Diversity at what cost?

When I was in high school one of the first clubs I joined was a mock United Nations club. A friend and I checked it out because we thought it was funny that the name read as one word became “unclub.” We wanted to be part of an “unclub.”

The U.N. Assemblies were some of the best times I had. Students from all over the county would get together and debate history and politics, and we loved it. We followed the same guidelines including points of order, which led to a very funny moment where a U.S. delegate, pretending to be Nancy Kerrigan, responded “Why me?! Why anyone!?!” when told he was speaking out of order (Tonya Harding had originally taken the floor). You probably don’t see the humor in it, but we all did.

My last year in high school our history teachers did a horrible thing. They saw how much fun we were having, how much we enjoyed history and politics, and they forced all their students of a certain year to join. They didn’t love it, and so they made their own fun. They didn’t represent their countries accurately, and unfortunately they weren’t relegated to secondary countries either. The teachers wanted them to participate!

Imagine trying to debate sanctions against Cuba when neither the US nor Cuba gives a shit. The students representing the President and Vice-president stopped trying to maintain order, sometimes even abusing their power, and the page system (passing of notes between countries), which used to be the best part, was used to continue the regular hallway harassment that so many of us had at least escaped when at U.N.

We couldn’t love it anymore. The worst part about it was that they didn’t love it either, they were just making the most of it to get a better grade.

I can’t help but think about this whenever the issue of Women in Open Source comes up. I haven’t heard proponents say much more than there just should be more women. Sometimes someone mentions pay; there should be more women in technology and open source because it pays well. This worries me. I’ve heard this tune since elementary school. As a girl gifted in math there were endless field trips and career nights encouraging me to pursue a career in technology. It was really interesting to hear from women who did these jobs, but when I think back I don’t remember whether any of them really loved their jobs.

The message that did get through was that I should want these jobs because women are just as smart as men and they pay well. There was a pressure, as if in not pursuing these fields I was letting my gender down. That wanting to be a dancer or a mother, with my brainpower, was perpetuating a stereotype that would continue to crush my less gifted “sisters.” I wasn’t being freed of gender roles, I was having a new one thrust upon me.

I still don’t know what I want to be, but as I’m approaching 30 there are two things I love in this world beyond anything else: being a mother and dancing. Math is still up there, too. I tear up when I realize I’ve forgotten how to do calculus. Coding, however, has just never drawn me in. Maybe it’s backlash against the old pressure, but I just don’t love it and no one yet has been able to tell me why I should and I think my anatomy is neither here nor there on the matter.

The men that I know who work in open source, especially the successful ones, they love it. They love what they’re doing and they love it even more because the people they work with love it just as much. I’m not sure the politics of open vs. proprietary come into play directly, so much as that in open source you’re given more freedom and greater trust to make some great code. It’s like pulling Iran out of the country hat right after the “elections.”

Here’s what I think we should be asking before we start making assumptions: Who loves coding? Why? What do they have in common? Are there women out there who love it but are locked out of the industry? What about men? What about the disabled, or other races? I’ve seen statistics on women in software development vs women in open source. How about statistics on people who are in software development because they love it and people who are in it for the money? Dream job or desk job?

I don’t think the popular kids secretly yearned for a forum to discuss how much of a country’s GDP is already going to U.N. efforts, but just didn’t have the courage to join up. One thing’s for sure though, paying them to show up just because we think they should be there is going to have more negative effects than positive.

We need to reach people who will love it and treasure it for what it is, and maybe we’ll need to accept that it just isn’t appealing to a wide range of people. There are so many important roles in open source, I have a hard time believing that we must have diversity in each area to have a diverse voice in the product. I’m not saying that I think we shouldn’t try, I’m just not comfortable making an assumption based solely on gender, and afraid of what will happen if we do.

26 Responses to “Diversity at what cost?”

  • Greenspan

    This is my opinion as well, and it’s refreshing to hear it amongst the “we need more women!” groupspeak that is so common these days, particularly from a voice such as yours. Well done.

