September 28, 2007

Linux distro for women? Thanks, but no thanks

Author: Tina Gasperson

The idea is floating around again: Let's make a special Linux distribution for women! We're smarter than that, aren't we? I say, let's spare ourselves and the world yet another pointless and less-than-useful version of Linux.

Also see: GNU/Linux distro for women? Why not?

We women make up more than half the population, so by no means are we a minority. Yet we claim a minority status of sorts in the IT world, where depending on who you talk to, women make up somewhere from 20% to 30% of the workforce. This topic is the focus of many heated discussions on Internet mailing lists frequented by women in IT. Many believe the low number of females in computer science occupations is a problem that needs to be fixed. Girls, they say, are being actively discouraged by parents, peers, and teachers from entering fields considered by society to be too "geeky" for women.

If you listen to these pundits, you may begin to believe that girls are champing at the bit to become technologists, but are being forced to instead enter fields like sociology, health care, or services. Some are even being handcuffed to the kitchen sink and forced to become stay-at-home mothers, the worst possible punishment of all, because everyone knows that no one in her right mind would ever want to do anything as subservient and unrewarding as raising a brood of unruly children to be the next generation of leaders. All these poor girls want is to be just like men: aggressive, logical, and task-oriented, and we're forcing them to go against their nature and be nurturing, emotional, and relationship-oriented. It's a crime. But I digress.

Assuming that the relative paucity of women in the IT industry is a problem that needs fixing, is creating a new "Girls' Linux Distribution" going to help? I say no. If we want to become part of the industry, why would we want to separate ourselves and draw attention to our differences? If we're trying to say that women have all the same aptitudes and tendencies that men in IT have, it makes no sense to then say that we need or want our own flavor of Linux.

What would we include in this distro? Pink butterfly themes? Shopping calculators? Does that sound insulting? It should. So I ask again, what exactly would we include in a female version of Linux? The longer you think about this, the more ridiculous it sounds. In fact, if you believe that there are men out there who really do want to keep women out, it sounds like an idea that misogynists would push just to keep us separate. "Aw, look at those cute little girls playing at technology -- they even made their own Starbucks icons!" I can hear it now.

Some say that the reason for a women's distribution would be to give women the opportunity to work on creating a custom version of Linux. This insinuates, again, that women are being excluded from participating in development of other distributions -- that there are hundreds of women out there who would be madly coding away if only they were allowed to, if only someone would hold the gate open for them, if only someone would invite them to participate in the creation of a girly GUI. That otherwise, they're just too scared and shy, and incapable of jumping in there with the boys.

The fact is that most women I know outside of the IT industry are more tech-savvy than the men in their lives. They are the ones who have embraced the Internet and the gadgets that accompany it. They are the ones who communicate mostly by email, and their husbands and boyfriends and fathers and brothers are still stuck on the phone and can't boot the computer without someone holding their hand. According to Nielsen, women make up the majority of Internet users, and they spend a lot more money on technology than men do. Just because most of them do not choose to make a living at it doesn't mean that women are somehow lacking in the ability to understand and absorb the concept of technology.

Creating a special Linux distribution as though it were a delightful surprise that we can use Linux at all is not going to help our image. Special Linuxes are for people with USB keys and religious sensibilities. We women are doing just fine, thanks.


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