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.