Is There A Sexual Harassment Problem In The Open Source Community?

Multiple Incidents Cannot Be Ignored, R-E-S-P-E-C-T

For a long time I have spoken out against sexism in the IT industry. While we bemoan the scarcity of woman in IT, we still manage in many cases to act like caveman when it comes to treating them as equals and peers in technology. For me one of the saddest things are booth babes at trade shows (here, here and here). Whil

Choose Respect
e I appreciate a good looking woman as much as anyone, having scantily clad females (and males for that matter) somehow infer that your technology product or service is good just doesn't add up to me.  But I am not talking today about exploiting women to attract geeks into seats to watch demos. Today I am writing about downright sexual harassment, up to and including the rape of woman at technology in general and open source in particular conferences.  This behavior is just unacceptable and has to stop now!

I first became aware of the issue when Norin Shirley blogged about her experience at ApacheCon in Atlanta in November. Norin who is a pretty prominent person in the Apache community was sexually assaulted by someone at the conference.  She named the person who did it (good for her) but also mentioned this is not the first time that something like this has happened to her at a tech conference. Norin's blog post started a hailstorm of controversy.  While the overwhelming majority of people were horrified by the behavior of her assailant, some in the community trotted out the old standard lines:

  1. Boys will be boys,
  2. Don't ruin a persons life for one mistake,
  3. She was probably asking for it  

Guys, lets stop right there.  Part of being a grown up is knowing NO means NO. As a father of two young boys, I can tell you that I have spoken to them already about when playing with their friends who are girls that when they say no, it means no (though at their age most of the girls can beat the boys up). There is just no excuse for this type of behavior.

Norin's courage is speaking out about her experience, has galvanized other woman in the community to come forward about their experience as well. Valerie Aurora in her blog noted these conferences where sexual harassment and/or assaults have happened to her and her friends:

Ottawa Linux Symposium 2002-2006, Linux Conference Australia 2007-2008, Hackers 2006, Southeast LinuxFest 2010[1], Linux Storage and Filesystems Workshop 2008, OSCON 10[2], FrOSCON 10[2],and now ApacheCon 2010.

In fact she has a timeline of sexual harassment incidents set up at this site. While not all of these incidents involve sexual assault and some are just more sexist behavior, when looked at cumulatively they add up to a sustained disregard and more than that a pattern of sexual harassment.  There is also an excellent report on "dark side of open source conferences" here

This has to stop. This type of behavior does no one any good and the biggest loser is the open source movement itself. We need a strong and vibrant community made up of the best the community has to offer. Scaring away woman by this type of oafish, insensitive, immature behavior is like cutting off your arm and leg.  We can't sit around saying what can we do to have greater female participation in open source and tech in general, while anyone condones this type of behavior.

More than not condoning, open source conferences need to condemn this nonsense now.  Every open source conference should publish a public policy of what will not be tolerated by attendees and what the repercussions will be. Anyone guilty of sexual harassment or abuse should be treated as a pariah by the community.  Only a strong stance with firm action is going to overcome this feeling that woman are the game for "geek hunters" at these conferences. We need a positive campaign to make woman comfortable that they are safe at open source conferences.

As for the guys. Lets face it, the stereotype of the open source geek is that they are overweight and not the most socially adept individuals. But stereotypes are not always correct. Maybe we need some social skills training, sexual sensitivity and tips to be part of the track at these conferences. I am sure it would help. But ignorance is not an excuse. 

Guys if you are attending a tech conference, maybe everyone goes out for beers at night, maybe there are woman there too.  Please remember no means no! That goes for touching, taking improper pictures and even treating woman with less respect than you would a man. The open source community does not have room for anything less.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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