Response to “Ten easy ways to attract women to your free software project”

About a month ago, Free Software Magazine published an article that looks into the reasons behind the dearth of women joining free software communities, and makes concrete suggestions about what to change to improve the situation. While I think the article was well-intentioned, I also think it was confused, and promotes recommendations that buy into many of the sexist stereotypes that we should be trying to combat. I haven’t noticed any negative responses to the article, so I decided I should write one.

It’s an odd situation for me to challenging another man’s writing as sexist. It can be hard for women to challenge sexism owing to accusations of overreaction, and on the other hand it can be hard for men to do the same owing to a perceived lack of standing in saying what’s offensive to women; I don’t have a defence for this, other than that I showed drafts of this post to a few women in technology and will invite more to leave comments with their own thoughts after I post. Here’s what I found objectionable about the article, going through some of its bullet point list of recommendations:

  • Use forums instead of mailing lists

This suggestion doesn’t make sense to me. I agree with the author (and the many people who have said this before him) that women are turned off by an ultra-aggressive alpha geek style of conversation, but the solution isn’t to “use forums”, it’s to stop using and encouraging these destructive behaviors. We might retitle the suggestion to “When considering flaming someone, don’t.” If you need an example of how moving to a web forum doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference to how respectful a conversation is, consider the average comments in a Slashdot thread.

A point the author doesn’t make — but which I find compelling — is that it’s not just women who are turned off by aggressive conversation modes, it’s anyone who doesn’t want to take part in the alpha geek mentality. By making an environment that is more welcoming to women, we make an environment that is more welcoming to everyone except a loud subset that we’re currently optimizing for.

  • Avatars create a face-to-face-like feeling that encourages “more human” behavior

Advocating avatars because they’re “more human”? Are we talking about women or children here? Women read more books than men. Women are perfectly capable of and comfortable with engaging in purely written communication, most likely moreso than men. This insinuation of a childish need for needing cartoons to create a “face-to-face-like feeling” seems extremely insulting.

  • When possible, wikis instead of version control archives

I’d love it if I could find more solid reasoning behind this than “wikis are friendly and version control is complicated and women like friendly things and don’t know how to do complicated things so we should use a wiki for version control even though that doesn’t make any sense”, but I’m not seeing it in the article. Ugh.

  • When possible, high level languages

Ditto. For example, the FLOSSPOLS report contains a study that compares the programming ability of men and women taking college programming courses. It finds that women perceived their programming ability to be far lower than men perceived their ability, yet programming examinations showed ability levels to be equal between men and women at the end of the course. The problem isn’t that women aren’t smart enough for low-level languages, it’s that we boast about how great we are at coding so much that we manage to convince women that they must not be as smart as us.

  • Replace pecking-orders with affirmation processes (thank you’s)

“Women are more likely to want to discuss or seek approval for their changes, owing largely to confidence issues” is not a respectful thing to say. Who doesn’t have confidence issues when joining a new group of people and submitting their first proposal or patch? We’d do well to thank our volunteers better regardless of their gender.

Oh, wow, I just noticed the photo of the sewing machine:

“Programming, like sewing, is largely a “tacit” skill, which is best learned by doing and by watching others.”

Yes, because a comparison to sewing, which is apparently something the author thinks women seem to learn how to do really well, is totally appropriate. Good job. Full marks.

I think I just ran out of words. Please don’t listen to the recommendations in this document. It actually uses good sources, even while it draws insulting conclusions from them, and the sources are worth reading. If you had to choose one thing to read about the (very real) reasons behind there being fewer women in free software, I’d recommend the FLOSSPOLS report, which is a large-scale academic study of the reasons women don’t contribute more to free software projects, and is truly enlightening.

So, now that I’ve complained about the recommendations given, what would a replacement set of recommendations be? As well as the formal recommendations given in FLOSSPOLS, Val Henson’s HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux contains a perfectly good set of advice. Note that one of the recommendations is (3.13) “Don’t assume that all women like cooking, sewing, and babies”. Note that this article attempts to make learning how to participate in a free software project more like learning how to sew.


  1. free software projects tend to have a large element of self-selection in their contributors

    its true, some projects have large egos in them but we’re all adults and can live with this

    I can see two factors
    (a) individual motivation
    (b) cultural expectations
    which I would guess are the factors behind the difference in gender make-up behind software projects. I’m unsure which is greater.

    On (a) we’re behind the days of serious sexism when doors were shut to women as a matter of course – mostly the doors are now open. Society is or should be mature enough to be open to the possibility that on average, women are less interested in software, systems and machines than men.

