sexuality and sexism

Greetings, dear readers. Today's article is not about compilers, but about the people that write and run them. Like me, and like you.

I write a lot about programming here because it's interesting to me and it makes me happy, but that's not the extent of my desires as a human. Among all the things, and perhaps even foremost among them, is the desire to live in a more beautiful world: a world of making and sharing, of nature abloom, and of people too: a world, in short, full of life.

Part of that life is sexual, and how wonderfully, playfully, rightfully so. But the world as a whole would be better if we kept sexuality out of programming and other male-dominated pursuits.

The reason for this is that sexuality (for example, in the form of sexual jokes) among a group of men creates a kind of "boy's club" atmosphere in which people that aren't in the straight male majority feel uncomfortable. A "boy's club" has a virtual "no girls or queers allowed" sign on it. It's just not a comfortable place to be, for non-club-members.

Of course, sometimes being uncomfortable is good. But being uncomfortable because of your gender is not one of those cases. And even, it must be said, sometime it goes beyond discomfort to danger -- conferences that women do not attend for fear of groping; things that women cannot say for fear of rape threats. There is no hyperbole here. It is an astonishing, indignation-provoking injustice.

How did it get this bad?

As usual, through small steps. One of the first is widespread toleration of unrelated sexuality in male-dominated fields: boy's clubs. So I think that we all -- and especially men, and especially people with respect within a community -- should actively discourage any of these factors that lead to "boy's clubs". A joke that "I'd fork that project" is not OK. It would be fine if it were just a lame joke; but it's not fine because it's part of this whole "boy's club" thing.

Incidentally, there is a name for the structural tendency to favor one gender over another in a group that isn't "boy's club", and it is "sexism". Sometimes people dismiss sexism in programming because, you know, "show me the code", but this misses the broader picture. I personally have profited immensely from the personal connections I have made at the many conferences that I have attended. I've even put up with some "boy's club" jokes on the same level as "fork-that-repo". I think a woman would find it more difficult to make some of these connections, and so would not end up producing the patches I do.

So, friends, if you are with me in recognizing this structural injustice called sexism, a stain upon our community of compiler hackers and users, I think this is an occasion in which imperative programming is acceptable and even appropriate. Learn to recognize "boy's clubs" and work constructively against them. Sex and tech is usually a bad idea, so point this out when you see it -- especially if you are a man -- and support others who do the same.

24 responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    I agree that sex is sex and tech is tech. I agree that there should be a policy of non discrimination and I totally agree that sexism is bad. I think everyone agrees that the optimal solution is having everyone's mind and will on the same page by not doing sexist things, but how do we get there? And are we sure we can define what is sexist and what is not sexist? I know many women who would just laugh at a "fork-that-repo" joke and in fact I know some women who actually use that joke. Is the joke being sexist, then? Is the joke teller being insensitive? Is the joke teller trying to hurt anyone? Of course not. Can someone be offended by it? Sure, and he or she has the right to complain. Can the joke teller do something about it? Of course, he can refrain from telling the joke or apologize.

    But please, pretty please, with sugar on top, do NOT claim that a fork-that-repo joke represents a whole world of discrimination and that it is the sole reason why women are not that much into tech. That is being completely deceptive, and, to be frank, I find it offensive.

    TL;DR: Adria Richard's behavior was completely unacceptable.

  2. wingo says:

    Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. I would in turn ask you to write carefully, and not to misconstrue what I said.

    In particular, I did not say that a joke represents a world of discrimination. In this specific case, the question would be: is it a sexual joke? Yes; distantly, but yes. Note that I don't think that the people making the joke were malicious at all, and that the aftermath was horrible for all involved.

    The aftermath of the Richards incident was, however, particularly horrible towards her -- and it does prove the point of sexism.

    I don't know if I agree with what Richards did, but that doesn't matter much to me -- it pales in importance compared to the reaction (to her, principally, though also to the folks making the joke).

    Finally, though I disagree with you, thank you for being respectful (if a bit hyperbolic :). I do delete all manner of comments here, just so everyone knows.

  3. Andy Wingo says:

    I guess I should clarify that I do agree with Richard's complaint -- as did the PyCon organizers, as well as the folks that made the joke. In a way this whole article is an explanation of why that complaint is valid. You can disagree about the form -- I don't, but that is not my point.

  4. wonder says:

    Hi Andy,

    I have being involved in several free software projects and communities. I am a gay man, so I think I have a non-straight male perspective. I can tell you that I have had this feeling of being in a "boy's club" while playing on my soccer team or the university, but never in a free software community/conference.

    I think free software communities, as male-predominant cultures, are much more tolerant with diversity than other communities.

    My personal opinion is that we are all overreacting with this issue.

    Anyway, thanks for your concerns.


  5. monitor says:

    Hello Andy,

    you're correct, people in general should behave in such a way, as not no insult other people around them. Especially sexuality is a topic, that should really be a private thing, and should be treated as such, and not discussed publicly, so that it can embarrass other people, or make them feel uncomfortable.

