The Empathy Gap, and Why Women are Treated Badly in Open Source Communities

There are many stories of horrendous treatment of women in Open Source communities. Many projects are attempting to address the issue by instituting social codes and diversity policies. Yes, we really do need such things.

Some years ago, I contributed $1000 to be one of the seed funders of the Ada Initiative, which worked to assist women in participating in Open Source projects. That worked out for several years, and the organization had sort of an ugly meltdown in their last year that is best forgotten. There was something really admirable about the Ada Initiative in its good days, which is that it stuck to one message, stuck to the positive in helping women enter and continue in communities in which they were under-represented, and wasn’t anti-male. That’s the way we should do it.

People continue to work on women’s and diversity issues in the Open Source community in that tradition. Support them! But I remain interested in something they are not addressing:

How Did We Get Here??? How did we ever get to the point that a vocal minority of males in Open Source communities behave in the most boorish, misogynistic, objectifying manner toward women?

My theory is that in preschool through high school, we didn’t teach those individuals how to have healthy friendships and mutually respectful social interaction with women, and that they ended up having very little empathy for women. If the school environment didn’t actively segregate boys and girls, they naturally self-segregated and that wasn’t corrected. And we ended up with another generation of boys who hadn’t spent that much time around girl peers, didn’t understand them, didn’t have empathy for them. Later, when sexual attraction became a factor, the boys lack of empathy led them to objectify women.

It’s unfortunately the case that software development in general and Open Source communities are frequented by males who have social development issues. I once complained online about how offended I was by a news story that said many software developers were on the autism spectrum. To my embarrassment, there were many replies to my complaint by people who wrote “no, I really am on the spectrum and I’m not alone here”.

Why is software a comfortable world for people with social development issues? The world of social relationships isn’t a fair one. People like you or not for reasons of their own. In contrast, software development is inherently fair. If you write it correctly, your program runs. Otherwise, it doesn’t. Your computer doesn’t get offended if you don’t state your message well. It doesn’t hold a grudge. It just waits until you write it correctly.

Online communities like those hosting Open Source developers tend to use textual communications. This is a comfortable environment for people who have trouble with face-to-face interaction.

So, we have an environment that attracts people with social development issues that might lead them to have a lack of empathy toward women, and we have some males who don’t have a pathology but weren’t properly socialized regarding their interaction with women.

This isn’t only a women’s problem. Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the United States started to address the problem that White people didn’t grow up with much empathy for Black people because so many White people didn’t grow up with any Blacks around them who were peers rather than servants. So we integrated the schools. I was in Junior High  when we started “busing”, and there was so much resistance to integration that we evacuated for a bomb scare sometime during each school day. There is still a strong “segregationist South” political block within the United States, it’s a factor in every national election.

But school integration has addressed the issue of White people who simply grew up without any Black peers. We didn’t solve the problem of racial inequality but we did make progress.

Are we, as a society, paying as much attention to integrating male and female students throughout their preschool to 12th-grade years? Do we really do much to teach social maturity at all? Do we prevent males and females from naturally self-segregating whenever they have a chance in the school environment?

It’s still an open issue whether males and females have built-in biases that, for example, lead fewer women to be programmers, or if such biases only develop as a response to social signals. There is more science to be done. But it’s difficult to do that sort of science because we can’t separate the individuals from the social signals they’ve grown up with. Certainly we can improve the situation for the women who would be programmers except for the social signals.

Does your school district have the first policy regarding male and female integration and defeating self-segregation wherever it occurs? Can we, by implementing and following one, arrive at a generation with better social development and fewer anti-female biases?

Some feminists object to this idea, because they feel I’m saying that women’s safe spaces are the problem. A “women’s safe space” is a supportive environment where women can be together with other women separately from men, without the social conflict and intimidation that the presence of men (at least the misogynistic kind) would bring. Apparently, there are womens safe spaces at some software conferences, etc.

Women’s safe spaces are a symptom, and by the time we need them it might be too late to treat the disease, misogynistic behavior that develops in males in the preschool to 12th-grade years.

To prevent that disease, we can’t always put women in safe spaces, just as we can’t always put the Blacks and Whites in schools across town from each other if they are to live together as equals.

We can do so much with social codes, and that must be done because solving the real problem takes generations. We’ll only be able to solve that problem if we work today, with our children, to close the empathy gap.

Ian Murdock dead

Ian Murdock was best known as the creator of Debian. He’s someone I met back when I was first getting into Linux, some years after I’d published my first Open Source program. I’d tried SLS and Slackware (early Linux distributions) first, and then Debian, back when Ian was the sole developer of the core system and there were less than 50 package maintainers. It was Ian’s idea to create a non-profit Linux distribution when other distribution creators were attempting to cash in, and to make it all Free Software. 23 years later, I still run Debian on all of my systems and type this on one of them.

I remember writing a recommendation for him when he was taking a research position at U. of Arizona: “Ian is one of those rare people who can make something from nothing”. That he was. Although Debian was, and remains, the work of many people, Ian has the sole credit for its origination, and the impact of Debian has been tremendous although not always well-understood by the public who benefit from it. Much good software that you use today happened because of Debian, and my own work on Open Source was because of my involvement in Debian.

Later on, I hired Ian to be CEO of Progeny Linux Systems, and my company arranged funding for Progeny. My concept for Progeny was to create a commercially supported Debian system, not unlike the Ubuntu system today. With the cooperation of his stockholders, the Simon group (known for their shopping malls), Ian departed from that concept and attempted to build a business based upon a distributed filesystem that he and a partner had been researching at Arizona.

Unfortunately, the business relationship went toxic from the moment the company was formed. Ian and I didn’t stay friends. None of this diminishes the fact that Ian was a tremendously bright and capable person who did a lot for the world.

After that, Ian was for a time CTO of the Linux Foundation, and was essentially the leader of operating systems development for Sun Microsystems. He held several impressive positions after that.

To those of you who blame the police he encountered twice before his suicide: not this time. Ian died a victim of mental illness.

It’s horrible that such a genius, someone who did so much good, went through that disease and had such a meaningless, unfair, undignified death.

Bruce Perens

It’s time to build a new web site. Meanwhile:

Bruce Perens is one of the founders of the Open Source movement in software, a consultant to law firms and their clients, and CEO of Algoram.

You can reach Bruce at 510-4PERENS (510-473-7367) or email to bruce at perens dot com.