HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux

Val Henson


Revision History
Revision 1.12002-10-29Revised by: VH
Minor rewrites, typo fixes
Revision 1.02002-10-25Revised by: JYG
Fixed validation errors, added license, abstract, versioning, etc.
Revision .92002-10-01Revised by: VH
Initial version

Table of Contents
1. Introduction
1.1. Audience
1.2. What problem? Sexism is dead!
1.3. About the author
2. Why are there so few women in Linux?
2.1. Women are less confident
2.2. Women have fewer opportunities for friendship or mentoring
2.3. Women are discouraged from an early age
2.4. Computing perceived as non-social
2.5. Lack of female role models
2.6. Games, classes aimed towards men
2.7. Advertising, media say computers are for men
2.8. Life-work balance more important to women
2.9. Reasons women avoid Linux specifically
3. Do's and don't's of encouraging women in Linux
3.1. Don't tell sexist jokes
3.2. Do protest sexist jokes
3.3. Don't call people bitches
3.4. Do show some respect
3.5. Don't take the keyboard away
3.6. Do give directions and explain them clearly
3.7. Don't make sexual advances towards women
3.8. Do act friendly
3.9. Don't complain about the lack of women in computing
3.10. Do encourage women in computing
3.11. Don't stare and point when women arrive
3.12. Do treat new arrivals politely
3.13. Don't treat women stereotypically
3.14. Do treat women as normal people
3.15. Don't criticize too much
3.16. Do compliment
3.17. Don't invite only male speakers
3.18. Do ask women to speak
3.19. Don't micro-specialize
3.20. Do discuss broader topics
3.21. Don't make your meetings hard to attend
3.22. Do make meetings easy to attend
3.23. Don't make new people feel unwelcome
3.24. Do help new people get involved
3.25. Don't underestimate girlfriends or wives
3.26. Do treat girlfriends and wives as independent people
4. But I don't do that!
A. LinuxChix

1. Introduction

At the 2002 Ottawa Linux Symposium, I hosted a LinuxChix Birds Of a Feather session. During the BOF and throughout the conference, I heard the same set of questions:

"My girlfriend hates Windows, how can I encourage her to use Linux?"

"Almost no women attend my local LUG. How can I fix this?"

"Why aren't there more women in open source?"

Clearly, people in the Linux community would like for more women to be involved in Linux, but most people don't know why so few women are involved or how to change that. This HOWTO is an effort to summarize the explanations, recommendations, and opinions of the women who already are interested and active in Linux. This document began with the verbatim recommendations of the women who attended the LinuxChix BOF, and was added to by many more women in the months following the original BOF. In other words, this HOWTO represents the feelings and opinions of real women involved in Linux. While we represent the women who "made it," we still have fairly important insights into why other women left or never entered the Linux community, as well as being keenly aware of the pressures which are currently pushing us out of the community.

In this HOWTO, we'll talk about why women stay out of computing in general, why they stay away from Linux in particular, and what you can do to help encourage women in Linux. We hope that this HOWTO will result in more women using, installing, and developing Linux.

1.2. What problem? Sexism is dead!

A sentiment I hear frequently: "What problem? There's no problem! Sexism is dead! Women are staying out of Linux because they want to!" If you feel this way, you may change your opinion by the time you finish reading this HOWTO. I also used to believe that sexism was dead. Shortly after joining several women in computing mailing lists, I realized how wrong I was. Week after week, women have new stories about how they were discriminated against and insulted because they were women. These stories aren't decades old, nor do they involve people who grew up when sexism was more acceptable. These are day-to-day experiences of today's women, in modern settings, who are being driven out of their chosen profession by sexism. This isn't theoretical--many women actually leave the field of computers entirely because of blatantly sexist incidents involving superiors at work or at school.

Read the links below for my favorite example of modern-day sexism:

Initial post to the Sydney LUG mailing list, by a woman:

Follow-up posts diagnosing the problem as "over-stressed female":

Gee, surprise, these two responses are enough to drive her away:

Hysterically funny and heroic response from another woman:

Despite the pointed sarcasm, obnoxious man still doesn't get it:

A perfect response from a man who does get it:

Sexism is alive and well, and it is driving women out of Linux. You can argue that the Linux users joking about "over-stressed females" in the above posts are ignorant, or stupid, or well-meaning, or should in some way not be labeled sexist, but the result of their actions is that women are leaving Linux, something we would like to prevent.

