Reacting to sexism

Earlier today on #drupal (the main Drupal IRC channel for those that don't know) a conversation erupted about sexism. It was precipitated by a statement from one person to another in the channel and it did get talked out and basically resolved. Generally I have to say that Drupal has what I find to be a surprisingly low occurrence of sexism, especially for the tech world, so this isn't a "sexism is rampant in Drupal" post. Not at all. This is more of a "some thoughts about handling sexism" post.

The topic of sexism is a sensitive subject and can get rather heated. It is an ever-present phenomenon that is definitely acute in the tech world and Open Source is not immune. I personally find it exhausting to talk about and, frankly, I sort of resent having to have the conversation over and over and spending energy parsing it. So I'm writing this post, not because I enjoy the topic, but because I do feel that this is an important thing for people to consider in a community and particularly in Drupal since I consider Drupal my family in many ways. I don't want to actually dive into "what is sexism", I just want to put out my personal frustrations when talking about sexism. I don't mean to start a long, winding issue on this (famous last words.) I simply want to write this out as one perspective for folks to consider when they are in this situation.

The classic way that sexism rears its head in the community channels is when someone says something that is offensive or could be taken as a sexist statement. Now, if it is really just blatantly sexist and offensive, odds are that the community (or at least some individual(s)) will call the person out and reprimand them in some way. The other scenario is that a guy will say something that he may not "intend" to be offensive or was "just joking." This is where things can go very, very wrong depending on the reaction.

One of the most frustrating things about reactions is when someone says something to call it out and men in the channel come to the defense of the original person (or the behavior in general) by pointing out that they didn't mean it that way or that "that's what guys do." It is all the more annoying when these guys (and nice, well-meaning guys sometimes) distance themselves from their statements by saying "I'm not like that, but some guys are" and yet, they still end up either outright defending or playing Devil's advocate rather than trying to help the situation. The reasons this is infuriating is because 1) people are missing the crux of the problem and 2) it belittles the original objection. It adds insult to injury.

I don't want to devolve into the way men are or what social norms they have been exposed to. I also understand that men may not "realize" what they say or how they say it may be taken as offensive. But if someone points out that it is offensive, then that needs to be looked at and acknowledged, not only by the person who said it by but others in the community as well. Intention or reason is not the focus. Sexism is harmful whether someone meant it to be or not and that is what needs to be addressed. Excusing sexist behavior will not help it go away but acknowledging it and being more aware of it in our interactions with others will minimize it and that is a good thing for everyone involved.

The Drupal community has all kinds of social norms and ways of interacting. I mean for goodness' sake the crux of the Open Source community is this little thing called karma. I'm not saying that everyone will suddenly decide this is important and the sexism will just stop. We won't stop sexism. But we can be more aware and better attuned to its impact. We can react in a much more constructive and positive way. Honestly, in particular, we need men to not leave women hanging out on a limb by themselves.

So I guess all I am asking is that if you see sexism happening, speak up, and if you see someone else speaking up, pause to consider the impact before you rush to write it off or excuse it. It is easy for these conversations to quickly blow up but if everyone can keep communication open and discuss what happened and the impact it has had, we can all learn a lot.


"some guys are like that." and the inevitable add of "I'm not of course" really is code for "I thought that was funny and now feel guilty" or "I didn't get caught and I almost added a joke".

There is no excuse or defense for cruelty. The very casualness of this cruelty is objectionable. For those that don't think it is cruel, consider, words can and do cause pain and anger. They can cause people to think less of you and you to diminish yourself and others. They drive people away. Our community of skilled contributors is diverse and I'd not like to see it lessoned by the lose of good people.

I am happy that it is in my observation a rare occurrence in the community. It is unfortunate that these things happen. For those who wave the 'political correctness' flag, well perhaps they think that cruelty is politically en vogue these days.

Steven Peck

Drupal is a community of professional web developers and designers. If someone finds it humorous to put other people down, perhaps they need to find a different community.

1) This post is offensive and sexist to men

2) Stop playing thought police

I was not present for the supposed incident in #Drupal, so I do not know the context here and cannot speak to this case, only in general terms.

