A follow up to Woman in OS

July 30, 2009

I’m not sure that thinking of the lack of woman in Open Source project (or in computing) is usefully thought of as a canary in the coal mine, that is, as an indicator of some more serious (or more general problem).

Let’s put aside the metaphor issues (the point of using a canary is that the death of the canary is comparatively trivial, so it’s a cheap danger detector), I worry that seeing a specific problem as merely an instance of a larger problem short changes both.

Not always, perhaps. Maybe not this time. And sometimes it’s really important (e.g., advancing the cause of white women at the expense of black people is a real trap, historically speaking, as well as advancing leftist or racial causes at the expense of women).

However, I find Eaves’ reaction rather dismissive and thus probably counterproductive. For example:

So Angie matters not just because women are missing out (although this is true, important and urgent). Angie’s talk matters because women are just the canary in the coal mine.

The problem of missing women is important even though they are just the canary in the coal mine.

The problem of missing women would be important even if it wasn’t a matter of social productivity (i.e., the success of OS projects). It would be important as a social justice issue.

(That’s not to say that consequentialist arguments are uninteresting or unimportant, just that they shouldn’t dominate. It might be true that in our current social situation OS projects would overall lose productivity (at least for a while) if they were more inclusive, or the communities less off-putting. That shouldn’t be a determinative argument against inclusiveness!)

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