2. Why are there so few women in Linux?

Women stay out of Linux for many of the same reasons they stay out of computing in general, plus a few reasons specific to Linux. Many excellent books and research papers have investigated this topic in depth, but we can only summarize the top reasons why women avoid computing as a whole. We'll also debunk some common theories about why women stay out of computing in general.

Three good overall resources for the topic of women in computing are:

"Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing" by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher

Women in Computing Keyword List

(Some of the papers referred to by this list are available online, but not all.)

"Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists" by Dr. Ellen Spertus

Let's start by examining two of the most common explanations for why there are so few women in computing: "Women just aren't interested in computers," and "Women aren't as smart as men." The problem with the statement, "Women just aren't interested in computers," is that it doesn't actually say anything. It's equivalent to answering the question, "Why is the sky blue?" with "The sky just is blue." The implicit argument here is that women are genetically predetermined from conception to not be interested in computers. Very few people are willing to say exactly that in so many words, but that is the message behind the "just aren't" theory. If you are unwilling to accept that women's lack of interest in computing is genetically predetermined (and I hope you aren't willing to accept it), you need to start exploring what environmental causes are involved.

A more explicit version of this theory is that "Women aren't as smart as men," or any of the usual corollaries--women aren't as good at some skill as men are, usually mathematics, spatial reasoning, or logic. Newsweek regularly trumpets studies finding gender-related mental differences while ignoring the (far more common) studies which find no difference at all. Frequently, other researchers are unable to duplicate the results or find flaws in the original researchers' methods, but those stories tend to get much less press. These studies also make no attempt to control for differences in the upbringing of men and women. For example, studies frequently show that women have better developed linguistic capability in some way. This is taken as proof, at least by the press, that women are genetically predisposed to be more verbal than men. But at the same time, studies also show that young women are rewarded more than young men for verbalization. The sheer existence of physical differences between male and female brains (an idea still in dispute) is not in and of itself proof that men and women are born with differences in mental capacity. We still need to separate out what differences are caused by genetics, and which are caused by the environment. As a result, if you ask the experts, the only consensus on gender-related mental differences is that there is no consensus. This is an area of ongoing research, where results will continue to be hotly debated for decades or centuries. (My personal opinion is that men and women do have some innate, genetically based differences which result in tendencies towards different behaviors, but I won't guess what they are or how strongly they influence behavior. Human beings are extremely adaptable creatures, so I suspect the genetic differences are minor compared to differences in environment.)

Something else to keep in mind is that similar arguments have been made about many other fields when women first began joining them, from medical science to education. For example, women couldn't be doctors because they weren't physically strong enough to set broken bones, would faint at the sight of blood, or didn't have the proper bedside manner. Those arguments were abandoned when women turned out to be just as good doctors and teachers as men were. Maybe men will turn out to be better at computer science than women, but history does not support that hypothesis.

A good reference for the general topic of measuring differences between human groups and the motivation behind those measurements is The Mismeasure of Man by Steven Jay Gould. Scientists have been "proving" differences in the brains and bodies of groups of humans for centuries, although in hindsight both their methods and their results were flawed. For example, Stephen Jay Gould reviews the methods of one scientist measuring skull capacity in men and women of different races (and by implication, brain size and intelligence). The scientist originally measured the volume of the skulls by packing them with linseed, which is somewhat compressible, and confirmed his hypothesis that white men tended to have larger skulls. When he later remeasured the volume of the skulls with incompressible lead shot, he discovered that much of the differences in volume between the skulls disappeared. He had been subconsciously stuffing the skulls belonging to white males with more linseed than the skulls belonging to women or non-white men. Keep this story in mind when you read studies claiming to find that some brain structure is a different size in men and women.

Now that we've addressed some common misconceptions about women and computing, let's look at the real reasons why women stay out of Linux and computing. I personally believe that the tendencies and behaviors I'm about to describe are the result of the way most women are raised, in other words, they are the result of gender socialization. I'm not claiming that women are born less confident, or anything else, I'm just observing general tendencies in women and pointing out how Linux culture discourages people with those tendencies. Many of the reasons I'm about to list also apply to other underrepresented groups in computing or science.

