-selected community of geeks. Most of these peoples lives largely revolve around contributing to OpenSource (which doesn't pay the bills). So we have a very small highly self-selected group of narrowly focused indivduals. It shouldn't be surprising if one sex, or ethnicity, or personality type dominates such a group. I doubt its members are very concerned with how the other members look, or how many X chromosomes they have.
    Now if we go on to the controversial subject of intelligence. It is clearly not a single scalar number, but obviously a vector quantity of probably dozens of values. More importantly its application is heavily moderated by the set of things which fascinate or repel the indivdual, as well as his/her individual experiences. Then we have the choice of lifestyle versus career ambitions. I suggest that it is highly likely that on average women are more interested in having a balanced life, as opposed to reaching the top of their profession than men. Relatively slight differences in any -or several of these factors could lead to large differences in the tail end of the professional distribution. Too much attention to equality of result is not in my opinion a productive use of our precious time.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    Agreed, it won't change fast. It is just an added incentive, not a cause for miracles.

  • David Harmon says:

    1) Male-only groups tend to be self-perpetuating -- This may well be a holdover from our pre-tribal social patterns, as many other primates hang out in segregated groups. Female-only groups also tend to be self-perpetuating, but my experience is that when invaded by dominant males (that is, one who refuses to be chased off), they sometimes disband entirely!
    2) Open-source contributors tend to be heavily ego-driven, which probably makes them much more defensive about challenges.
    3) Indeed, intelligence is nothing like a predictor of success. In terms of verbal-type intelligence, I'm at least three sigmas above the mean. Unfortunately, I also have executive-function deficits (from Non-Verbal Learning Disability) which translate to (among other issues) poor self-discipline and weak initiative. Which is why you're (Rob) working at a cool company, and I'm living on disability.....

  • ilefttoo says:

    Disparaging women is the last refuge of beta-males who wish that they could remove the power that women have over them.

  • mollishka says:

    I was going to point out the recent xkcd strip, but it seems I was beaten to it. I blame Google Reader, which had somehow decided it didn't feel like giving me updates for this blog... and here I was thinking you're just a slacker!

  • Rob Knop says:

    and here I was thinking you're just a slacker!
    Well, I *am* a slacker, but I"m not just a slacker... 😀

  • Jon H says:

    I think it's a mistake to make too much of comments on a website.
    For one thing, the most active people in actual open source development efforts probably don't spend much time posting comments.

  • Rob Knop says:

    Jon H -- true, the people commenting most are probably not the people working most.
    On the other hand, the comments *are* an indicator. Don't make too much of them, but also don't make too little of them.
    And, if you read all the comments, there are some women who comment; the hostility of the atmosphere is real, just as real and evidently even more severe than it is in Physics.

  • Jon H says:

    " the hostility of the atmosphere is real, just as real and evidently even more severe than it is in Physics"
    Perhaps, but then, you can probably assume the Physics people are old enough to vote.

  • Chris' Wills says:

    1) Male-only groups tend to be self-perpetuating -- This may well be a holdover from our pre-tribal social patterns, as many other primates hang out in segregated groups. Female-only groups also tend to be self-perpetuating, but my experience is that when invaded by dominant males (that is, one who refuses to be chased off), they sometimes disband entirely!
    Posted by: David Harmon

    Perhaps both males & females require these groups, odd that female only groups can't survive male members. Perhaps women should think on this when they force male only clubs to open their doors.
    Nothing relevant to the work place though.

  • David Harmon says:

    Chris Wills: Perhaps both males & females require these groups, odd that female only groups can't survive male members. Perhaps women should think on this when they force male only clubs to open their doors.
    I suspect the "primate operation" here is the female group scattering away from a domineering male. The problem is that in the modern context, the groups may not be able to re-form too easily.... On either primate or modern levels, this amounts to a basic intersex conflict, with the females banding together against roving males, while gamma or delta males (not betas*!) trying to break up the defensive groups.
    (*) I consider Betas as secondary dominants -- in human terms, the boss's enforcers or "second in command". The "bully" patterns you're probably thinking of are more seen in the subordinate types, gamma and delta. The gamma bully picks on the deltas ("a little power..."), while the delta bully is opportunistic, picking on whoever seems weak at the moment. The latter especially is often "socially inappropriate", which can get them stomped when they misjudge the odds.

