A well-written piece on diversity in the open source community has been making the rounds in the tech news. Unsurprisingly, it has been controversial. Here are some notes:
A quick glance through the list shows that the overwhelming majority of these users are white menThis kind of comment is accurate, but I suspect the author isn't aware it's also offensive. Imagine if someone pointed out how the majority of pro basketball players are black people, the majority of psychologists are female, the very large overrepresentation of Asian and Jewish people in academia, or the very large overrepresentation of Jewish people in the media. All of these are accurate, but pointing them out sends an underlying message that there might be something wrong with that overrepresentation. Perhaps the author did not mean it that way, but this is a counterproductive way to start the article - some of the readers will take it the wrong way.
Of course it is good and just to point out discrimination wherever it may be, and to fight it. So if there is data showing that discrimination is the cause of overrepresentation, it should be shown. Just commenting on overrepresentation, however, is just not helpful.
The idea of a meritocracy presumes that everyone starts off and continues through with the same level of access to opportunity, time, and money, which is unfortunately not the case.Valid point, but it's hard to see anyone arguing with it. No two people have the same opportunity or time. That doesn't mean that talent isn't valued in FOSS, it is valued more than other industries, I would argue. But yes, other things affect outcomes, not just talent, including opportunity, time, ancillary skills (presentation capability, for example), etc.
Marginalized people in tech - women, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and others - have less free time for a few major reasons: dependent care, domestic work and errands, and pay inequity.This is the weak part of the article. Some valid points are brought up (women are more likely to spend more time taking care of children, for example), but no consideration is given to arguments going the other way. For example, as is well known, there are many more female than male college students these days (60% vs 40%), and college kids are a good group of people that have time for FOSS and contribute to it. So women being more likely to be in college would go in the opposite direction, of giving them an advantage. Also, women tend to work part time more often. Perhaps that is mainly due to spending other time caring for children, but perhaps it is also because men tend to be more career-driven, which leaves them less time for hobbies like FOSS. Again, it's unclear how overall things pan out.
Overall it is possible women and other groups have fewer time. And using github as a resume is flawed for many reasons. But really, most of those reasons have nothing to do with gender or LGBTQ or racial issues. The tech industry needs to improve a lot of things with respect to diversity, but this particular issue being tied to that feels forced.
Regarding the tech industry and sexism in general: Overall I would say that the tech industry is among the more progressive. For example Apple has a gay CEO, and major companies like Microsoft and Google fight for gay rights. There are also huge efforts spent on improving diversity, especially regarding women far more than other industries (just look at the number of nonprofits working in that space, and how they get prominent showtime at major industry conferences, e.g. Strange Loop 2013). However, there may well be some fundamental issues with sexism in tech, that are not easy to resolve:
- For open source in particular, but for tech in general to some extent, openness is a tool and a virtue. Major open source projects have open IRC channels where important work happens, for example, and anyone can talk there. The benefit is that good things are easily amplified: one good patch can be copied to everyone's git clones at almost no cost. But on the other hand, the openness and ease of access make it possible for say one disturbed individual to harass a large number of people. Compare how easy it is for that person to harass numerous victims on IRC or reddit versus how a similar disturbed person working, say, at a hospital, could only harass a much smaller amount of people. All harassment is abominable, and sadly openness can let not only good things be amplified but also some bad things.
There is no simple solution for that. Open source can only be done in an open way. We can use tech to fight the problem - for example, make it possible to disallow private messages on a per-user basis on IRC; ban people that break community guidelines on not harassing people, etc. - but openness and the power of technology is a fundamental thing that the tech industry and open source in particular cannot abandon.
- The nature of work done in the tech industry, and especially programming, may naturally attract Sheldon Cooper-esque people (sometimes called Aspergers people, but that's a clinical term). That is, people with a tendency to fixation, focus, lack of social intuition, and sometimes above-average technical skill. Such people tend to do better in tech than they do in, say, advertising or politics, so this is another thing about tech that can't easily be changed. And such people can easily be unintentionally misunderstood by others. Sexism is a charged topic, so misunderstandings easily spark up there. For example, in a debate on sexism in tech, such people can ask for more data to back up a claim, and the other side can take that to be an attempt to derail, when in fact the person was just being logical and rigorous, something that comes naturally to that person. Or the person can be not sufficiently understanding of how jokes about sex are inappropriate but jokes about other things are.
Again, this can't be easily changed, since the tech industry is a natural place for Sheldons, and the industry hugely benefits from them. We can and must make more of an effort to improve communication, especially with respect to diversity, but due to the nature of this particular issue, we probably need to also work on the other side, of improving acceptance and understanding for Sheldons, even when they are unintentionally inappropriate.