Harassment at FOSS Conferences

I recommend you go and read Valerie Aurora’s article on harassment at FOSS conferences on LWN.net.  It’s grim stuff, but also a positive piece – looking at how to improve things.

I’d like to think that this sort of thing doesn’t happen at KDE events, but I guess everyone like to think well of their own community.  And I don’t mean that I’d like to think no harassment happens at an event as large as Akademy, say – I’m not that naïve.  But I would like to think that KDE’s atmosphere is one that welcomes everyone, not just men, and doesn’t tolerate such behaviour.

Is this really the case, though?  I don’t think that I’m in a position to answer that, being a man and not having attended many KDE events.  It’s not something I’ve ever experienced or come across, but there’s no reason I should have.  The antipathetic response to Stallman’s “EMACS virgins” quip at GCDS 2009 didn’t really inspire me with confidence on this front, however.  There was outrage, sure, but it certainly wasn’t universal.

What is clear is that the wider software industry and community has issues attracting and retaining women.  While this is a larger problem that we can’t solve on our own, what we can do is make sure that everyone is welcome in our FOSS communities, providing they are willing to get involved, and that we don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable.

So I’m asking some questions: what do we need to do to make this a reality, at least within KDE?  How far away from this are we?  Where do we need to focus our efforts?  I’d be especially interested in hearing from women in KDE on this, as you will have first hand experience of the issues.


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11 Responses to “Harassment at FOSS Conferences”

  1. Chani Says:

    KDE’s been pretty awesome IME. I haven’t had real trouble with anyone in the community – a few people failed to understand the “emacs virgins” thing, but nobody’s done anything bad themselves, at least not that I’ve seen. 🙂 I have a vague memory of un-following someone on identica for a dumb comment, but I can’t remember if it was something sexist or another form of stupidity. 🙂

    I think people in KDE just ought to continue being the nice, thoughtful people that they are 🙂 and if they do see someone doing something that’s not ok, then speak up, don’t let it slide. Don’t let nice people be driven out by one jerk. Regardless of their gender.

  2. TheBlackCat Says:

    I’m glad to see so many of the comments there are supportive. The few that aren’t are disappointing, but hopefully making people aware of the problems will result in some changes.


    end of story

  3. David Mills Says:

    I find it’s a crying shame that this kind of thing still happens, not just in FOSS but everywhere else as well.

    I feel that the only solution is a one shot approche, where problems are taken care of at the source and immediately, but for that it requires that everyone, regardless of sex, origin, religion be on the alert so that it isn’t just up to the victims to come forward. The communauty has to look after it’s members here.

    I’ll admit that I’m on the record as one of the people who didn’t immediately get the EMACS Virgins episode (sorry Chani), and that I very much regretted it when I understood. I firmly believe that this level of demeaning behavior shouldn’t be accepted in civilized society. The ubuntu code of conduct is a very nice first step in this direction.

  4. Ian Monroe Says:

    I think this sort of self-reflection is a good thing to do.

    The fact of the matter is that even if everyone was on their best behavior, I imagine a conference that’s 90% men can’t help but be a bit intimidating. I know sometimes I felt a bit isolated when I worked at a job where my coworkers were like 85% women.

    So what can KDE do about this? To some extent I think its impossible for us to do anything alone: the incoming freshmen in my Comp Sci program had maybe 5 women out of 40. That sort of math is very hard to overcome.

    well no solutions… just problems. Making IRC and conferences at the very least a non-hostile place for everyone is actually the easiest problem to solve.

    • randomguy3 Says:

      I agree fully that there is a wider problem of women in software engineering. I did maths and computer science as a joint degree, and while women were highly under-represented in the computer science part, maths had a roughly 50-50 split. I think that the mindset required for these two subjects is very similar, so the question is: why were women applying for maths and not computing?

      I believe that there is a problem of perception, and of hegemony. Computers are perceived as “boys’ toys”, and it is generally difficult for any group of people to enter a space where they are under-represented. Changing that is going to take time and effort from a lot of people.

      Of course, in KDE, our community is wider than just programmers, and that side (documentation, co-ordination, publicity, design, HIG etc.) will hopefully continue to expand. This opens up the possibility of not just achieving a more balanced community overall, but also allowing people (especially women) who wouldn’t take a compsci course because of those perceptions to enter via another route.

  5. Anne Wilson Says:

    Like Chani, I feel that the KDE community is remarkably welcoming to anyone who cares. Of course, being older, harassment is not something that’s likely to come my way 🙂 but I’m going to add a supplementary question for you to ponder.

    It’s an absolute fact that most women see things from a different angle than that of most men. When you, the reader, not Alex specifically, come across this do you (even if silently) think “Silly cow, doesn’t know what she’s talking about” or do you think “I never thought of it that way – I wonder….”? For me, as someone who is very shy, this was the thing I feared.

    It was a revelation to me, when I found that I was accepted by most people. I didn’t really expect it, in what was obviously going to be a very male-dominated community.

    • Bugsbane Says:

      By “accepted” you do mean “greatfully worshiped by”, don’t you Anne? ;P You are a gem. The doco work you do is exactly the kind of work that FOSS is generally starved of people for doing. I shudder to think of the difference we would have seen without you.



      On an unrelated side note, it strikes me that FOSS with it’s community, relationship driven approach to software, could actually benefit even more from, and offer even more to women than the mainstream software industry. As in all things, it’s a matter of living up to our full potential as a community.

  6. Lydia Pintscher Says:

    For everyone who is interested in this topic and what to do about it go and read the geekfeminism wiki and blog. They are good resources.

  7. Bugsbane Says:

    Personally I feel that things as simple as blog posts like this – if done regularly – have a huge, yet subtle effect. They communicate to people new to the community that we value diversity. They embolden people already in the community to do the right thing in uncomfortable circumstances. In short they communicate to everyone (inside and outside of the community) that diversity and understanding are key values of the community as a whole.

    I know that a bunch of blog posts doesn’t solve everything, and that good people must be prepared to act when our communities values (such as respect for diversity) are threatened. The blog posts do, however, remind people of what those values are in the first place.

    Thanks for helping out Alex!

  8. Sekar Says:

    Great post Alex.

  9. Valorie Zimmerman Says:

    I’ve found KDE spaces to be very welcoming, polite, and generally respectful. However, definitely mostly men. If we as a project want more diversity, we have to advertise that (thanks for the blog post, Alex!), and seek people out who are different from us. I hope the e.V. will do that sort of thinking, and encourage more diversity at every level.

    I was happy to see that KDE has a code of conduct, and it seems to be followed pretty well. Do we have safeguards against harassment and assault included in our conference planning? Women will feel more inclined to attend if they know that their concerns will be taken seriously, and that those who cross the lines will be escorted out, with no return privileges. A sense of safety is surely a basic concern, and we can work together to make sure that is provided.

    Thanks for writing this, Alex. I wish it wasn’t necessary.


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