December 8, 2004

Debian Women: Geek feminists in action

Author: Bruce Byfield

Erinn Clark, co-founder of Debian Women, is quick to stress that the group doesn't exist because Debian is particularly woman-unfriendly. Yes, Debian has "a bit of a reputation" for elitism and aggressive discussions on its mailing lists. Some women, too, find the effort needed to form associations in the all-male group -- a necessity for becoming a Debian developer -- intimidating. Yet, if one of Debian Women's goals is to change the Debian project to encourage women's participation, an equally important one is to explain Debian to women and show them ways that they can contribute.

Debian Women began after Clark and Amaya Rodrigo, two of the few female Debian package maintainers, began privately discussing the lack of women in Debian last spring. Rodrigo, who currently maintains nine packages ranging from GNOME front-ends for CVS and SETI@home clients to a menstruation calendar, posted a question on the subject for the candidates for Debian Project Leader in March:

How can we say make a "Universal" OS when it's do scarcely related to half the population of the world? I would be very interested in knowing what is each candidate's plan or ideas on this subject, how to get more women involved, and what (in their opinion) would be the benefits.

Rodrigo's question received lengthy replies from the candidates, and started a wide-ranging, though inconclusive, discussion on the subject.

In May, Clark, who co-maintains LyX and is also active in her local LUG and Perl group, gave a talk on Women in Debian at DebConf. As Clark prepared for the talk, she consulted a group that later became the nucleus of Debian Women, including Rodrigo, who translated the talk into Spanish and delivered it in Spain. Immediately after, the Debian Women's Mailing List began. A Web site followed within a month.

Debian Women is not the first group for women with an interest in GNU/Linux. Clark is active in LinuxChix, and, in helping to set up Debian Women, she researched other projects such as Gnurias and KDE Women.

All these groups are similar in that they try to create a supportive atmosphere in which women are encouraged to become involved in the free software community. However, Debian Women necessarily has a narrower focus. "To be a Debian developer," she says, "One needs to have specialized knowledge about a variety of things, such as licensing, packaging, philosophy, and the community." The Debian community has a rich tradition, and participating in the community without understanding that tradition is almost impossible.

Debian's traditions are especially obvious in the process of becoming a new maintainer. To begin the process, an applicant must find an advocate who is already a maintainer, and return a GPG key signed by at least one maintainer as proof of identity. The applicant's work on packages is overseen by a sponsor, and he or she must also demonstrate a working knowledge of the Debian Social Contract and Debian Free Software Guidelines. The sponsor makes a final report to a committee, which then decides if the applicant becomes a Debian maintainer.

Learning the Debian philosophy and asking someone you may never have met except through email or IRC to be your advocate takes time, and those are difficult steps for many men. However, for women, the process can be even more intimidating. They mean entering a largely male circle of associates, many of whom have long-term relationships with each other, and being judged by male office holders. This can make many women uncomfortable.

One of Debian Women's main roles is to help women through this process, partly by being supportive and encouraging, but also by demystifying the process. For example, for the last few months, Helen Faulkner, a Debian Woman regular, has posted updates on her progress through the process, outlining what she is doing and how she feels about it. Similarly, on her Web site, Amaya Rodrigo cheerfully encourages anyone who needs an advocate to contact her.

In addition, Debian Women is also discussing demystifying submitting bug reports -- not just by explaining the process, but also by showing how to make the reports useful. Since bug reports are publicly and sometimes copiously commented on, they are another area in which a newcomer who also happens to be female can easily feel overwhelmed.

Other areas in which Debian Women is considering becoming active include localization, documentation, and education for users. "We try to encourage women to participate in other areas of Debian," Clark says. "We do not want to recreate other areas of Debian within Debian Women."

At the same time, Clark adds that the group is also "a test ground" for the discussion of areas in which Debian needs to change if more women are to become active. For instance, in August, Helen Faulkner filed a bug against sexist language in Debian instruction and documentation, citing numerous examples and showing a sample rewrite of a passage.

Sexist language, Faulkner pointed out, "Can be offputting and potentially offensive to women like myself who wish to become Debian developers, and encourages people make the assumption that all developers etc. are male."

The need for the bug report was not universally accepted, even on the Debian Women's mailing list. One poster dismissed the bug report as "paranoid," and a number of Debian developers, particularly ones who speak English as a second language, questioned the need for the change and whether the replacement of "he" with "they" for the indefinite personal pronoun was grammatically correct. Yet many commentators on the bug report were sympathetic, and some documents have already been edited.

Contrasting opinions

Some members of the Debian community strongly object to Debian Women's action. As often happens in mailing lists and IRC channels for women, trolls have also been an occasional problem. Probably, it is in anticipation of such hostile actions that the Debian Women FAQ contains this question and answer:

Why isn't there a debian-men or debian-$SPECIAL_INTEREST_GROUP?

Because it hasn't been requested. The existence of debian-women does not prevent anyone from requesting the creation of a new list or subproject.

Yet, despite some negative reactions, Clark says, "We also have a large number of supporters, and an even larger group of people that don't care one way or the other. Overall, it has been better received than I originally thought it would be."

Asked if she could foresee a time when a group like Debian Women was no longer needed, Clark says:

How Debian Women develops depends not only on DW itself and its members, but also on the rise in popularity of Linux and Debian. While it can be easy to forget that Debian isn't the entire world, there are outward social issues that need to be corrected first before Debian Women can ever become redundant. Ideally, Debian Women will grow to the extent that it can actually begin to affect small portions of society, but I think it will be a long time before that happens on a large scale.

Meanwhile, Debian Women has created a friendly place for learning more about Debian and has drawn out many women to talk about their experiences and ambitions, and to become more involved. As one recent poster noted, when Debian Women started five months ago, there were only three female Debian Developers, but now eight women are in the New Maintainers queue -- a change that may be at least partly due to Debian Women.

It's a change that not even the founders could have anticipated. "I am quite surprised," Clark says, that "By simply forming a group such as this, many people will join and begin to think about contributing, whereas it might never have crossed their minds otherwise."


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