Sexism and 2011 Software Freedom Day Manchester

The 17th of September is Software Freedom Day. Some local groups including HacMan, Manchester Free Software and FSFE had stalls / tables at MadLab to engage non-users. I organised a mini OpenStreetMap mapping weekend at MadLab to celebrate it. When going out mapping around Northern Quarter, I was also asked to distribute some flyers for the Software Freedom Day event at MadLab.

It was difficult to do mapping and marketing at the same time, but I made an effort to try to do both (as many things in life). Such multitasking seemed to bring disappointing results only (again, as many things in life – stretching oneself too far is never a good idea). Handing out such kind of advocacy flyers to passers-by on streets is not as easy as handing out those promotional vouchers. One needed to estsablish eye contact with passers-by, and see if they have a minute to listen to you telling them what “free software” is about (because few people actually read, and let alone understand the jargon written on the flyers.

I gave a flyer to a group of three early-twenty men on High Street. Here’s how the conversation went.

Y: Hello. Today we are celebrating Software Freedom Day. [I gave them a flyer.]
A: What’s that?
Y: Have you heard of these software applications – like Mozilla Firefox browser, [me pointing the words on the flyer.] You can download these software applications for free from the Internet, but more importantly, these software give you freedom to re-distribute them. It’s legal for you and your friends to download and use them.
A: You meant it’s illegal? We don’t do illegal things. [He pretended he didn’t understand what I was saying.]
Y: No. I meant it’s legal.
B: Why are you selling software anyway? We only do *Hardware*.
Y: [I’m losing my patient with them.] Right. If you’re not interested, you can give the flyer back.
A: Oh wow, she’s upset. [As usual, men blamed women being emotional / irrational.]
B: How much do they pay you to hand the flyers out?
Y: Right. That’s it. I haven’t got time to waste with you.

So I walked away quickly, feeling humiliated, unsafe, and upset. I thought that I should not have picked these three men (blaming myself, like some rape victims blaming themselves / or being blamed for wearing too little or going out with the wrong men); I should have just talked to those serious looking people; but, why did I only give the flyers to men? why not women?

So, then I made an effort to identify women who did not look too preoccupied by something else on streets. In front of the Co-op supermarket on Church Street, I found a beautiful black lady (perhaps in her twenties) who just finished a phone call. I approached her, handing a flyer to her.

Y: Hello. Today we are celebrating Software Freedom Day. Have you heard of these software applications – like Mozilla Firefox browser,
S: Oh yes. [She was reading the flyer.] I’m a web designer.
Y: Oh great. Would you be so kind to keep this flyer so that at least I gave it to a woman.
S: Of course [she smiled].
Y: Bye.

I could not do more mapping after such dramatic encounters (speaking of failed multi-tasking).

At my return to MadLab, I shared this unpleasant experience with one of my male comrades. And the response I received was:

H: Oh yes – it’ difficult to engage with non-users.
Y: Yes, it is. But since you are a man, you don’t get those kind of sexist jokes from people.
H: Oh. Yeah – I supposed it’s more difficult for you.

It’s sad that still quite a large group of people in society have not evolved over time (mistreating / verbally abused women), but it is even sadder to see these highly literate male free software advocates unable to relate themselves to such situations and the first response from this comrade had said it all. I don’t mean to blame men in free software communities – but I have to say that being unable to relate themselves and provide emotional support in those kind of situations has made them indifferent to the abusers. Women are usually encouraged to do free software advocacy (because few of us can code) – however, it appears to be difficult not only because those unevolved sexist people/views still exist in society, but also the little emotional support we receive from the dominant male peers. Yes – it is hard to reach out to non free software users, but it is even harder (in some cases) for women to do outreaching job for free software given our sex and the current state.

Sexism is still everywhere, and such kind of obsolete thoughts sadly re-produce themselves in free software communities. The obvious and explicit ones are easier to identify and tackle, and it is those implicit, hidden and invisible ones that are the most poisonous. Unfortunately, I feel men who cannot see and cannot hear somehow become one of those abusers.


8 thoughts on “Sexism and 2011 Software Freedom Day Manchester

  1. Sexist tripe. Sorry, but if you pester people on the streets about something they are not interested in, you will get rebuffed. Finding a web designer is of far more significance in getting a positive response than finding a woman. My husband – who is computerate – would possibly have given you a hearing, there again, he detests sexists so might not have liked your approach… if it was as overtly sexist as this blog post is.


  2. I think counselling courses are good to help being able to be more comfortable with emotions. It helped me. There are ones at Manchester college. The intro to counselling concepts is only 10 weeks.


  3. Thanks for getting back to me. When writing this blog entry, my intention was not to seek for empathy or sympathy. So, it’s fascinating to read these responses.

