It seems that having some sort of special program to "reach out" to women is the trendy thing in FOSS right now. Debian Women has been around for ages, but now we have Ubuntu Women, the Gnome summer camp for women, and Gentoo is talking about starting Gentoo Women. I suppose I should be impressed that in each case they say "women" and not "girls". I'm tempted to check out some of the above groups just to see what's going on. I've pointedly avoided them thus far because I totally and utterly fail to see how they can be a good thing for FOSS, or a good thing for the kinds of people whose involvement most benefits FOSS.
In addition to being a FOSS geek, I have at least a passing interest and some experience in a number of other predominantly male activities, including politics, defense, motocross, home improvement, and automobile repair. At one time or another, I've been invited to a "girl group" or "women's group" for each of the above activities, with the following results:
- In an attempt to interest women who don't consider themselves particuarly savvy in a certain area, the well-meaning group de-emphasizes technical aspects of the activity. Most involved women never learn to hold their own and instead just kind of wander along the margins, or leave the activity altogether.
- The very existence of a "safe" venue for women implies that other venues are not safe, and increases the social divide between men and women. Frankly, if you are afraid to talk to half of the population of this world, you need a therapist.
- They encourage men to bring their girlfriends/wives/mothers/sisters/whatever along in the hopes that the woman in question will learn to love the activity and share it with the man who brought her, then dump the women in a group together so that they can further re-enforce the behaviors and perceptions that keep them from interacting comfortably with groups of men or groups of mixed gender.
- Capable, interested women are encouraged to have some sense of loyalty to or responsibility for the "girl group" and end up expending most of their energy there instead of in the mainstream groups surrounding the activity. This makes it more likely for men to percieve women as less capable, because they are getting less contact from capable women, and when there is contact, the capable women find it harder to keep up with equally capable men because they are isolated from the main group.
I do feel that a lot of women are missing out on some very cool things, from computers to motocross to defense. To change this, I suggest the following:
- Accept that if you drag any human to something they have absolutely no interest in, that person's strongest first impression of the activity will probably be negative.
- Give up on the girl groups. Encourage women, young and old, to be part of an interest group, not a special group for their gender.
- When in a situation where being pegged as "the girl" will make it harder for you to earn respect, try the following: if on an online or similar forum, try to use a gender-neutral nickname, if on the motocross track don't take off your helmet until after the first race you do well in. At this point, you have the same respect you'd have been given if you were male (because most people assumed you were), and the discovery that you are a woman will increase the mens' perception of women being capable, and women who are the timid type will go "wow" and just might be inspired to follow your example.
- If you really want to be a "women in X" evangelist, find a potentially capable woman and mentor her. Avoid bringing in women who will never cut it just to even out the gender ratio. Such women increase the perception, among women and men alike, that women are less capable than men.
In the end, I'm not a "women in" anything evangelist. I'm a woman with some traditionally male interests, and I rarely have a hard time becoming "one of the guys". I see very few men involved in my stereotypically feminine interests, such as quilting and rug weaving, and no one seems to think they are criminally underrepresented and missing out due to unfair gender stereotypes. I wish that people in general would quit being so hung-up on sex roles (enforcing them or acting contrary to them) and just live.