  2. Jesus, that’s bad! I think its time for free software developers to realise that geek girls are more geek than geek guys generally speaking because of the high level to entry created by geek guys for geek girls to get involved.

    Guys who are scared they’ll be out done by a girl? That’s sexism and it appears to be rife, that an a fairly obvious aggressive and fearful attitude of some mailing list members towards women.

    I think this comes down to socially inadequate behaviour across the board rather than just towards women, maybe its time somebody wrote a “how to not be a douche bag for software developers” rather than tackling the “women in software” issue alone, I think fixing one may be proxy fix the other 🙂

  3. It’s not just that “we boast about how great we are at coding so much that we manage to convince women that they must not be as smart as us” – it’s that men boast so much that they convince themselves of how smart they are, all the while being utterly average. And that, in my mind, is even more unfortunate.

  4. I had the same reaction when reading the original article. Why waste perfectly good electrons on sexist bullsiht? (But as I am also male, I didn’t really dare to write an answer.) Thanks.

  5. Would you accept that [the design details of a Web forum can affect the tone of discussions on that forum](

    If so, perhaps you can understand how the choice between a Web forum and a mailing list similarly affects the tone of discussions. Mailing lists can be used with any e-mail program, and one or two e-mail programs have [built-in flame retardants](, but most don’t. You could make the mailing list moderated, but that’s rather coarse (accepting or rejecting entire messages after they’re written, instead of encouraging nicer messages before they’re written), and it removes some of the speed advantage that mailing lists have over Web forums in the first place.

    I share your suspicion that avatars of the kind shown in the article would help. But if an avatar was required to be a photo of the person (as it is on Facebook, for example), that would tend to make discussions much more polite.

  6. Wow, I guess I’m the only pragmatist here. Are all women incapable of being great programmers? Of course not! Do men tend to be better programmers (note the use of the word tend)? Absolutely yes!

    Hey I’m not saying women are dumb, because that would be foolish, but …

    In my experience, and I do have many many years of experience developing, architecting and managing small, medium and massive software projects, women as a general rule (think stereotype here) are not as successful as men in programming. Perhaps the problem is education, or stereotypes or whatever. The simple fact is, in my experience, men tend to think and approach programming in a way that tends to work better for writing code.

    I don’t know why, but I do stand behind this stereotypical belief. Women seem to be a lot better at other things, like multi tasking, managing projects, and a million other tasks. This diversity of skills is what make life interesting, and all of us much more sucessful. You know the saying “behind every successful man is a good woman”. There is some truth in that saying (as there are in all stereotypes).

    To automatically make an assumption that both genders are going to be 100% equal in all things at life, is IMO incredibly short sighted. We evolved differently, so it is only natural that we are going to have a tendancy to be better and worse at some tasks then the other gender.

    I will take a man on my team way before I’ll take a woman. Call me sexist if you want, but it also the reason I believe my success rate tends to be higher on projects where I have this control.

    Having said that, I do agree though that we need to stop “talking/writing down” to women (in all things!). There is no reason women cannot overcome these challenges (and again, I’m not saying all women, I’m 100% sure there are many women coders who are vastly superior then myself or perhaps most men in general).

    Flame away, I’m not trying to bait anyone. I enjoyed the article, and many of the points I agreed on. Just disagreed with the general premise (if admittedly unspoken) that both genders are equal in this area…

  7. He’s got one thing very, very right: “Subjective reputation is often flat-out wrong and very, very biased. Objective measures are useful to see what the score really is, especially when the players are not equally forthright.”

    Too many women think they’re not good because they’re honest about their efforts and abilities, whereas your typical male programmer epeens with every breath.

    This reads like a document on how to recruit women to programming, but you should be trying to recruit experienced professional female programmers to work on free software. That’s a very different demographic, one which does not not require technical or procedural hand-holding and is more accustomed to working in a male-dominated programming environment, and is likely to view extreme programming for the horror that it is.

    o Use forums instead of mailing lists

    Personally this is true because forums are more convenient. If they’re moderated then the quality is better and I’ll spend less time scrolling through BS, and hence be more likely to read. If I find thoughtful posters I can read more from them and tag good posts. I can also look threads from before I joined the group. I can also hide my e-mail address and disable personal messages.

    o Avatars create a face-to-face-like feeling that encourages “more human” behavior

    They’re certainly more fun. However most women are accustomed to the internet and have thick enough skin to ignore trolls and flamers. If you want to make them more comfortable and welcome, allow a few girlie joys such as a lolcats thread.

    o Use flat conversation rather than deep-threads: “who” not just “what”

    Deep threads are more informative, and if there’s too much info women are perfectly capable of scanning or searching.