2.1. Women are less confident

Women severely underestimate their abilities in many areas, but especially with respect to computers. One study about this topic is Undergraduate Women in Computer Science: Experience, Motivation, and Culture:

For example, while 53% of the male computer science freshman rated themselves as highly prepared for their CS courses, 0% of the female CS freshman rated themselves similarly. But at the end of the year, 6 out the 7 female students interviewed had either an A or B average. Objective ratings (such as grade point averages or quality and speed of programming) don't agree with most women's self-estimation. I personally encountered this phenomenon: Despite plenty of objective evidence to the contrary, including grades, time spent on assignments, and high placement in a programming contest, I still didn't consider myself to be at the top of my class in college. Looking back objectively, it seems clear to me that I was performing as well or better than many of the far more confident men in my class.

2.3. Women are discouraged from an early age

Societal pressure for women to avoid computing begins at an extremely early age. Preschoolers already have conceptions about which jobs are men's jobs, and which jobs are women's. An excellent review of studies documenting gender role socialization from an early age can be found in Dr. Ellen Spertus's excellent "Why are There so Few Female Computer Scientists?" paper:

Once you realize that men and women are treated differently from, practically, birth, it becomes hard to claim that any woman hasn't experienced discrimination. Sure, if you're lucky, no one ever explicitly told you that you couldn't work with computers because you were a girl, but every time you raised your voice, an adult told you to quiet down, while the boy next to you continued to shriek. This is a handicap later on in life, when being loud and insistent is the only way to get your opinion heard--for example, on the linux-kernel mailing list.

The most striking example of a subtle bias against computing for women is that, in the U.S. at least, the family computer is more likely to be kept in a boy's room than in a girl's room. Margolis and Fisher give several telling examples of this trend and its effects on pages 22-24 of Unlocking the Clubhouse.

2.6. Games, classes aimed towards men

We all know that most computer games are written by and for men. They feature non-stop gore and women with unrealistically huge breasts, but hey, if that's the market, what's the problem?

The best way I know how to illustrate the problem with the computer game industry is to tell a story from a article ( ) about the 2001 E3 gaming convention:

"A creative director for a leading development team cheerfully described to me how its Q.A. team made a prostitute sport a game's logo on her body during a combination gonzo video/gangbang session."

This was only one of many similar stories and events at the conference. How can an industry that views company-sponsored gangbangs as somehow appropriate *not* be driving women out of the computing arena in droves?

3. Do's and don't's of encouraging women in Linux

Encouraging women in Linux involves both learning what to do, and learning what to stop doing. We'll present our ideas in "do" and "don't" pairs, since having only a list of things to do or a list of things not to do is not as helpful as having both. Some of these suggestions may seem insultingly obvious to you personally, but for many other people, they aren't obvious. Each of these suggestions is based on multiple real-life encounters with people for whom these ideas weren't obvious. Try not to dismiss any of the ideas--these are real suggestions from real women, the women you presumably want to attract to Linux. Also, most of these suggestions are not gender-specific, and will help to attract all types of people to Linux.

3.7. Don't make sexual advances towards women

Imagine a bar or a pub full of sports fans, fans of a game which you don't know much about or like. Imagine that they're all taller and stronger than you, speak in a language you only halfway understand, and belittle anyone who isn't totally focused on their sport. Now imagine that you walk into this bar, wearing a shirt that says, "I AM NOT A FAN OF ANY SPORT." Just imagine it for a minute. How would you feel? Nervous? Afraid? Different? Out of place?

You begin to have a teeny-tiny idea of what it's like to be the only woman in a large group of men.

Keep that feeling of nervousness in mind when you read the rest of this paragraph. When you immediately make a sexual advance to a woman at a LUG or online, you're making her feel like she's not part of the community, like she's under attack, and like she is risking being ostracized if she turns you down or offends you. Remember, this isn't a friendly one-on-one situation where she feels comfortable turning you down, she's surrounded by the equivalent of the aforementioned huge sports fans. She's trying to fit in and be part of the group, and by hitting on her, you're cutting her out of the herd and isolating her from the group. Women grow up with the constant fear and awareness of being attacked by men, and as silly as it may seem, it colors all her interactions, no matter how safe or mundane they may seem to men.

Like any other human being, a woman wants to have friends and be appreciated for who she is. Every time she gets an email asking her on a date, she is reminded that she isn't viewed as part of the group, but instead as different, an object of desire, and is certainly not being judged on her technical merit alone.

This may be hard to stomach, but you need to not hit on women who show up for Linux events, at least not right away. In all likelihood, you are NOT throwing away your only chance at true love by not coming on to her immediately, but you are throwing away your chance to have a fun new member of the Linux community. And even if you still think you're missing a chance at true love, keep in mind that many women brave enough to show up at a LUG or your local mailing list will frequently make the first move anyway. By hitting on them at the first opportunity, you're scaring them away, and you're also scaring away all the other women who might have become interested if the first woman had stayed.

