Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Sat 25th Nov, 2006

CLUG, Women and GPL3

On this month's CLUG meeting, Hugh Fisher led a wide-ranging and stimulating discussion on a bunch of issues facing Free and Open Source Software today. I always like these kinds of discussion - partly because it expands the area of my knowledge and partly because I think sometimes we need a devil's advocate in order to really understand why we stand for the things we do. If we never question the knowledge we have, we're no better than the unreasoning zealots who promote proprietary software.

There were two problems with the process, I felt. One was that having a discussion like this is possible up to about eight people - for a CLUG meeting of twenty or so it sometimes degenerated into a shouting match. I'm as guilty as the rest - I'd stick my hand up sometimes and wait patiently to be noticed, but then five minutes later I'd be calling out amusing comments or counterexamples with the rest of us.

The second problem was that Hugh's approach was basically to attack FOSS's dogmas and articles of faith. This often ended up with arguments coming from both sides - you can't say the Free Software Manifesto is equivalent to Marxism, and then say that there's nothing wrong with capitalism and proprietary software without ending up sounding like you're arguing about completely different things. And these are also the sorts of declarations that get Open Source practitioners somewhat riled up, which means that they want to go on the attack, which is hard if it's coming from the other side of the political arena.

Personally I don't have a problem with a lot of these statements. The Free Software Manifesto is a lot like classical Marxism - where people get confused is then thinking that it equals communism or Stalinism. Proprietary and free-but-closed-source software has a lot to teach Open Source programmers: Mark told me of two features of a Finder-replacement in Mac OS X which would make Nautilus or its KDE equivalent green with envy[1]. Sure, we can copy features from them just as they copy features from us, but it seems a curious inversion of the "it's worth nothing if it's free" mentality to say that the only software worth using has no cost. I certainly don't mind paying for a game or an application I might use; I know the hidden cost is there that I've been locked into their file formats and so forth. I just factor that into the equation. It's the everyday equivalent of reading and understanding all the EULA stuff.

One interesting topic came up right at the start: for a group of people that prides itself on 'openness' and hates companies and governments putting up barriers to participation, we're an awfully White Anglo-Saxon Programmer group. That night was especially poignant as we had no women in the twenty or so people there - and that's not uncommon either. As a contrast, even SLUG has a higher proportion of women. What are we doing wrong.

It's not that hard to deduce, when you ask the question 'where are all the beginners?' CLUG is, somewhat unashamedly, a very technical (and technical-for-the-sake-of-it) audience. Some newcomers (e.g. a former acquaintance) are driven away by the sheer technical complexity of the talks; others are driven away by the heckling random technical questions launched at the speaker from anywhere in the audience without warning. Others still, I would argue, are driven away by the way little cliques will form and gossip about geeky, technical, 'you have to have been reading the mailing list for three months to understand the joke' stuff given any opportunity - the speaker taking a breath, for instance. All of these and more drive women away - the guy at the back saying "I love women - I appreciate how they look" (or something like that) was just the tip of the iceberg.

I think there's a reasonable area between being patronising and being gruffly neutral in our attempts to encourage women to come along. I think part of the problem is that, just by there being fewer women, us guys feel a bit uncertain. Women don't automatically think that we're talking to them because we're chatting them up or trying to impress them. You can treat someone as an equal without them having to know as much as you in your little special interest fields. While I fear that the next woman who visits a CLUG meeting for the first time is going to be swamped with people trying to make her feel welcome ("have a chair!" "no, have mine!" "this one's warm!"), I think we may obsess too much over the problem to admit that the solution is just to be friendly and supportive - much as we (gender-neutral) all like being treated.

But also, we're going to try organising different meals to the standard Pizza Gannet Feeding Frenzy that CLUGgites call "a good way to wrap up a talk". My proposal is:

That way the gannets still get fed, and tnose of us (me included) who would also like something different (and possibly more nutritious) get to eat too. I don't think it's going to cause a mass influx of women in IT coming along to CLUG meetings, but at least it's a step on the way to making CLUG meetings more appealing to more people.

[1]: Feature one: tabbed panes, so you can keep multiple places in the file system and move between them easily. Feature two: a 'drop box' that you can collect files into and then drop them into your destination. Saves all that confusing control- shift- alt- left-click-with-a-fringe on tip selecting in file list windows in order to grab the files you want.

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