  • Ted Mielczarek

    I have friends whose parents pushed them into technology for the same (bad) reason, that it is a career where you can make a good salary. Unsurprisingly, they’re all unhappy with their jobs. I definitely think people should do what they love if they want to be happy in life. That being said, the tech industry (and open source in particular) can still be hostile to women and other groups. We should be investing effort to make sure that people who really do want to work in tech or contribute to open source are not disenfranchised by bad behavior on the part of existing contributors. I don’t know that there’s ever going to be a point where we can look at percentages and say that we’ve succeeded. Perhaps you’re right and there’s some difference that makes some people want to participate and others not . Then again, it’s also possible that various cultural biases have trained boys to be more interested in technology from a young age, and so girls are not as inclined to participate.

  • Sumana Harihareswara

    Lucy, I’m glad you’re thinking about these issues. My perspective:

    When I read http://geekfeminism.org/ or the http://geekfeminism.wikia.com wiki, or listen to the women on the Systers mailing list, I don’t hear a general and undifferentiated “WE MUST GET MORE WOMEN INTO FLOSS” or tech agitprop agenda. I see lots of initiatives to help underrepresented groups — African-Americans, women, people from developing countries — get in on the joy and empowerment of hacking.

    I think there is a separate argument to be made that everyone, of every gender and from every socieconomic, ability and ethnic background, should be generally technically literate, which means being able to code a “hello world” in some decent language and feeling empowered to modify their computing environment a little. To extend the analogy, I know it ruined your enjoyment of Model UN when the teachers forced everyone to participate, but you’re not against the goal of everyone learning a little about how international politics works.

    And because these sexist behaviors and attitudes keeping women out of high-status and high-paying professions are just now starting to fade, it’s important to take an extra look at seemingly innocuous traditional attitudes to make sure they don’t conceal yet more barriers and discouragement. As Kirrily Robert pointed out in her OSCON keynote, the community as a whole grows organically and benefits greatly from (voluntary, of course) women’s participation:


    Like you, these advocates like helping people. Check out http://gnomejournal.org/article/88/the-un-scary-screwdriver for an example of the kind of noncoercive, entirely opt-in outreach that most advocates, well, advocate.

    Sure, coding, and open source work, is not really intrinsically appealing to lots of people. But because there are *so very many* external factors keeping interested girls and women away from tech careers and open source, I’m comfortable prioritizing breaking those down, so that maybe in fifty years people’s intrinsic interests will shine naturally through. And then we’ll talk and see what interesting patterns show up.

  • Brad Watkins

    Very well said, and also a great example. It always bothers me when the attitude seems to be that there are x% of {women,men,$race} so therefore there should “obviously” be that same percentage in a given occupation.

    The idea that there will be an equal distribution of tastes in job between any two cross sections of the population flies in the face of the very reason we want to encourage diversity in the first place. That is, we *want* different people with different viewpoints involved. So why are we trying to predetermine a specific ratio of involved persons?

    Instead, as you point out, let us focus on ensuring that there are as few (or no) barriers to entry for those that are actually interested. Additionally, make sure people are aware their options and that, in fact, they are options.

  • Sander

    A different reason for why “there should be more women in open source” (or at least for why there should be more visibility of those who are, with explicit invitations and support for those who’re not yet here) is to help give other women, who _would_ love programming, the confidence that this is something they _can_ participate in, and where they’d be welcome. It might seem weird for those of us who’ve been participating in some form in the Mozilla ecosystem for years, but from the outside it all looks very forbidding and hard to become a part of, and this is even more so for women, when they see it as a male-only club.

    I never really understood this until sometime last year, when one of my friends expressed how the way she saw programming had radically changed just by learning of an open source project (OTW’s “archive of our own”) where the majority of developers was female, and most of them had only started programming semi-recently. Where before the very thought of participating had been unthinkable, she now suddenly saw this as being something that she herself could do, too. (fwiw, she was one of the people quoted in Kirrily Robert’s OSCON keynote – http://infotrope.net/blog/2009/07/25/standing-out-in-the-crowd-my-oscon-keynote/ )

    We don’t need to drag any and all women into open source regardless of their wishes. But making open source accessible enough that they can envision themselves as being part of it, can discover for themselves if this is something they’d love? That is, I think, a very worthy goal.

