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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.

1.1. Audience

This document is intended mainly for the male Linux enthusiast who would like to see more women involved in Linux. Its secondary audience is both men and women who have been too busy having fun with Linux and computers to sit down and think about why most women don't share their interests. We hope you'll come away from this HOWTO with some understanding of why women stay away from Linux and with a few ideas about what you can do to reverse that trend.

This HOWTO is not directed towards people who aren't concerned about the lack of women in Linux, or think that women are better off staying away from Linux. If you don't already believe that women are being driven away from Linux and computers by external causes, this HOWTO probably won't convince you otherwise (although it may give you some interesting avenues of research to follow up on).

This HOWTO is definitely not intended to help male Linux geeks find female Linux geeks to date. The central paradox of women and Linux is this: often, the people most anxious for more women in Linux are also the people most likely to accidentally drive them away. Frequently, men who want more women in Linux solely so they have a better chance of finding a girlfriend end up acting in ways that end up driving women away instead! This HOWTO will try to explain which behaviors drive women away from Linux and which behaviors encourage them.

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:

http://lists.slug.org.au/archives/slug-chat/2001/October/msg00286.html

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

http://lists.slug.org.au/archives/slug-chat/2001/October/msg00290.html

http://lists.slug.org.au/archives/slug-chat/2001/October/msg00312.html

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

http://lists.slug.org.au/archives/slug-chat/2001/October/msg00313.html

Hysterically funny and heroic response from another woman:

http://lists.slug.org.au/archives/slug-chat/2001/October/msg00317.html

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

http://lists.slug.org.au/archives/slug-chat/2001/October/msg00319.html

A perfect response from a man who does get it:

http://lists.slug.org.au/archives/slug-chat/2001/October/msg00321.html

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.

1.3. About the author

Val Henson is a Linux kernel developer, an active member of LinuxChix, and female. Her interests include operating systems research, women and computer science, and fine beer. Many other women collaborated with her to produce this HOWTO, including:

  • Raven Alder

  • Suzi Anvin

  • Poppy Casper

  • Claudia "Texchanchan" Crowley

  • Steph Donovan

  • Joy Goodreau

  • Telsa Gwynne

  • Amy Hieter

  • Hanna Linder

  • Anna McDonald

  • Marcia Barret Nice

  • Miriam Rainsford

  • Carla Schroder

  • Jenn Vesperman

  • Jenny Wu

  • Megan "Piglet" Zurawicz

  • Safari

  • And many others who wish to remain anonymous.