    But, related to the event, that triggered this all, I found the following pieces of information important:

    1.As written here:
    It is not the first PUBLIC incident with that lady in question.

    But I agree, that the real problem was that she found herself in such unpleasant situation.(due to the conversation between those guys)

    "The developer in question didn’t win. He posted a very classy apology very early in this situation":
    where, apart from the apology, he notes this:

    "my friends and I had decided forking someone's repo is a new form of flattery (the highest form being implementation) and we were excited about one of the presenters projects; a friend said "I would fork that guys repo""

    So that "f-word" had really nothing "sexual" about it.

    2. That lady had even before, posted on her Twitter quite similar types of comments. So her actions might be considered a little bit hypocritical.

    3. Apart from the firings, the lady in question has been also a victim of verbal abuse, and received (electronically) serious threats, which is I think, the worst thing in this whole "affair"... :-(

  6. MrEricsir says:

    Fighting sexism with puritanism is NOT the way to go. In addition, the concept that women are delicate flowers who we must not offend is extremely sexist.

  7. Rowan Lewis says:


    I cannot properly write my thoughts down at the moment, but this post is actually far more offensive than a "fork it" joke ever could be. You don't even have your facts straight.

  8. Taryn Fox says:

    I'm a woman in tech, and I support this message.

    Rowan is correct that it is offensive. I think the people that it is offensive *to* deserve to be offended, however. If they can't deal with the fact that their "harmless" jokes and thoughtless actions are making life hell for others, they deserve to have it shoved in their face until they either get it or shut up and leave. Which, frankly, would be better for all of us.

    I watched the FFXI Seekers of Adoulin livestream a few nights ago, and they called everyone in for a group shot at the end, and as soon as the woman on their team showed her face the catcalls started. This isn't harmless. This scares and silences people. There is no freedom of speech if you can get shouted down, not based on how crappy your arguments are (see also: people like Rowan getting "offended") but just based on who you are, on something you can't control.

    I'm glad people like you are blogging about this stuff, because I frankly couldn't deal with the comments I got about it.

  9. Taryn Fox says:

    Speaking of which, I'm just going to add: Why the hell are the trolls even allowed to be part of GNOME still at all? Why isn't the Foundation taking a strong anti-troll stance? Removing troll journals? Rebuking people who leave troll comments? Why are messages of support sent in private, as though the idea of being free to be your own damn gender without getting crap for it was somehow subversive?

    This isn't the 1950's anymore. This stuff shouldn't be controversial to anyone. The tech world is *behind* when it comes to sexism, and it's the reason so much of the stuff here is derivative. Anyone with different ideas gets booed and catcalled as soon as they come out on stage. Anyone trying to educate people about it gets crap in their comments section.

  10. Martin says:

    Andy, I really appreciate your take. Thank you for writing this.

    Those who do not understand the unintended consequences of sexualized environments should at least read the introduction at Geek Feminism: Perhaps some people do not agree with this, but the flip side is that many smart and thoughtful people do in fact agree.

    It's also easy to overlook the sad history of nitpicking and outright attack against minorities who do speak out: This is especially true among people like myself, who have the privilege of never experiencing it. It's quite easy to convince ourselves that we are making original and level-headed critiques, while simply continuing a long series of distractions from real and important issues.

    It is difficult for me to consider head-shaking disapproval of "name and shame" tactics and breathless analysis of edgy twitter posts as something independent of this pattern. The way it reads to me, people might as well be using the words "uppity," "shrill," or "emotional." Perhaps it is a skillfully-spiced stew, but the meat is rotten.

  11. Jeremy Newton says:

    Nicely written, thanks for standing up for many female programmers out there :)

    PS: Ryan is one of many ass holes who provoke this nonsense

  12. Elvis Pfutzenreuter says:

    I think this is an instantiation of nerd perfectionism. (Which is a good trait that we nerds have, to a certain extent.) I don't feel like whipping myself because "computing is sexist" etc.

    Computing is one of the most "relaxed" areas regarding sexism. It is not perfect, but it is certainly where bigotry and sexism is frowned upon, different religious and political views are respected and debated in "high level" etc.

  13. Grant Rettke says:

    People ought to be able to attend conferences at-ease, in that there is not a sexualized-environment and for that matter, any social situation.

  14. jao says:

    - Doctor, it hurts when i say "i'd fork that repo"
    - Then don't say it!

  15. Anonymous says:

    Taryn Fox, the big problem is drawing the troll line. In the PyCon case, was the fork-joker-man a troll? Was Adria Richards a troll? These are very simple questions with very complex answers.

    I agree 100% with your/our fight against discrimination, but I'm not at all convinced about the puritan flag that people have been waving. I see it as too much focus on rules and punishment, with little margin for debate, free speech and harmonization. I too have been a victim of discrimination and sexism in the past and I know that it is hard, but the difference was that, in my case, the perpetrators were doing it on purpose, which is completely different from what I'm seeing in the FLOSS world.