  • Dave Dash

    “Are there women out there who love it but are locked out of the industry?”

    That is the question we should be asking. It’s a lot harder to answer, but its not as shallow as “why are women are underrepresented in open source.”

  • Tweets that mention Ill-mannered Grandiloquence » Blog Archive » Diversity at what cost? -- Topsy.com

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Planet Mozilla, Stella Quinn. Stella Quinn said: "There was a pressure, as if in not pursuing these fields I was letting my gender down." http://steelgryphon.com/grand/?p=85 […]

  • Elizabeth Leddy

    I’m not so sure how your example of the unclub relates to women in open source. It’s very rarely the case that women are forced INTO open source – in fact they are usually forced out. I’m quite amazed/jealous that you had somebody pushing you – most women fight very hard just to get in. Maybe instead of thinking of it as a negative thing you should be thankful that people cared enough to open [extremely lucrative] doors for you. I totally agree with @sanders – don’t forget what its like on the outside!

  • Lucy

    Thanks everyone for reading this! I’m going to let the comments build up and then make a follow-up post responding to the main themes that are being brought up.

  • Lucy

    @Elizabeth Leddy – I’ll reply to you here though as I have a lot to say when I read comments like this.

    Was I really lucky? What if I was being pushed into a marriage? Would you tell me to have been happy that I had someone who cared about my fate? The problem is that they didn’t *care* what made me happy.

    Lucrative? I know a lot of “software engineers” who are not making a lot of money and I’m fairly certain strippers make more per hour than even the best software developers. Should I be upset that no one tried to recruit me as an exotic dancer?

    I’d also like to see your data please. Perhaps you’re of a different generation from me (I stated my age in the post), but when I was going through school there were bonuses left right and center just for having a vagina. Career nights for women, clubs for women, scholarships for women, business grants for women.

    I’ll see the negatives as negative, thank you very much. It doesn’t mean I don’t see the positive, but they both exist. Most of the people who pushed me to do something “for womankind” or because it was “lucrative” were using me to prove a point, or were defining my happiness by their own measure. I won’t be grateful for that side of it.

  • Ben

    All engineering is social engineering. Open source is just especially explicit about it: we write code with the understanding that we are changing the world. One of my social engineering goals is to change the status of women in our society.

    I have a lot of reasons for this. I mostly date girls who write code, so increasing the number of women in open source improves the odds on my love life. I think women have the same programming capability as men, so if they write free software then I will have access to more and better programs. I think engineering is a great path to financial independence, and I would prefer to live in a world in which more women are financially independent — doubly so if those women are in the third world. I believe that such independence has the potential to improve the dynamics of global politics and war.

    I could go on, but the bottom line is: I’m just a mid-twenties white male trying to improve my quality of life by manipulating others.

    “I wasn’t being freed of gender roles, I was having a new one thrust upon me.”

    I cannot imagine a society without gender roles. I can imagine, and work towards, a society with gender roles that I like better. There is an unfortunate intermediate stage, during which people socialized to the old roles find themselves not quite compatible with the newest versions. I think that’s an acceptable cost, compared to the benefits of reducing wasted intelligence and talent.

  • Elizabeth Leddy

    @Lucy I didn’t mean to sound aggressive – apologies for that – but I’m glad to have this discussion.

    wrt lucrative – strippers get raped, beaten, and often end up addicted to drugs. So, no, you probably shouldn’t be upset, unless you have a lifelong dream of giving lunchtime blowjobs. But if you do – no worries cause that door is always open for women (and men!), unlike software. You want to start charging $10 for lap dances? Go ahead. You can do it tomorrow AND you’ll make money. Getting into software requires an extreme commitment – you can’t wake up one day and show up at intel asking for a job as a software engineer. That’s why it’s important to find out who is interested early and start teaching the basics – it keeps us competitive.

    I completely agree that you should do what you love but I don’t understand how your experience of being pushed into a career by your parents (or whomever) means that open source shouldn’t care about diversity or how it relates to the women in open source movement at all really. I would really like some clarity on that topic.

