September 28, 2007

GNU/Linux distro for women? Why not?

Author: Bruce Byfield

On various women's mailing lists, a subscriber has raised the idea of a distribution developed "for and by women." So far, the idea has met with a cool reception. It might even be a troll. However, if such a distro ever gets underway, it would be very much in the spirit of the community, and might give more women the background and confidence to reduce the gender gap in free software.

Also see: Linux distro for women? Thanks, but no thanks

The demand for a women's distro might be slight. Truthfully, it sounds more like a project from the feminist days of the early 1990s than something that would be started in pragmatic 2007. Probably, too, the main purpose wouldn't be the selection of packages, as is the case with Edubuntu -- although possibly mencal or some other menstruation calendar might be on the desktop's default panel. Yet, despite the satirical opportunities in stereotyping, I doubt that a woman's distro would resemble the pink OMG Ponies theme that Slashdot sported for April Fool's Day in 2006.

Still, free software projects are started for all sorts of reasons, not just technical ones. If gNewSense can produce a distro to promote software freedom, or the Ubuntu Christian Edition to introduce free software to the religious, why shouldn't a women's distro exist simply because a group of people want it to?

And if such a distro never catches on, what does that matter? Plenty of distros are one- or two-person hobbies. The strength of free software is that anyone who fulfills the licensing requirements can do what they want with it. The agreement of anyone else isn't required.

More importantly, special spaces for women in free software are still a necessity. If they weren't, there wouldn't be so many groups like Debian Women, KDE Women, or LinuxChix. Whether they encourage more women to become involved in free software may be debatable, but these spaces do support the women already involved in the community.

Let's face it: As Tim Berners-Lee pointed out recently, the male geek culture can be an intimidating place. Hell, it still intimidates me sometimes, since, although I'm male, my degree was in English and communications rather than computer science. You only have to browse the archives of a mailing list for LinuxChix or any other woman's group to encounter horror stories. Experienced, qualified women finding their opinions ignored, women unable to attend a professional gathering without being hit upon, misogynistic slurs -- the list goes on and on (and you'll probably see some examples of such things in the comments about this story). Before you read very far, the wonder isn't that there are a disproportionate number of female geeks, but that those who exist haven't run amok with a chainsaw among their male counterparts. People may boast about free software being open to everyone on the basis of proved merit, but the reality is vastly different if you happen to be female.

As I see it, the benefit of a woman's distro would be largely for the participants. It would be a place where women could learn how to package software or test a distribution for quality without having fear of being derided or distracted from the task at hand by the irrelevancies of gender or mistimed expressions of attraction.

True, women could learn the same skills working in another distro, and might find a teacher -- maybe even a male one -- who would treat them according to their competence. But the difference between working on a small project and a large one is like the difference between being a consultant and a full-time employee. Like a consultant, members of a small project have to learn many things quickly. They take on responsibilities sooner than they would in a large project where, like a full-time employee, they would probably be relegated to minor tasks and support roles at first. By working on a small project, they would gain competence and confidence more quickly. From this perspective, a women's distro might be a quick way to reduce free software's gender disparity. Even if more women weren't attracted to the community, those who were would have a place to develop their skills.

And who knows what else might come from the distro? I'm not a great believer in the idea that women are less aggressive than or interact differently from men. Yet even I have to admit that most of the regulars on free software mailing lists for women are politer and more supportive than the average poster on general lists. Perhaps a women's distro might develop forms of governance that are as democratic as Debian's, but less outspoken or rude. Possibly, too, their supportiveness would lead to more emphasis on documentation and the user experience. Just possibly, a women's distro could teach the rest of the community a thing or two about organization.

Alternatively, a women's distro might do none of these things. But it would be worth the experiment, if enough people cared enough to try it. And I, for one, would wish it every success.

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