    Please understand that playful jokers are not trying to hurt anyone. They need to be educated, but this will not happen overnight, no matter what you do. Don't act as if it can.

  16. Jonathan Carter says:

    Please excuse my ignorance, but how else are you supposed to say "I'd fork that repo"?

    It seems like a completely innocent thing to say to me.

  17. Andy Wingo says:

    Good morning.

    I think Elvis's comment is a good starting point to disagree with ;-) I really don't think this is a case of perfectionism: rather, its opposite. In an ideal world we would be discussing how to remove boundaries between different parts of our lives, sexuality among them. (For that reason I would also like to disagree with the accusations of "puritanism" that Anonymous and MrEricsir brought up.) We don't live in that world yet. Keeping sexuality out of tech is more pragmatic than perfectionist (if indeed this distinction is the right one).

    I think Anonymous does well to bring up the point of intention, though again I disagree ;) Intentions matter, but the expected outcomes of what we do matter more. In the case of the PyCon incident I doubt the folks making the jokes were malicious or had any bad intentions. (It's possible but not germane to this argument.) But that's not the point. Sexual jokes are inappropriate because of the effects they have in aggregate -- boy's clubs.

    As a reminder, I don't moderate comments but I do delete them. I'll probably turn off comments here tomorrow evening.

  18. Jonathan Carter says:

    @Andy as for the "jokes", the forking repo comment wasn't even intended as a joke, but a compliment to someone's work:

    (maybe a slightly humorous way of doing it, but still not meant as a joke per se)

    I still don't see what's offensive about it. It's only the people who have complained who have sexualised it (regarding the forking part, at least).

    What am I missing here? I'm not American so perhaps 'forking' or 'fork' has an additional meaning there that the rest of the world doesn't understand? Could you explain what is offensive, or at the very least, sexual about it?

  19. Andy Wingo says:

    Jonathan: I think this article sums it up well. It sounds super-silly if you read it on the tubes, but if you can hear it in your mind with a kind of leer, then I think it becomes clear.

    I agree with wonder that the whole thing is an over-reaction -- and of course the nature of the over-reaction says terrible things about our community. But I do think that pointing out the jokes as "not cool" (in Richards' words) was appropriate.

  20. Jonathan Carter says:

    What are the meanings? “I’d fork that repo” Tech: Complimenting a software engineer over the uncanny ability to create new software/programs using other software/program’s code. In a sexual harassment tone: “I’d fuck that pussy.”

    How in the world do they get to that!? It doesn't make any sense!

  21. calvaris says:

    The first thing I have to say is that Andy is male and for that he doesn't have the typical answers like "Shut up f.cking b.tch" but we might still get them for Taryn. What can also happen is that Andy has already deleted them, but he can confirm it.

    To the first Anonymous I must say that of course you can know when a joke is sexist because when you say it you know the intention you have. If you have that intention just don't say it. It's clear that "I'd fork that repo" followed by something like "if I had time because I don't agree on their tech reasons to keep doing things like this" is completely harmless and if something answers to that joke sexually then the problem is in the other, but this is not the case. This is also valid for the second anonymous and for Jonathan.

    Wonder mentions that SW communities are better than soccer teams regarding sexual jokes but something better other thing doesn't mean than the first is good or that we have to stop doing things better, don't you agree? I think always pursuing excelence is something great. This answer is also valid for Elvis, I think.

    Monitor says that it's not her first incident. If she has done mistakes in the past doesn't matter to say that the behavior of these guys is wrong so please don't use this argument anymore. I can even tell you that I agree the way she behaved, I really think she was brave and I think it's the way to go. We can argue if the punishment was too hard or not but that's another topic.

    MrEricsir says that puritanism is not the way to go. This is not puritanism, it's respect. It's wrong the same way that doing jokes about other races or whatever. If somebody can get offended, just don't do it.

    For Rowan: "I don't dignify that comment with an answer". Yes, a bit of paradox, I know.

  22. Andy Wingo says:

    Another reminder that people are free to be nasty, but on their own web sites :)

  23. Stevie says:

    Hey Andy,
    Thank you for posting this. As a gay male I havn't felt hugely affected, though my life outside of the internet I am surrounded by a queer community.

    I know that for the majority of "Men who have sex with men" that this isn't true. It's well identified that isolation caused in environments like this is one of the identified factors as to why so many queer identifying people face anxiety and depression where there is no other reason for it to exist.

    Having been apart of the GNOME community before being apart of the queer one, I want to say thank you. It sucks being alone when you are surrounded by people who should feel similar.

  24. Andy Wingo says:

    Closing comments, as I'm going away for the weekend. Thanks to all for stopping by.

    For the record, I deleted around three or four comments -- things that really didn't add to the discussion. Sometimes it's a tough call but I don't like to waste a lot of energy on it.

    The only reason I even mention it is that Calvaris seems to imply that the internet is full of trolling and misogynism -- and it is of course, but also of positive, thoughtful comments, and sometimes even from the same people :)

    Happy hacking to all :)

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