    I’m in your same generation, and yes I had the same thing with the women career nights and they were awesome. Even with all that, I still faced a lot of stereotypes in my comp sci classes and still do to this day. I can’t go to a tech conference without at least one introduction of “oh, are you so-and-so’s wife/girlfriend?” instead of “what project are you working on?”. If Mozilla has no issues with that then awesome – we can all learn from that. Let’s talk about what mozilla does right that everyone else does wrong.

  • Lucy

    @Elizabeth Thanks for the response! I have to say it’s so nice to see a(nother) woman who’s willing to power through nasty conversations to get to the good parts.

    My point is in the title – “at what cost?” Some people out there do think that women should just be evenly represented and we should do everything we can to make it so. The second half of my point was illustrating that just because I was smart, and had the doors open to me didn’t mean that I actually wanted it.

    Right now we don’t have data on what the ratios should actually look like so I feel it’s important to keep the dialog open and to not make assumptions. If we do make assumptions and use the wrong incentives then it will come at a cost, and while I won’t be paying it directly, my friends will.

    Your last paragraph is interesting. I actually was married to someone during my time at Mozilla, but I don’t think most people know that now. I think it depends on the community as well, but in terms of Mozilla I have a lot of friends throughout the different areas. I didn’t get questions of “are you with someone?” because people already knew who I was.

    I can understand how this might make you feel like it’s a comment on your abilities, but I think it’s dangerous to make that assumption in response. There are many benign reasons why someone might ask this up front, first and foremost I think is to establish a personal connection. I know one of the first things I do when meeting people at an event is to establish who our mutual friends are.

    Thinking back I don’t think I’ve gone to any tech events where +1s came. That certainly makes it easier as the assumption is if you’re there, you must have something to do with it.

  • Elizabeth Leddy

    @Lucy Powering through nasty convos to get to some common ground/resolution is actually a trait I love about women in OSS. Any real good tongue lashing I’ve received has been from a woman: passion + technical prowess = one hell of an arguer.

    I know the ratios thing is a crappy measurement. I have hard times with it as well but on the other hand if we can’t measure in ratios, how can we measure? How can we objectively say a community is better or worse because of presence or lack of women? That is a very hard problem so I think a lot of us stick with what works.

    Of course, the 50:50 thing is hogwash. No one expects that. However, the lack of women is a canary in a gold mine. They are the first to flee at the sign of a hostile community. Linux and Ruby were the perfect examples of this. Linux is getting better and Ruby now is the perfect example of the opposite. After recognizing the problem they took a lot of measures to make it more accessible to women and now the image is much softer and more accessible for EVERYONE. It’s just like Kirrily Robert’s OSCON keynote – you didn’t see the percentage of women increase, but rather the entire community just gets bigger.

    wrt the +1 thing that is the dramatic part – people don’t bring their spouses. Every conference is something different in the same tone. At sxsw for example, before they got their shit together, if you were a chick you were a social media expert, and if you were a guy you were a web dev. Now the whole vibe is so much better – there are no assumptions for either sex.

    I agree, if you go to conferences with people you know its not an issue but many aren’t like that, especially if you are still trying to “come up” in the industry. It would be nice if someday I could go out for a drink after a conference talk and hang out with, you know, women. Not that guys aren’t awesome and fun but I’m sure you know the vibe is very different when you throw more women in the mix. Some people care about numbers, and some just want to have enough women around to have ladies night at ApacheCon. That’s enough to make me passionate!

    If you do a followup, I’d be interested in the “at what cost” part that I think you barely touched on here. It’s not often that people say having more diversity in a community is bad – elaborating on the negative side-effects experienced by the people and the community and/or its product would make for an interesting discussion.

  • Gerv

    > Powering through nasty convos to get to some common ground/resolution is actually
    > a trait I love about women in OSS. Any real good tongue lashing I’ve received has
    > been from a woman: passion + technical prowess = one hell of an arguer.

    In passing: if I’d said that sentence, with “man” instead of woman, would people have thought me sexist?

    (My point is not to accuse you of sexism, but the reverse. I’m making the point that a lot of accusations of sexism, made on this sort of basis, are actually rubbish. People need to lighten up.)

    > I know the ratios thing is a crappy measurement. I have hard times with it as well but
    > on the other hand if we can’t measure in ratios, how can we measure?