However, I feel compelled to point out that there is a huge gulf between moderately sex/gender-related commentary (which, in my experience, is made by both men and women alike about the opposite gender and in the grand scheme of things usually falls under the "friendly banter" category) and actual harassment, and between harassment and what Steven is terming "cruelty".

Where does friendly banter become harassment and when does harassment become cruel? There is no strict definition, and that's part of the problem. It's very easy to ascribe malice where there is none, and very easy to be overly sensitive about a comment intended as friendly banter, especially if it's overheard and not directed at the "injured party". Where is the line between accepting too much and being overly sensitive? There is no strict definition, and that is part of the problem, too.

Sure, some people (men and women) can be cruel toward the opposite gender. I am not in any way defending that. People (men and women) can also harass others inappropriately. I am not defending that, either. I am saying that we should be mindful that in ostracizing cruelty we do not also over-reach and ostracize friendly banter. That's just as offensive, in my mind, as allowing "cruelty" to continue.

No one, of either gender, should have to walk on egg shells. There has to be a middle-ground somewhere. Let us not over-react to sexism, either.

It took a lot of courage to bring this up, knowing the kind of replies it would inevitably produce. It's good to see that the majority of posters here have been civil.

In terms of, "How far does it go?", the line is pretty clear: If someone tells you that something you just said offended them, then there is only one correct response:

"Hey, I'm really sorry. I won't do it again."

The following, by contrast, are incorrect responses:

* "I meant it as a compliment."
* "Oh, don't worry. It was just a joke."
* "You're too sensitive. Lighten up."
* "Oh yeah? Well YOU offended ME!"
* "You were asking for it."
* "Geez, will you shut up?! Whatever."
* "That's just how men are. Deal with it."

Oh, and let's not forget:

"Stop playing thought police."


Unfortunately, most people get this wrong (both women and men are capable of this, btw), and that's a large part of why the open source community is not as diverse as it otherwise could be. This isn't just about sexism, either, but also racism, homophobia, etc.

When someone gets put down, regardless of the other person's intention, and says, "Hey, you've just crossed the line," and other people start saying the wrong kind of responses, then that indicates a big red flag that says, "Go elsewhere." And we (both as the Drupal community and in the broader sense of open source) lose big when those people go elsewhere. The people who go elsewhere lose big as well; let's face it: open source development (and Drupal in particular) is totally fun/awesome/exciting/rewarding. :) does a really eloquent job of explaining this issue (and how to deal with it properly) as well.

As busy as I am, when a sister who is known as anything but an "offtopic flamer" feels the need to speak out publicly on sexism, as a member of the Drupal community I cannot remain silent.

Especially if she is joined in support by another geek sister who likewise is hardly known to waste words, be off topic, or actually be thinking about anything else than pure geekery hacking!

So I am not aware of exactly what went down on the IRC channel, and neither is it a question of some abstract support in the struggle against sexism, indeed in the struggle against imperialism, the exploitation of man over man, etc.

I just simply wanted to say that even though Drupal is amazing in that it has managed to focus, using the open source business model, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of passion-day programming and documentation talent onto an amazing, maturing and revolutionary product, Drupal is of course subject to all the forces at work in any workplace.

Because, with all due respect to Stallman, etc., the open source and community model cannot wish away, much less solve in and of itself, all the mals of capitalism, since it is part and parcel of a regime based upon the exploitation of man by man. Drupal is part and parcel of a world-wide regime based on the exploitation of man by man. Therefore, all the forces seeking to divide the working class (sexism, racism, bigotry, jingoism, erosion of democratic liberties, identification with the enemy) so that it cannot protect itself and seek the alternatives it historically deserves, are of course at work within the Drupal community, even though the local and highly focused talent and community pride keeps it down to a dull roar.