  8. OMG… free software projects don’t need women, or someone with specific height/weight/race/car or whatever. People in those project work remotely and rarely see each other. Usually they don’t, at all.

    If someone wants to participate – he or she is welcome as long as they get the job done. One can pretend to be a 16 y.o. girl or an old retired man.. who really cares?

    The thing you talk about is called “affirmative action” and is probably the most stupid and full of shit thing in the universe existing today.

  9. I think you’ve just nicely summed up my feelings about almost every ‘women in free software’ initiative. They tend to be incredibly patronising.

  10. Joe, the basic error in your argument is conflating success with talent. It’s like saying Britney Spears is a better singer than Cecilia Bartoli, becuase she’s had more hits.

    As someone who mentors a range of other programmers, I can say that I have to spend more time reigning in the guys who are running off half-cocked. Not all guys–but the women never seem to do that. Some of the guys want to dive into code before they grasp what the problem is; but the women I deal with practically never do that.

    I’ll hire correct over cowboy, any day.

  11. Wow. I saw that article in passing but didn’t bother to read it properly. The whole thing is quite offensively sexist. What we need is to encourage a community where women are treated as equals, and where sexist and comments and attitudes are not tolerated. The FSM article is the perfect example of the kind of attitude that needs to be expelled from our community.

  12. the only problem i see here is that the article was aimed at women alone. Change “women” to “people” and all the issues you raise disappear.

  13. Off of the top of my head, I can think of a few things that men could do to encourage more women enter free software.

    – Men, such as a few above, could stop telling women that sexism isn’t a problem. I think we’ll notice before you do when that happens.

    – Stop holding “conversations” that are little more than diatribes, as if you already know everything and couldn’t possibly be convinced or swayed or are even willing to consider another’s point. (For example of this sort of tone, please see above ‘Joe’.) This is something everyone could benefit from, not just women, but my experience has shown that this sort of thing is generally more accepted by men in the field, despite that as a general rule women get talked down to like this by men more than other men do.

    – Examine why sentences such as “Hey I’m not saying women are dumb, because that would be foolish, but …” are, uhm, problematic. Insulting, may be another good choice if ‘problematic’ isn’t to your liking. Also ‘sexist’. (See my first point.)

    – Stop talking down to girls like this, not just in the field, but in general. Women are generally socialised from the very beginning in a way which will make them less inclined to enter a field even more rife with that sort of attitude. Stereotypes of women continue to be generally the case because people expect them, and (sometimes un)intentionally perpetuate them. I, and my partners, did not assume just because she was born with a particular biological make-up that our daughter was more or less inclined to any particular set of traits. We simply got to know who she actually was as she grew, and encouraged her in the areas she showed natural talent and a general interest in. She’s not a stereotype, she’s a human; we attempted to treat her as such.

    She likes maths, particularly of the engineering variety, and she’s keen on “blowing sh*t up for science”. She also happens to be a very warm and nurturing person who seems to also have decent leadership qualities.

  14. I also wanted to express my gratitude to the OP, Chris Ball, who successfully does several important things:
    – addresses the issue
    – recognises the potential problems when women address the issue themselves
    – manages to state his opinions without sounding like a know-it-all, and leaves room for discussion and differing opinions.

    Kudos, Chris.

  15. who cares what gender writes the code?

    no user goes “ooh this part was written by a girl so i’m cutting it a little slack functionality wise.. ” no-one.

    issue irrelevant.

  16. Why does it matter if women contribute to open source? I advocate looking at the _code_ not the _person_. That’s the only truly non-sexist way to go about things; ignoring gender entirely.

  17. Oleg, Fradgers, Varen, and anyone else who says this issue is irrelevant are missing the point entirely, and need to sit down and think about what privilege they have which lets them ignore the problem. It’s not in the end important, given a piece of code, what gender its writer identified as. There is no girl code and there is no boy code. But what IS important is that the majority of code is written by people who identify as male, and this is something we need to figure out an answer to, if only because if men are (even unconsciously) excluding women we are losing the potential contributions of over half the population.

    Fighting sexism isn’t about pretending gender doesn’t matter, because whether it should or not, patriarchy goes on existing in the real world. Fighting sexism is about fighting patriarchy.

  18. As a female who has worked in the FOSS community for a while now I would like to thank you for this response to that article. I remember when I first was sent links to it, I shared it with some of my colleagues as a gag. 🙂 The sewing picture and caption were, I agree, extremely obnoxious.

    I also agree very strongly that folks tend to be way too offensive on mailing lists, to the point that I’ve unsubscribed from many of the lists I used to be on and have gotten it down to a core. People are allowed to behave shamelessly on the lists. Moving to a forum I doubt would help (I’ve been in some pretty heated forum conversations as well), because both require moderation that just isn’t happening.