    As a confident career woman who is used to present ideas in public, I don’t think I was that innocent when handing out flyers on streets. I knew what I was doing when talking to strangers on streets, and I certainly would not *pester* anyone who looked busy or unengaged. So, sorry Megan – I think you have misread the point I tried to get across here. And no – I do not need counselling in order to move on with my life (sorry for not taking your suggestion, m3shrom). And in fact, I consider myself lucky enough to be at such a position so that I can make sense of what was/is happening. Had this happened to a talented and enthusiastic woman who was new to advocacy etc., I couldn’t imagine how frustrating this was going to be to her.

    One may argue that what I described here was a statistically insignificant incident and I just over-reacted or over-analysed the situation. The point I tried to make here is about the visible and invisible forms of sexism in our everyday life – not only are the visible ones harmful and hurtful, the invisible ones are equally damaging (or perhaps more so because it’s more difficult for us to identify, pin them down unless you actually experienced them).

    I received some responses offline and I appreciate all the support that people sent. But in retrospective term, when blogging about this experience, I was hoping that by telling this real story, people might provide some constructive comments, for example, answers / solutiosn to the question about how members of free software communities can support each other when we encounter such discomfort when doing advocacy. At the moment, I thought that perhaps some scenarios planning (training) before going out doing promotions / advocacy might help?

    Thoughts, folks?


  4. Sorry to hear about the negative reactions to your promoting SFD, and to the problems that caused you. I know what it is like when you’re trying to do something positive without really expecting problems and get sexist reactions – a 1st year student asked me last year whether that ‘Women in Science & Technology’ event I was promoting was a ‘lesbian meeting where girls make out’. Needless to say I was gobsmacked.

    While this is something we can’t really control, except for just not doing these things, I think the way the other people (guys…) on the team react can be changed in fact. I believe they simply don’t *get* the issue as they are not aware of how privileged they are. This discussion has been going on for a while (search ‘understand your privilege’), originally focusing on racism and the white privilege (starting with an essay from Peggy McIntosh “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, 1990).

    This page lists a few ‘male privileges’ (with some sources and corrections in the ‘More’ links):
    such as
    5. I am far less likely to face sexual harassment at work than my female co-workers are.
    35. The decision to hire me will not be based on assumptions about whether or not I might choose to have a family sometime soon.
    I don’t know if the higher pay (15% more than women) is mentioned anywhere there, but I’ll throw it in for good measure.

    This I think is an issue that needs discussing at some point – Barcamps, handouts, blog posts or events at MadLab might be the right forum – I’ll be in touch with you 🙂

    As for the comments above, I’m disappointed to see such little support. Telling Yuwei to attend counselling courses, which is obviously meant as a ‘joke’, is just massively rude and offensive.

    Megan, as someone who has attended Girl Geeks events, I was hoping for some more understanding of the situation. I have been verbally abused while promoting our events (which many won’t be interested in at all) and I would be very upset if the attendees of our workshops just shrugged it off if I told them – or worse even, accused me in a very harsh way of causing the problem myself. I also don’t quite get why you think the attempt to hand out flyers to women is sexist – as Yuwei writes, she realised at some point that she was only handing out flyers to guys and then, after that was unsuccessful and she had been attacked for it – tried to approach women instead, hoping to have more success. All that while *volunteering* for a not-for-profit organisation that was promoting software freedom, which, while certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, is for a good cause, unlike the masses of club promoters with their ‘booze for 50p’ flyers.

    I suppose it’s hard to understand if it has never happened to you before, but being abused in public while working for something you think is *right* and *good* and that you’re passionate about can be very upsetting. The only way to deal with this kind of situation is being understanding and show solidarity, rather than blaming each other.


  5. I think these sorts of tales and discussions need to happen in person. It’s too easy for things to be missed and misconstrued online. I mean this from both Yuwei’s and Megan’s posts.

    I hope some of you are coming along to barcamp blackpool. It’d be interested for us to discuss it and as the organiser I’d love us to have a huge female contingent! ( :


  6. Hi

    Ladies I am showing my age! As a baby boomer who wanted a techie career rather than marriage and children I experienced major sexism long before anyone (especially me) realized what it was! I was green ignorant when I passed aptitude tests and found the main topic of the interview was if and when was I getting married! It just did not occur to me that my statement that I was not planning to marry was not believed and that that was the reason why I failed to get the job!

    I did get there by taking a great leap in the dark, moving 250 miles away from my home to an area where there was a shortage of either gender.

    Now 40 years later, a pensioner with neither husband nor children I have no regrets – I loved being a techie. I would have liked equal pay and opportunities but did not have the support to fight for it. Each time the pressure from the glass ceiling became too much to bare and there was no sign of any change, I moved on again. I did not have the power to break through but others of my generation did and you are actually benefiting from some of it although it is not fully working – just aim to get the job finished!


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