Confronting Sexism in Open Source

Joeri Poesen //

For starters: I am blessed with the attention span of a goldfish. Long blog posts usually make me go “Meh, maybe later. #todo #read”, unless they have a really important subject. Like this one.

So what’s this all about?
A while back, after a heated debate on #drupal, twitter and FB, Liza blogged about the Drupalcon Paris design being sexist – a sentiment shared by a suprising number of men and women. Head over to her blog post for more details.

The reactions
Reactions to the female silhouette ranged from “yeah, sexist now you mention it” to “way out of line” and “disgusting”. We were called sexist, wrong and stupid. The artwork was called childish, appalling and f*cked up.

On the other hand, the design was also praised – one particular woman considered the design a tribute to female beauty.

Discussions went back and forth, and then a single ill-considered comment on Liza’s blog polarized the debate, leading it away from Liza’s original intent – pointing out the sexist nature of a design element.

The sexism (part 1)
What bothered people about Louise was her impossible figure and her implied nakedness. Some found she resembled a prostitute in a dark little room. At the very least she was a useless prop, and a naked one at that – on display for everyone.

Some people also disapproved of us making Druplicon male by adding a mustache.

The original intent: Louise and the design choice
Insprired by Development Seed’s stylish DC design, we decided to set the stage in an early 20th century Paris.

Starting point: a rooftop with painted advertisements – a stereotypical mustached and bespectacled Druplicon in front of a faraway Paris skyline, early in the morning. An early bird twittering away and a Parisian woman getting up in the morning, opening the shutters and taking a breath of fresh air.

The woman had a name – Louise. We introduced her as “our special guest”, because we had some pretty special plans with her: she was meant to become the visitor’s guide on a journey through Parisian history, culture, culinary delights and lovely unknown places in the city.

We figured since so many people were going to go through all the trouble to come to Paris, we’d already let Louise meet them half way.

Unfortunately some interpreted Louise being a “special guest” as her being an outsider and even a companion for the evening. Let us be clear: this is not what we meant, nor did we me mean to insert any other sexual innuendo.

The sexism (part 2)
Here are all the elements that lead to the negative perception:

  • Louise has no personality other than her name and her (very unrealistic) looks

  • Louise does not serve any clear purpose, she does not contribute anything other than arguably looking “hot ‘n’ sexy”

  • A combination of design elements frames Louise in a lewd position, objectifying her even more

  • The very feminine yet but utterly useless Louise is juxtaposed against the very masculine Druplicon – star of the show. This further contributes to the weaker image of the former and the stronger one of the latter

Whether or not the image of Louise is sexist in nature is an interesting question, but one that fits into a much larger debate on the topic of sexism in the IT industry, Open Source world or even in the Drupal Community itself.

Debating Louise outside of this larger context would be a waste of time and energy, both of which could be better used making the community stronger and ensuring DrupalCon Paris will exceed everyone’s expectations.

I’ll say again: it matters little who wins the Louise argument. What matters is that we didn’t consider one of our design choices carefully enough. The fact that we only had the best intentions doesn’t change the fact that we offended a fair number of both men and women.

I personally learned that there’s no hiding behind “we didn’t intend to” – often times sexism isn’t intended, but that doesn’t make it less real. Cultural differences go a way into explaining why at first we didn’t think this was such a big deal, but they don’t justify ignoring the issue altogether.

So that brings us to…

Losing Louise
We took everyone’s advice, comments, raves and rants into consideration and spent hours talking to a dozen people across continents including Liza Kindred and Angie Byron (who, might I add, are two of the awesomesest people I know).

Louise is a key element of what we plan to do with the site, so we decided against simply removing her from the design, as we were pressured to do from many sides.

We followed John Albin’s excellent suggestion: get rid of the innuendo by bringing context to Louise. Make her real.

So we gave Louise a strong personality and make her an inspiring member of our tech community. Head over to the DrupalCon Paris site and meet Louise Deux-point-zéro.

Right under the roof of her building she hardly has any interference at all, so that’s where you’re most likely to find her, tweaking her galena crystal radio determined to make widespread wireless communication reality.

Like I said, there’s more to come. Louise has quite a bit in store for everyone who’s coming to the conference.

So that’s that? Case closed? But we haz a diskushon to finish.
Right. Liza pointed out the big white elephant in the room. Nobody talks about it but it’s still ruining your rug and making a godawful mess in the fish bowl. So what about that?

This issue has obviously stirred some very strong feelings about the latent sexism that is present in the larger open source and technology worlds.

We would love to see these feelings harnessed and focused into an unstoppable force for confronting this larger issue. Several people inside and outside the Drupal community have already expressed interest in helping to shape this debate, carry it forward and build it up towards a series of talks at DrupalCon Paris.

We’re still brainstorming on how best to do this, and welcome your ideas on how to carry on a constructive conversation.

If you send us half the energy you showed the last few days, we’ll be unstoppable. #worlddomination.


A note of thanks, once more:
To @LizaK and @webchick.
To many of you who offered insights and tried to help instead of hurt.
To the DrupalCon Paris team. In particular to @malvese, who designed the site: I