This goes double for women you meet over email or on IRC. You may think that your "Are you single?" line is hysterically witty and suave, but she's heard it a million times. Even if you're joking, even if you already have a girlfriend or are married--don't do it.

3.16. Do compliment

Women have much lower self-confidence than men on average, and will generally judge themselves far more harshly than any outsider. Compliments help improve her self-confidence, which in turn keeps her interested in the subject. If she believes that she's not good at Linux, she'll probably stop working on Linux.

The following are some guidelines for complimenting anyone:

You almost certainly shouldn't compliment her on her hair, her face, her body, or her sweet temperament. If she's interested in Linux, she is, by definition, a geek, and probably wants to be complimented on her intelligence, abilities, and hard work. Compliment her on installing Linux for the first time, on her customized desktop, on her intelligent and interesting questions during the last meeting. A compliment on anything else is inappropriate and will be seen as a sexual advance (because it almost always is), and will make her feel more uncomfortable and less confident.

4. But I don't do that!

This is perhaps a good time for some introspection. At the LinuxChix BOF at Ottawa Linux Symposium, we finished listing all the reasons why women stayed away from LUGs. A man from the local LUG raised his hand and said that no one at his LUG did any of the things we complained about, but they were still having difficulty attracting women. A woman from the same LUG raised her hand and said, "Yes, they do." She went on to say that only a few "bad apples" were doing these things, but those few were enough to drive off most women. This is a very important point: if your group has nine helpful and polite members, and one rude, sexist, loud member, most women are going to continue to stay away because of that one member. I realize that this isn't fair to the other people in the group, but that's reality. If your group is stuck with one bad apple, try a little peer pressure the next time he does something that will drive off women. Reply to his email, disagree with what he says--establish that you don't share his opinions. Just knowing that there is one other person in the group who is willing to publicly disagree with the "bad apple" will help immensely, and will make women more willing to stay.

In my own experience, I have over and over again heard a man say that he doesn't do any of these things, and then observed him hours or minutes later doing exactly what he claimed he doesn't do. I don't think any of those men were lying, just completely unaware. Making sexist jokes or comments seems to be the most unconscious behavior - many men just don't realize that what they're saying is offensive to women.

Also, it's definitely possible to have good intentions and still drive away women. You may think you're encouraging a woman by congratulating her on being brave enough to show up to an event, but you're actually pointing out to her that she's weird and unusual, rather than making her feel like part of the community. As one woman put it, "I know I'm an alien. You don't need to emphasize it." We're hoping that this HOWTO will help you realize when you are unintentionally driving away women.

If you're curious about how your behavior appears to women, my best suggestion is to find a woman you know who tends to be blunt and outspoken, and ask her if she remembers you saying or doing something offensive to women. You might be surprised at her response. Remember, most women would rather chew off a leg than be rude to a man to his face, so it may be difficult to get an honest answer.

A. LinuxChix

LinuxChix is an active and growing organization run by and for women who are interested in Linux. Founded by Deb Richardson and currently run by Jenn Vesperman, LinuxChix specializes in providing a supportive and friendly environment for all Linux users and developers, but especially for women. LinuxChix is run by an international group of volunteers who believe in the importance of including women in the Linux community. Men may join LinuxChix, but the focus is on women and we attempt to maintain a female-dominated environment. The women involved in LinuxChix include several Linux kernel developers, a Mozilla developer, a member of the GNOME foundation, an O'Reilly author, system administrators, computer consultants, security experts, students from high school to Ph.D. level in many fields, literally hundreds of programmers of various sorts, and many computer hobbyists. If you are a woman interested in Linux, or you know a woman who is, LinuxChix is an excellent place to find a peer group.

LinuxChix has recently added a number of features, web resources, and mailing lists. If you visited it more than a few months ago, you may want to take a second look. New features include Linux kernel hacking lessons, several new mailing lists, online programming courses, book and software reviews, and much much more. Many LinuxChix chapters have started or restarted recently (chapters exist to bring LinuxChix together for face-to-face meetings). The LinuxChix "development process" is open and friendly. We welcome new volunteers and ideas, just subscribe to the mailing lists and offer to help.

You can find out more about LinuxChix at our website: