On Feminism


Sorry to top-post, but a friend of mine has recently convinced me basically the opposite of what I’m saying in this post, and I needed to be sure that this historical context-providing post was framed in the right light, which now includes me disagreeing with my past self.

The conversation that convinced me to change my mind culminated in realizing that while women-only programs are bad, a situation where no women-only programs exist would be even worse, leaving women at a disadvantaged stage, because society is still pretty unbalanced.

At first I was happy to say that things like women-only support groups and hackerspaces were OK, because they provided support that was integral to giving women an edge, especially in such a male-dominated field like the tech industry, but that policies governing the distribution of salaries or stipends should be radically gender-neutral. The turning point on that principle was the realization that, to quote an unnamed wonderful person, “money is the primary medium for transferral of social power!” After making that connection, I stopped being particularly opposed to OPW, because I realized the necessity of that transferral and that money is one of the best ways to accomplish it.

The original post is preserved below, again, for historical reasons.

One of my favourite teachers ever was my 11th grade history teacher, Ms. Conway. She would give lectures that made us laugh and cry. But the most memorable thing she ever said to our class follows:

How many of you are feminists? (a few people raise their hands) You know, feminism only means that you think women and men should have the same rights. Now, how many of you are feminists? (nearly everyone raises their hands)

(see the definition of feminism at Merriam-Webster, e.g.)

Since then, I’ve firmly identified as a feminist. Maybe that makes me a member of a minority, especially considering the sort of person I seem to interact with on a daily basis. My feeling is that feminism is viewed as an extreme, radical thing, and that feminists are seen as people who hate men. Neither are true – feminism is the simple belief that neither women nor men are better than the other.


With that in mind, let’s talk about GNOME’s “Outreach Program for Women” (OPW), for which I was a mentor from January through April, and through which I met a lot of cool and interesting people. Another Wikimedian, an OPW intern herself, has already written about the idea that OPW is a sexist program, and I have to say, I have had a very similar feeling about it from the start.

In December, when I was asked whether I’d like to be part of more mentorship programs, I responded “yes” emphatically. A few days later, I got some emails and IRC messages about OPW, and read the literature. I was excited that the program would be bringing in more contributors for Wikimedia, so I again responded yes.

After a few more days had passed, though, I thought back on some of the literature, and on some of the things I’ve read in the past about affirmative action programs. I asked a few questions in various channels about why this program, specifically, needed to exclude men. Why was it that a program offering paid internships for working on free software was being offered to half of the population but not the other? The answers were a little dismissive, but satisfactory for me at the time, and ones that I had heard before and would hear again: Women are disproportionately affected by the current lack of women in the tech industry, we need to actively seek them out, and it’s helpful for them to have a place where they feel comfortable when they start out working somewhere, as well as a place that specifically indicates to them that they’re qualified to apply.

During the program, there was a lot of busy time. Not a lot of progression of my ideas on the matter. When the program closed, though, I asked in the OPW channel about the same thing. The same answers seemed to come out, but for the most part, I’m not sure I was convinced. While I’m glad that women feel more comfortable in that scenario, it’s at best a stopgap measure. Sustainable growth isn’t accomplished by treating women specially, it’s accomplished by making sure that the industry, and the communities where women will be joining along with men, are friendly enough places that nobody feels excluded.

More generally

Segregation isn’t the way to solve segregation. Affirmative action was maybe a good idea once upon a time, to open the door, or maybe just because we didn’t fully understand the issues at play, but we’re in a different time. Discrimination, at least in the Western world, is not looked upon as acceptable, and sexism is no exception. So maybe we should stop practicing it as if we still need to use these temporary solutions to crack open the door. The door is already open, or opening, and we just need to let everyone through. Having women-only events or programs excludes men who might want to learn too.

Things People Say

When I ask people why they’re choosing a women-only event, group, or program, I often hear many of the same answers and continue to be unimpressed. A few of the ones I’ve heard are below (please, comment, and I’ll try to add yours!) (also, if you want to rebut one or more of these, I’m happy to continue the conversation in the comments)

Women need to be able to count on support from peers
This is one of the more common explanations I hear, though it comes in different forms. Women and men sometimes have different needs, but some men have the same needs as most women and some women don’t have the same needs as other women. It’s ridiculous to offer a service to women and not men just because most women need the same service.
Women are intimidated by the male-dominated industry and need a women-only place to find support
While there’s certainly some truth in the intimidation, I reject the concept that women can only find support with other women. If there’s some *quality* of women that you’re looking for, maybe you should start a group that allows entry based on that quality rather than based on the professed gender of a person. It’s insane to block men from entry simply because they’re men.


I fully recognize that I’m missing things here. I invite people who understand this topic better than I to comment and help me understand. Hopefully we can learn from each other. I promise not to dismiss your ideas out of hand and strive for a fair conversation on the subject. I want to learn from you just as much as you want to learn from me.

4 thoughts on “On Feminism

  1. Hey Mark!

    Thought I’d put in my two cents. Once upon a time, I felt a lot like what you feel. Why should I be treated differently because I’m a woman? I’m just as good as men and how can we be equal if we’re treated differently? I felt that I was above needing women related programs to get anywhere.

    But as I advanced through my classes, the ratio between men and women just became wider and wider and I suddenly felt like I didn’t quite belong. I’ve been harassed by my classmates about the way I look or dress. And suddenly, it wasn’t only my skills they were picking on, but rather things that were related to my gender. I tried to go along with it because they weren’t trying to make me feel uncomfortable, they just didn’t realize that they were doing anything wrong. And while it would have been good to talk about it civilly, there’s that sense of “I’m such a bitch” when you point out other people’s faults.