    The avatars suggestion is just ridiculous. Although, I suppose, we do have hackergotchis on the various planet, and I think they help provide a sense of community, but I don’t see how that has anything in particular to do with women.

  19. this article was mentioned evey so often, but i didn’t read it at first. when i finally did, i thought it was a gag, as well. thanks for responding to it.

    it says something about the culture that it was considered good advice as long as it has.

  20. I recently started going to college and I’ve become quite depressed about the ways people are reacting to the CS classes. Twice as many women dropped out of my current class than men.

    Women in my classes say outside of class, “I can’t do this, I’m too stupid to be a programmer.” I’ve been programming as a hobby for a few years, and I tell them that’s it’s probably not them, it’s just a hard thing to learn. It’s difficult to learn in a linear way because concepts affect other concepts, but you can only learn one thing at a time. It just takes work.

    Meanwhile, there are a handful of boys who seem to think that they are The Shit even though they don’t know what they are talking about. They challenge the teacher, act smug, and everything that comes out of their mouths is wrong, wrong, wrong. If I wasn’t so annoyed I’d be embarrassed for them.

    For some reason women seem to be under the impression that they’re fighting a losing battle, and these boys think that they’re prodigies. In the end, the confused women get their assignments done more often than these overly confident boys (who complain profusely about how unfair the assignments are).

    I don’t know why this is, but I really hope women don’t feel so low about themselves in all subjects.

    I also cannot understand those who do not think that diversity matters. Programming is primarily problem solving. There are still big problems that haven’t been solved. I can’t understand why you wouldn’t care about diversity of thought, method, experience, background, and genetics, anything and everything to perhaps have someone come up with a great new idea. It takes all kinds.

    Joe, I really hope I never have an interview with someone like you.

  21. I agree with Steve… I don’t care. I’m interested in the code and I really don’t care where it comes from.

    Also I’d note, if I turn up at a group with a current dominating ethos, it’s regarded as good manners for me to fit in with the norms, values and mores of that group. If that’s a largely female dominated group then that’s what I will be fitting in with.

    Programming is largely male dominated, and the ethos of groups formed around this tend to reflect that… so?

    Try and treat people decently. Male or female.

  22. I don’t agree with all of Chris’s conclusions.

    For example as a response to “Use forums instead of mailing lists” he thinks that woman have a profound dislike for aggressive or destructive behavior. And that this is turning them off. Aggressive or destructive behavior turns most people off, both female and male. To say that it mostly turns woman off is sexism for me already. As if there’s a mental difference that spells out that girls can’t cope with such situations yet boys can.

    I’m sure both girls and boys can cope. On average they probably cope differently (sure). I’m also sure that there are a lot of very feminine boys and very masculine girls about this subject.

    He seems to be saying that woman are some kind of special precious soft and vulnerable animals that need some sort of special protection offered by the good boys against the bad despicable assholes who are aggressive and destructive.

    Chris however forgets that woman have developed perfectly fine mechanisms to defend themselves against these people already. To assume that woman need special protection, the kind of special protection that boys don’t need, is for me sexism. They don’t need special protection.

    Women can have quite competitive, aggressive and destructive behavior too by the way. A lot woman are insanely good at psychologically destructive behavior. Is Chris telling us that boys now need special protection against a lot of women’s behavior?

    I don’t think anybody needs any special protection here. Boys and girls have lived together for ages just fine. Both genders have evolutionary developed tools and mechanisms to deal with the characteristics of the other gender.

    I think that involving woman in aggressive destructive communication that some guys do on discussion forums will have a cooling effect. Just like how woman very often ‘cool down’ their boyfriends when a fight would otherwise be about to happen. Women are good at this, it’s their expertise.

    I’m pretty sure a girl feels good after she cooled down two boys who are having a conflict.

    Protecting them against this is creating an unnatural habitat where they can’t exercise this. This means that you make them less useful than that they could be for the group.

    Making girls useless is what I call sexism.

  23. Ah, ic. You remove posts of people that don’t agree with you.

    Okay … this means your relevance sinks to below zero.

    But go ahead.

  24. Anon, Chris is totally asleep ignoring me type this next to him, and has been in that state since I got home (came in on a red eye). (Your post and others before it have appeared in that time period.) As you hopefully figured out already, any lag was purely automated. You can also infer from this statement that I would disagree with any assessment of him as being sexist or thinking women incapable.