    That reminds me of the old story about the man looking for his missing keys under the streetlamp. “Where exactly did you lose them?”, asks a passer-by. “Over there by my car. But the light’s better here” said the man.

    (Bonus question: if I’d told that story featuring a woman, would that have been sexist?)

    If ratios are a bad measure, we need to stop using them. If it takes more work to gather good data, then people who care about the subject need to put in the work. If anyone, male or female, has a story about how they wanted to get involved in e.g. Mozilla but couldn’t, I care deeply. If people say “we have X% of $GROUP, and we’d rather have Y%”, that doesn’t seem to take sufficient account of the feelings of the people concerned. As the original article wisely points out.

  • guanxi

    FWIW, high school girls now take calculus at the same as rate as boys, and perform just as well. At higher levels the gap is shrinking quickly. You can read about it here:


  • Ben

    “Of course, the 50:50 thing is hogwash. No one expects that.”

    I absolutely believe that we can, and should, reach 50:50. There is no known intrinsic difference between men and women that can explain the gap in software engineering, and I’m not inclined to believe that one exists. For example, the latest international tests show high school girls ahead of boys in math in many countries, and roughly equal globally.

    These things change slowly, but they do change. Consider the field of medicine. Two generations ago there were virtually no female doctors. Today women outnumber men in US med schools.

  • Rubyist

    I used to find it amusing that the number of women in OSS in general and Ruby in particular was so small until the infamous ‘p0rn star speech’ incident. The speech itself was a stupid but forgivable mistake. It was the hostility shown in the post-speech discussions that was disgusting.

    As someone said above, women are the canary in the coal mine here. Because we’re a majority of people, it really stands out when we’re 2-3% of a supposedly open community. It is also very true, at least in the Ruby world, that non-whites and over-35s are also very much under-represented compared to other kinds of groups of technical professionals.

    I don’t think, though, that anyone is suggesting forcing anyone into the field or forcing the percentages to come out differently. What the percentages lead to is the question: Are we driving good, motivated, talented people away because they don’t match the young white male demographic?

    I think we are. And even if I’m wrong about that, figuring out how to make a community more open to a variety of contributors is worth doing.

  • Archaeopteryx

    I’m often meeting with students who study international relations/international law, and at the maximum two third participate in MUNs (and hey, if anybody wants to join the MUN which we are organizing, get more information at http://www.elbmun.org )

    The problem with “gender correction” is also in science pretty common with special programs for female students (it’s easier to get at least some support from programs designed only for them). Eventually, everybody should follow theirs interests.

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  • Leigh Honeywell

    @Ben: I too think we should reach 50:50. Or maybe even 51:50, isn’t it?

    Of course I mean I hope eventually the whole world ends up using open source. Because then we’ll have the same proportion as exists everywhere 🙂

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  • James

    I think it’s interesting that you claim growing up there were bonuses for having a vagina yet the reality is that those clubs that you call bonus only existed because in each and every business field that has not been traditionally ignored or unwanted by men, has been dominated by men. Men have no need for those clubs because we already are given access and privilege by being born with a penis. When we go to a job interview no one questions whether we may leave the job to raise children or need different hour to take care of children. Assumptions are made that a boy may be interested in coding while even in the here and now of your generation women in tech are considered a good thing but are fetishized and token within their fields and behind their back. No one assumes because more women are teachers that men just must not like teaching. I’ve been in silicon valley for 30 years and the same behaviors are there, they just have better lip service.

    I think it’s sad that women of your generation want to believe that because you didn’t have overt sexism directed at them that it doesn’t exist especially when the actual research being done into it and the experiences of women who have been in tech for years shows clearly that it hasn’t gone away.

    There are enough men out there that are happy to pretend they aren’t sexist while not even able to admit the privilege that they are given by their gender that more apologizers.

    no one is saying lets force women to be in certain fields but is it too much to ask that women not be driven from fields. With all those called vagina benefits you mentioned, there is one thing that happened, a women need to choose to join those clubs and access those options.

  • anon

    “Are there women out there who love it but are locked out of the industry?”

    Yes. Unfortunately this lock out means there are very few women left in an industry they well loved.

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