    Almost every woman have some experience like this and it’s nice to be able to vent/rant about it with people who understand. Now, that’s not to say that men aren’t sympathetic to the issue, but since they haven’t experienced it, they don’t really understand the deep emotions that can occur. It’s easy to say something like “Oh, you should speak to HR about it.” or “Don’t worry, he didn’t mean anything about it.” but not realize that the person is probably suffering.

    Case in point, I was talking to a woman who had been in tech for 10 years. A coworker had been trying to get a date with her for a while and she had politely said no a few times. One day, he decided to corner her and intimidate her. She was scared of what he would do. Luckily, he didn’t do anything and someone reported him to HR, but HR didn’t do anything about it.

    As a man, you don’t really have to worry about things like this. You don’t have to worry about whether people see your success is due to your skills or if you had just gotten by because you’re a woman and you “need” help from things like OPW. You have role models that you can identify with. You don’t have to worry about whether your coworkers are being friendly to you because they have ulterior motives.

    Privilege isn’t something that people like to hear. It implies that you didn’t work hard for our accomplishments and that things were just handed to you. But the truth is, when you’re a straight white male, you have less obstacles in your way. I’m not very good at eloquently describing this, but I thought this article was a good read: Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting.

    As for OPW, there’s such an outcry about how it excludes 50% of the population. But what about Google Summer of Code? That excludes way more people. It requires you to be enrolled in college, which is a minuscule amount worldwide, and it is focused on programming projects. I’m sure if you calculate the number of students who are currently attending school and is studying a computer science/engineering course, it’ll be much smaller than 50%. And if you then calculate how many of those people are male vs. female, then females are way underrepresented. Never mind the fact that women are less likely to apply to programs like GSoC because of things like Impostor Syndrome and fear of harassment. I don’t think GSoC is a bad program at all, but I think the people who find OPW to be terrible, are also people who support GSoC because they can see themselves apply to that program at one point in time. They don’t feel like it excludes people because it didn’t exclude them.

    It’s hard to see all the things that put women at a disadvantage because a lot of it isn’t obvious. There is still so much sexism in this field. It’s hard to feel like you belong when people are stating that women just aren’t good enough to be programmers and that’s why there are so few women. When these statements appear daily, it’s hard to be confident in your skills. That seed of doubt spreads and you start believing in it because the world is telling you, “women aren’t good enough, you’re a woman, you won’t make it”.

    It’s a hard topic to talk about because it distinctly pins men against women (and their male allies). I just want to say that I don’t think any individual man is terrible and I admire programmers of both genders. It’s really easy to get sucked into the us vs them mentality when it comes to this issue because it’s such a sensitive topic. Within these women based groups, I’ve found a sense of support, community, and pride that I don’t find elsewhere. That’s not to say that I don’t find those traits in the tech world, it’s just different. It doesn’t replace one another.

    Anywho, it’s 2am and I’m not even sure if my points are right. I have to say that it’s a subject that is close to my heart and I just wanted to give my perspective because I really respect you and I wanted you to know how I felt about it.

    Also, for simplicity, I didn’t include LGBT issues or touch on people who don’t identify with either gender. I also generalized men and women and that’s not to say that either parties fit my descriptions. My generous use of “you” is not meant to be directed at you specifically.

  2. Ok, I feel compelled to respond to your post since I am the only OPW intern here for this round. I hope you can understand and learn from me, and from other women/OPW interns about how much these program matter and make a difference. Once you know people that have personally experienced sexism and discrimination in open source or elsewhere, I think you can better appreciate the need and the value for program such as OPW. Discrimination and sexism are far from being wiped out in the Western World, as you indicated. Sexism may be frowned upon and sexual harassment laws may now exist to protect women, but sexism is still alive and well in the workplace. Its just of a more insidious nature now. I’m thinking of things like rude or hostile environments that aren’t welcoming to women.

    Programs like OPW make a difference not only in the lives of the interns, but also in having a more diverse and healthy environment for open source projects like Wikmedia to function. Free software should not be a boys’ club. The more women we can get involved in it, the more they can contribute to its diversity and quality. Isn’t that something to strive for?

    Another point: I have heard at Engineering Community Meetings that this year we have 9 women in GSOC in Wikimedia, up from 1 least year. Stats are still being gathered on this, but from what I understand this is due to the fact that the OPW drew many women who were encouraged by the fact that it was a program for women and felt less intimidated applying to it instead of GSOC. Once they submitted, they were encouraged to submit their application to GSOC, which is why GSOC got so many more women than last year. I think women appreciate an invitation directed to them and are more likely to respond.
    In closing, this is not a temporary stopgap measure, this is real progress towards making Wikimedia more diversified and representative of society as a while. Programs like this one also add to the general conversation on the subject and are *part* of the solution. No one effort can be *the* solution for something as complex as this.

  3. Teresa – I’m sorry it took so long to get your comment approved and to reply to it! There’s a *lot* of spam on this blog.

    I have written a revision of my opinion at the top of this post, and you may be interested to see it. While I’m not sure I can agree with all of your comment, I think we both now agree that women-focused programs are indeed a very necessary measure.

    Thanks for being one of the awesome people who helped call me out on that :)

  4. Rachel, I’m sorry to you as well.

    I do want to take issue with your implication that OPW caused the increased amount of women applicants for GSoC. I think there are many other possible causes, and that there’s absolutely no evidence that OPW directly caused the difference. I think our community is much friendlier now, and participates in a lot of general outreach programs, and that causes us to draw people of all sorts (i.e. not just women), plus there’s an increased environmental presence of women in free software, based on increased awareness over the past few years, so we’re bound to get our share of that.

    Not to say that I disagree with your basic premise, but if you’re going to use the increased women applicants for GSoC as evidence for it you’re going to need better research first.

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