    One thing that I think is good to remember in any conversation (one impressed on me by [Peter Singer’s argument for animal rights]( is that one should seek “equal consideration”, not “equal treatment”. For example, making birth control illegal is “equal treatment”, but it obviously does not impact the two sexes equally and therefore is not “equal consideration”.

    Although I wouldn’t expect to change Anon’s mind, I leave it here for others to think about.

  25. I’m okay with the idea of “equal consideration”.

    I’m not okay with the idea that woman need special protection and that guys need to stop any of their specific behavior.

    It doesn’t surprise me that it’s always the “I’m holy, look at me” guys who keep pointing to this imaginary necessity “to protect them against imaginary evil” if we want to attract girls.

    I do believe that if more girls would enter those discussions, that the guys would adapt their behavior to a more polite one. Guys do that to impress girls (although they will say they don’t, that’s the reason indeed).

    I don’t think guys need to start behaving because otherwise girls wouldn’t join. I even think girls would join for the reason of wanting to tame the aggressive behavior that a lot of guys seem to have. Girls are good at this and being successful in doing that would give them a reason to continue being part of the group (it gives their presence a reason).

  26. Anon, it’s not special protection. It helps both men and women to have a friendlier community.

    I’ve seen a lot of ugliness on mailing lists that was totally unnecessary. Alpha males (and alpha females) might not have so much fear about diving into that kind of sludge, but I guarantee we are turning away both extremely talented women and men by allowing mailing lists to reach that level of hostility.

  27. if a woman OR man can’t deal with a mailing list instead of a forum or vice versa they are too stupid to be programming anyway.

  28. @Máirín Duffy: That doesn’t mean that you need to take the solution for womans-in-opensource hostage for the purpose of fixing what some perceive as a problem (mailing lists with hostilities) but which is something that is not actually even near what the problem is.

    I don’t see a lot of hostility on the mailing lists (especially not on the mailing lists that matter, since those are not populated by the average idiots). I think it’s an invented and imaginary problem. The people who are aggressive in behavior are already being asked to be more polite on each and every mailing list where I’m active.

    I think the “Look! I’m holy” boys just want to show to the precious soft and fragile girls (which is how they think girls ought to be, because then they can serve as strong protecting boys) how good knights they are.

    Girls don’t always need strong protectionist boys.

    These people feeling like “holy boys” is not sufficient for me to make such a major decision for woman-in-opensource.

    Let woman be woman and let men be men.

    Sure there are things wrong with our specie’s nature. But nonetheless have we managed, as a species, to survive just fine. It’s not the financial market. There’s absolutely no need to regulate this too much.

    The current mechanisms for countering aggressive behavior is working just fine.

    No need to add some sort of policing and then start whining to people that it’s because of the poor girls, think about the poor girls!!, that somebody who used a specific word will be banned and punished from contributing.

    Because that’s what those holy boys end up advocating if you don’t stop them. For their own benefit. Of course.

  29. Anon’s just being a troll, ignore him. I can tell you that Chris isn’t being a “holy boy”, I think I would have noticed that by now (our third anniversary is coming up). Anon does have some cute fantasies about girls taming boys, I’ve honestly never considered the genre of mailing list erotica before now. 😉

  30. I disagree with your point about avatars. Although cartoonish ones may be childish as you say, using people’s actual faces increases the level of connectedness. The more personal an interaction is, the harder it is to be a complete asshole.

    Just looking at even a picture of someone’s face makes it harder to be an insulting jerk than looking only at some text.

  31. Chris, thanks for your blog post and the links to various resources. Even if a set of rules can be established and enforced, some men (usually bad apples) can find other ways unconsciously discourage women from participating free software projects. It becomes necessary to get down to the root of the problem.

    I have anecdotes about women in computing, but worry writing on this topic would flare up offensive conversation in the comments.

    By the way, will there be events (or similar) like GNOME’s WSOP06 encouraging women in the FLOSS community? Give me a shout if you need help organizing!

  32. @Anon, oh aggression on mailing lists is NOT an invented problem. I’ve been called horrible things and attacked on several mailing lists.

  33. Actually, the thing about using a simple language to attract more women is totally misunderstood. It should be: ‘Use a simple language to attract more PEOPLE’

  34. First of all, I got the same impression as Máirín. It is a gag. However, the second glance, it is a very interesting discussion. And the best comes at the end. There is a lot of truth in

    It should be: ‘Use a simple language to attract more PEOPLE’ (comment #38)

  35. Well I dont understand, what is the problem with to enrole women in every kind of project.
    They have demostrated, they have skills and they are always good in everything they do…
    On the other hand, everyone schould have the same opportunities. It dosent matter, what kind of work we have to do!!!


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