  • Rich says:

    I had a similarly disappointing experience with my local astronomy club. An agenda item at a board meeting to approve non-sexist language for the group's umbrella organization, the Astronomical League, turned into a multiple diatribes against "political correctness". This was followed by a decision to NOT allow a member to bring a scout troop out to the club observatory for fear that the location would become common knowledge and vandalism would result.
    I had always thought amateur astronomers were anxious to introduce the stars to more people. The meeting showed an ugly side to the hobby.

  • Geraint says:

    I think it's funny that role players and sci-fi readers think they are above average intelligence. I'm sure Harry Potter fans think the same.
    On a related issue, as an astronomer people appear to assume that I must like star trek or other sci-fi, and that I must have had a telescope as a kids and have always loved to look at the stars etc - but for myself, and many of my colleagues, this couldn't be further from the truth. Many of us just stumbled into astronomy at the end of our undergrads and found we could do it. I still see this in my students.

  • Rob Knop says:

    Geraint -- yeah, that's a pretty common misconception.
    I suspect that there might be a very loose correlation between reading sci fi and being an astronomer, but it's hardly 1:1.
    I used to tell people that I was somewhat unusual among professional astronomers because I knew the constellations... which often boggled people. The truth is that amateur astronomy is different from professional astronomy, and one isn't a subset of the other. There are skills that amateurs have that professionals don't.
    I've also seen some surprise that more astronomy and physics professionals don't more often show up in "geek" hobbies. Again, the fraction of those who are geeks may be slightly higher than the general population, but the fraction of the general population that is geeks is small, and as such, the fraction of astronomy professionals who are geeks is also going to be somewhat small.
    Indeed, a greater fraction of the people I work with now seem to have geek hobbies 🙂
    It's all part of stereotyping... people outside tend to stereotype astronomers as all being of one mind-set, the science-nerd, the geek, etc. People inside stereotype physicists and astronomers as being so smart that of course we're right about everything and don't have any petty biases....

  • AdamG says:

    Whoa whoa whoa - hold on here.
    When did we make the jump from "Trolls troll" to "Open-source is sexist?" On the LWN page I see trolls, and unfortunate people who take their bait. I don't see why they even need be acknowledged - they thrive off of articles like yours.
    Just say no - don't feed the trolls. They probably won't go away, but it's their dream come true to see their trolling associated with the community they are attacking, which is exactly what we have here. Open-source is no more responsible for the sexist comments of trolls than the authors of sendmail can be cited as responsible for spam.

  • Rob Knop says:

    I'm not saying open source is responsible. It's the community, not the notion of open source itself.
    However, the hostile atmosphere exists. The trolls who jump out are indeed trolls, but what they are saying does reflect an underlying attitude that further promulgates the hostile attitude. To dismiss that there's a problem at all because one should dismiss the trolls who respond to articles about the problem would be making a grave mistake.
    The fact that the trolls are so tolerated is also a pointer to a problem.

  • Brian X says:

    Back in the day (c. 2000 or 2001) I interviewed at a tech place whose name I couldn't even remember. The interviewer came off as not just impersonal but outright hostile, and the interview was a disaster all around.
    I've been out of the loop now for a number of years, at least in part because of chronic mental illness, but I've been building up TV production skills in the meantime. What does it say that I'd rather work in TV than software?

  • Brian X says:

    Aaaaand there was a point to that -- the thing is that it seems like a lot of geeks are hostile to outsiders to begin with. Misogyny is rampant on the Internet to begin with, often amplified by religious convictions of a conservative/fundamentalist nature, and between that and the natural eristic impulses of many geeks, women really don't get a fair shake. I mean, if I, as a guy, got a rough shake in an interview, how much worse is a woman going to fare with the same (incompetent) interviewer?
    Oddly enough, I wonder what it says about the geek professions that the women who are there are often more attractive than average. Probably confirmation bias on my part.

  • David Harmon says:

    I've also seen some surprise that more astronomy and physics professionals don't more often show up in "geek" hobbies.
    Maybe they're just too busy for time-sink hobbies?

  • Rob Knop says:

    David -- I don't think so. Yes, they are too busy for time-sink hobbies, but so was I, and I didn't put huge amounts of time into reading lots of sci-fi and gaming.
    As much as we have to pretend to deny it (since we're supposed to work 24/7), people do have hobbies. There were professors who were coaches of their kids' softball teams, professors who flew planes, professors who conducted a Messiah every winter with their Mormon temple, etc.
    I think the real answer is that those in "geek" hobbies believe that their hobby is the most natural way to become interested in a career in (something like) astronomy, but in fact it's not the only, or even the dominant, way.