One beautiful example of the great reservoir of tolerance which exists in the Drupal community: back when Drupal 5 came out last year, there was a great deal of anarchy concerning the TinyMCE module. The maintainer, someone apparently based in Indonesia, who seemed out of communication (no response to emails etc.) had apparently radically changed the functionality (developed by leading Drupal contributors), and the whole community was at the mercy of a seemingly hijacked module, one used a great deal. In the whole discussion, including the natural anger which many must have felt, not once was there an untoward remark. In fact, a leading member of the community reminded everyone that the floods then wreaking havoc in the area should be taken into account and that even though it was an awkward situation, until it was very clear what was happening, no action should be taken (an alternative usable module was brought out for a time as a simple and effective workaround). And the situation eventually righted itself.

As Drupal is part and parcel of world-wide "corporate" capitalism, and subject to all of its contradictions until such a time as they may be resolved, happily for those of us who work for a living; hopefully we members of the Drupal community must see that the inevitable struggle against sexism, racism, colonialism, pro-imperialist bias, etc., however rare in this wonderful community managed by a "doit"-ocracy meritocracy, must be part and parcel of a more general struggle which of course goes way beyond the Drupal community itself.

Because we are living "in interesting times": we are witnessing in our time a tremendous struggle for power, the outcome of which will decide what kind of world we and our children and children's children will be living in.


Victor Kane

Just a general note, a little off topic on purpose as I don't know what happened in the IRC channel and it seems more reasonable to me to write about things I know about.

Open source communities don't end at the border of someone’s country or personal horizon. This is a great thing about them but what I think should be kept in mind is that this includes that no ones personal rules can be rules for the community. Only you can share the same rules which the community has.

For example people in the US seem more concerned about political correctness than we over in Europe (My personal opinion as I have lived around Seattle for a while but not only mine) now lately a German based social network company ( ) started to go for the US market. Soon a couple of Asian Americans felt offended by the logo of the company showing a stereo type Asian. While I think it was the right move of the company to remove their logo as soon as they knew that this logo did offend someone and excusing for offending obviously if you read the reactions in the blogs an forum posts most Germans couldn't see why people were offended and only saw a funny looking guy - their Mister Wong.

Now the point is you can neither tell the they were wrong when they felt offended nor tell the German blogers they are wrong when they wrote in their opinion they never saw the logo in a way that could make someone look bad. You can't as well tell people in other countries of this world that it is ridiculous for a woman to be offended because a men looks her in the eyes. If she feels offended than she is.

Thing is – offending people should be avoided, if it happens people should excuse themselves for offending but in a community you can not expect everyone to share your views on what is offending and should therefore probably be very cautious before judging someone as whatever kind of bad person after rules that apply to you but might not apply to everyone.

Thank you for sharing yout thoughts

After reading this fabulous blog, I ran back to my place to get my favorite link on how people can learn to better handle these types of situation. When I returned, I was scrolling down, reading the (mainly) thoughtful comments (no surprise to me from the Drupal community), and I saw Webchick shared my link! How dare she! Then, I also realized, I am two months late to this party.

I am not easily discouraged by minor details.

The reason I like the piece: How to encourage women in Linux is that I honestly believe most people *want* to do the right thing. When we find ourselves in socially awkward situations, we tend to act awkward, socially. We don't know what to do! Addi - your advice was right on the money. If you are standing there when something inappropriate is said and you sense it might make women uncomfortable, say something!

Section 3, The Do's and dont's of encouraging women in Linux is very helpful. For example, Don't tell sexist jokes. Do protest sexist jokes. Simple enough. Even I can do that!

I have an 18 year old daughter (soon to be 19). As she gets older, I find this topic less exhausting to talk about. We need to show respect for one another. The proportion of women in open source and technology is woefully low and that number is decreasing, not increasing. If some see open discussion on gender issues as reverse discrimination, it is only because they fail to see the bigger picture. And, that is, we need one another. Some believe the declining involvement of women is merely a canary in the coal mine warning of things to come.

It's always good to think on how we treat one another and the impact of those interactions. I will add your resource as another excellent source of thoughts on that discussion.

Amy :)

Increasingly though in movies women make fun of men like laughing over penis sizes discussion etc. I think I'd call someone sexists only if judgments on other areas like work ability got influenced by gender and sexual consideration, in other words putting everything under the shadow of sex and making everything look unimportant so people get offended.

