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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.

3.9. Don't complain about the lack of women in computing

It's useful and constructive to talk about the lack of women in computing when you are approaching it from the viewpoint of the women who are being left out of an exciting and rewarding field. It's sad and pathetic to talk about the lack of women in computing from the viewpoint of a man who blames his lackluster love life on the lack of women in computing. The best way to annoy and drive away women is to talk about the lack of women in computers in this way. Here are some of the more common reactions of a woman listening to a man whine about the lack of women in his field:

  • "What am I, invisible? Does he know I'm here?"

  • "Good to hear that I exist only to serve lonely men."

  • "Pathetic. You're so pathetic."

  • "Then why don't you do something about it instead of complaining?"

  • "Once again, everyone assumes that only men are listening."

  • "Maybe I shouldn't be in this field."

  • "What's wrong with me that I'm here and other women aren't?"

  • "He's so self-centered."

  • "No wonder he doesn't have a girlfriend."

  • "Not only am I in a meat market, I'm the chopped liver."

As you can see, not only does whining about the lack of women make you annoying to women, it also makes the women who are here more likely to leave. In no case does it result in a woman being more likely to date you.

3.14. Do treat women as normal people

As much as you can, act like the women in your group are just normal people, because we are just normal people. Some people complain, "Women want to be treated just like normal people, but then they tell me not to make sexist jokes around them! That's a paradox!" Well, if you define "normal people" as "the men I usually hang out with," then it is a paradox. If you include women in your definition of "normal people," and then treat normal people in a fair and respectful way, then women don't require any special treatment.

If you're still unsure of how to treat women, try the following: Be friendly but not overbearing, be casual, start conversations the way you normally do, move on when the conversation is over. If you spend most of your time around a very specific subset of the male population, you will have to change your behavior to some degree, but this is just as true as if you were talking to a man from a totally different background. If you find that you have to heavily modify your behavior in order to not offend women, you should consider changing your behavior in all circumstances. No one is fooled if you simply stop making sexist jokes when women are around but continue to make them when (you think) women aren't around.

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:

  • Be sincere and truthful. If you really think her program is an ugly piece of garbage, don't tell her that you admire its syntactic beauty. Find something you can honestly admire and compliment that.

  • Be specific. "You're good at Linux," is meaningless, "You always know which distribution to recommend," is specific and therefore meaningful.

  • Be appropriate. Don't compliment a kernel developer on installing Linux. Don't compliment a gimp developer on her use of layers. Be sure that your compliment actually reflects a significant accomplishment rather than demonstrating your ignorance of her level of expertise.

  • Compare to yourself. If she learned bash scripting more quickly than you did, tell her so. Say, "Wow, you learned bash scripting after X months. It took me 2*X months to learn that." Or if she made a silly compilation mistake, tell her about your worst compilation mistake. When she learns that her mistakes are not unusual, she'll feel better.

  • Compliment before you criticize. If you do have a constructive piece of criticism, it's a good idea to start out by telling her what she did right.

  • Compliment and don't criticize. Don't always follow a compliment with a criticism. More often, compliment her and be done with it.

  • Don't brag. Saying, out of the blue, "She can compile her own kernel!" and beaming fondly upon her is not complimentary, it's bragging about her abilities as if you are responsible in some way for her success. Parents are especially prone to bragging. Pointing out her expertise in an unobtrusive and subtle manner is much better - "Oh, well, if you have a question about kernel compilation, she might be able to help you better than I can." When someone points out my capabilities in this manner, it's indescribably wonderful.

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.