A group of women trying to change the sexist culture of open source software have been harassed online

A group of women trying to change the sexist culture of open source software have been harassed online

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Open Source Initiative

Open Source Initiative board members. Front row, L-R: Simon Phipps (Board President), Josh Simmons (Board Treasurer), Carol Smith (Board Secretary) Back row, L-R: Italo Vignoli, Faidon Liambotis, Molly de Blanc, Richard Fontana, Patrick Masson, Chris Lamb.

  • Women running for the Open Source Initiative board of directors have been harassed online, they told Business Insider.
  • The Open Source Initiative is best known for approving open source licenses and right now it's under the spotlight as companies shift their software licensing.
  • Open source communities, where programmers voluntarily build freely available software together, has been a famously hostile area of the tech industry towards women and other unrepresented people.
  • These OSI board members and candidates are trying to make open source communities more welcoming to everyone.

When Mariatta Wijaya went to a conference for the popular programming language Python in 2015, it sparked an interest to join the volunteer community of developers that create and maintain the language. Later, after a mentor reached out, she became even more involved in the Python community.

While Wijaya, a platform engineer at Zapier, has had positive experiences in Python, she found that not all open source projects were as welcoming, especially to women. That's one reason why she's running for the board of the Open Source Initiative, an influential organization that promotes and protects open source software communities.

"I really want to see better diversity across the people who contribute to open source," Wijaya told Business Insider. "Not just the users, the creators of open source. I would love to see that diversity improve. I would like to see better representation. I did find it a barrier initially, not seeing more people who look like me in this space, and I felt like an outsider."

Currently, there are three women on the OSI board of directors and a total of nine are running for seats or reelection.


But leading up to the election, Wijaya and other female candidates saw online harassment.

One person posted on Slashdot, a social news website focused on technology, discussing six female candidates in misogynistic language. The poster then labeled each woman with how much of a "threat" they were.

Although this post came from just one anonymous user, and was removed by Slashdot, shortly afterward the OSI started seeing inappropriate comments posted on its website. Each OSI candidate has a Wiki page about their platform, and some people were posting comments targeting their gender, their work or their background.

The OSI elections close Friday, and current board members Molly de Blanc and Patrick Masson said this is the first time they've seen this type of harassment of female OSI board candidates.

They say it seemed to coincide with that Slashdot post while also admitting that harassment in open source projects is not uncommon.


Meanwhile, OSI moderators are working to curtail harassment on the OSI election Wiki and remove vulgar or inappropriate comments.

All of this comes at a time when interest in the work OSI does has skyrocketed.

In the past few months, some open source software based startups have changed the licensing on their software to restrict how businesses can use it and prevent cloud providers from making money off of their free software. The OSI approves whether licenses are open source or not, and it was put under spotlight after the publicly traded database company MongoDB submitted its new license to the OSI for approval.

These licensing changes are controversial, as experts say these licenses go against the definition of open source, and MongoDB has since withdrawn its license from the approval process.

Meanwhile, the OSI has taken a stand to defend the Open Source Definition, the official definition that lists out requirements for what makes software open source, an issue that many software programmers have strong opinions about. It basically defines when software is free to use and share and under what circumstances software is legally protected and must be paid for. The definition has become a hot-button issue in these OSI elections.


All this, de Blanc says, has led to increasing visibility for OSI, making people more aware about what the OSI does.

Read more: An influential group sponsored by the Silicon Valley tech titans warns that efforts are underway to 'undermine the integrity of open source'

"Seeing this type of abuse, being targeted in the context of the OSI, that's new," de Blanc told Business Insider.

Harassment in open source

The gender imbalance in tech is no secret but it's even more intense in the open source software world, where 95% of the people participating in such projects are men, according to GitHub's Open Source Survey.

"I see that the community can still be toxic to underrepresented groups," Wijaya said. "It hasn't been a safe environment. We are easier targets for harassment just because of gender or skin color or where we come from."


Although women were as likely as men to say they're interested in making future code contributions, only 45% of women said they were very likely to do so, compared to 61% of men, GitHub's survey said.

Meanwhile, the survey says, women were more likely to face harassment than men -- 25% of women said they encountered language or content that made them feel unwelcome, and 6% had dealt with unsolicited sexual advances.

2018 MollyandKarenatDebConf_cropped

Screenshot from a DebConf 2018 video captured by Patrick Masson, CC-BY-SA

Molly de Blanc, director on the Open Source Initiative Board, speaks at DebConf 2018.

de Blanc, who is running for re-election, has seen firsthand this type of harassment in open source. Terms like "social justice warriors," "SJW," and "feminists" are also used as insults to target women and underrepresented minorities.

Behaving badly to others online has long been considered a normal practice in many open source communities. Last September, Linus Torvalds, the creator of the popular open source operating system kernel Linux, briefly stepped down after years of verbally abusing programmers who contributed code to the project. He promised to be more civil when he returned.


Today, most open source projects want their communities to behave civilly and many have created or revised their codes of conduct to address online abuse of all types, including those directed at women or other under represented groups.

"When you're using the word feminist as an insult, you're creating spaces where not only people who identify as feminist are not welcome, but people who identify as women aren't welcome," de Blanc said.

Not "surprising at all"

Masson, general manager at the OSI, says that that after trolls arrived to the OSI board Wiki pages, the OSI took immediate action.

"We never know where the harassment will come from," Masson said. "The best we can do is remain vigilant and consistent in how we treat our community. This is really the first year we've had anything like this is. The profile of the organization is increasing, but at the same time, it's a lot of unwanted attention."

Masson says that some controversy is to be expected, but the OSI is determined not to leave its volunteer leaders fend for themselves.


"All these candidates are volunteers who are stepping forward into the public spotlight," Masson said. They have criticism they're going to get just because of the role they're going to take on. I'm very concerned with making sure that we're inviting these people to participate and make sure that they're not being beat up with the generosity of stepping forward."

Other women running for election were less surprised by the harassing comments.

"The software industry and open source software industry in particular has been dealing with issues of bias in the industry," Pamela Chestek, principal of Chestek Legal, told Business Insider. "I don't think this Slashdot thing was surprising at all. I think it's unfortunate that it happened."

The 'anti-harassment team'

de Blanc is active in the Debian project, an open source operating system based on the Linux. In addition to contributing code, she serves on the anti-harassment team, which deals with harassment incidents, and the outreach team, which helps underrepresented people in technology become involved in the open source space and find job opportunities.

Just like Wijaya, she's running for the OSI board to make open source more inviting for underrepresented folks in tech.


She's been vocal about the issue of cyberbullying on her blog. She counts about eight times when she was the target of cyberbullying and online abuse, some of which revolved around gender.

Similarly, Masson says one of ways the OSI's is fostering diversity among its ranks is to reach out to developers outside of North America. It's working on growing its membership in Asia, South America and Africa.


Veronica Hanus

Mariatta Wijaya, platform engineer at Zapier and Python developer

Wijaya believes that mentorship could be a good way to help the underrepresented feel more comfortable participating in open source.

She says that part of the reason for a lack of diversity is because contributing to these projects requires free time outside of work. Women and people of color, who already face pay gaps, may feel like their careers would be better served by spending more time at work than by volunteering on open source projects. Mentorship programs may help them see that their volunteer efforts on open source can enhance their careers, not detract from them.


"The reality is, women and people of color are still getting paid less compared to men," Wijaya said. "That itself makes it more difficult to justify contributing. When we do find time to do that in the open source space, it is easier for us to be a target for harassment and communities aren't always as welcoming."

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