The issue also unfortunately goes the other way. Often people that don't understand what sexism is can go overboard and tend to prevent free speech. The whole topic requires real education.

However, more times than not I do find as a women myself that people tend to *not* stand up when they could. I believe they feel like maybe they should, but something about the situation or their personal life / beliefs prevents them. It's really unfortunate because if people could understand it better and speak up, the effects would be widespread.

It's hard to judge a situation unless you've actually been there yourself, so I won't make any quick calls. It's important to remember that being too touchy about a subject can be just as annoying and bad as the person you're criticizing.

I think when you write an article like this you need to be careful in the manner in which you balance both points of view concerning the subject matter.

I have worked in the workplace for over 25 years now and I can unequivocally say that women have committed more sexist violations and actions towards men than vice versa. By a landslide. Not even close.
However, the times I have seen Men committ sexist offenses it was way over the top and extremely reprehensible.More so than any women I have seen. To the point where I once got in a physical alteration with a young male co worker who touched a female cohort inappropriately.

But case after case and I cannot tell you the number of times where groups of female workers ganged up on a male coworker around the watercooler etc... and said things like "what do you know your just a man" or "just leave the room your a man and what do you know etc..etc..." Laughng about it and acting like its no big deal.

YES, this stuff is sexual harassement. Most women blow it off because society has taught us that its alright to do this and that its actually humorous. You know like the old tv sitcoms where everyone laughs when the Wife hits the husband over the head with the frying pan. And most men will not stand up against a female. Its not manly, I guess. So men are taught from an early age to suck it up and be a man.

But make no mistake these females are bullies and sexist violaters and should be dealt with appropriately and equally to the male arseholes who act inappropriately with their own sexist actions.

Honestly. I think women get away with way too much in these scenarios and I think women themselves need to call each other 'out' in these cases.

We all want to see equality. But there needs to be equality all the way around. Take the bad with good and not just balyhoo for equality just when it benefits ones self.

Sorry, this post is sexist in itself by implying that only men are sexist. Women are as sexist as men, just in different ways. Sexism is irrelevant, it's individual attitudes and actions. You just can't imply that men are sexist and woment aren't as your post clearly does. Some women are sexist and so are some emn, it cuts both ways! I've known many woment to use their sex for their own personal gain in ways that men just wouldn't, this is looked upon as sexist. Personally, I think that stereotypical values as such are outdated and that individual attitudes are more relevant!

Very interesting and insightful post. Enjoyed reading this one as well as the chain of commentaries.

Sexism only exists if you presume that 'we are our sex'. I didn't choose to be female and without knowing my name or gender, reading my words would give you no indication of the sex of the body that I was born into.

Moving to a higher plane over rides any prejudice, including sexism.


Considering that drupal is a blog and open community it's a testament to the opening mindedness of people in general to see so few sexist comments in general. Considering all the repugnant rap that refer to women in base terms, drupal and blogging in general is much cleaner.

I think a lot of people here have good points. I try to reprimand females in my community for putting down men for being men and vice versa, but I can't say that I'm not guilty of making a sexist comment or too to try not to look too defensive of and obedient to males.

Yes, I can say that some females take advantage of the "rule" that men should let them get away with more than males. And yes, I can also say that some men are condescending toward women for the mere reason of them being female. The world hasn't quite reached equality between the sexes, but hopefully this discussion will stimulate some minds as it did mine.

Love that you are getting the boy's club comments, even here. "Women are sexist too" is the most hilarious.

How about people just act professionally to other people? If someone said something rude to anyone, I would be aghast if others defended it. But that's what we have here. It's lame and it's not professional.

Lemme tell you, it's hard for ME to be polite here and not make some jokes about some of the male commenters here or in Drupal in general. The fact that these jokes are not made is a testament to maturity. Let's hope everyone else can jump on the bandwagon.

If you want to make offensive jokes (god knows I do! and I'm struggling as I type this not to snark the Drupal!men) do it at home, at the pub with your buddies, or some place where professionalism is not expected. Be mature and keep them off IRC.

Women can never be too sensitive when it comes to sexist remarks. Sorry, but if anyone is over sensitive it's the men who can't take any criticism of their behavior.