Women developing FLOSS - freedom for knowlege free from prejudice

Sulamita Garcia is responsible for the LinuxChix Brasil project – one of the most successful regional chapters of LinuxChix International. She is the mantainer of a how-to in Linux, in Portuguese.

Graciela Selaimen - How is LinuxChix Brasil working to encourage more women to work in the technological field, especially using FLOSS?

Sulamita Garcia - LinuxChix started as a space for women who worked as techies to come together and get support. Generally when these women joined us they felt happy and surprised that there was a group of women discussing technology and that they were not alone. Many times, in other spaces dominated by men, they felt oppressed by discriminatory behaviors, jokes and lack of opportunity to express their opinions and knowledge. This is definitely very discouraging.

In many male dominated spaces, the prevailing belief is that “if women are not participating, it's because they don’t want to, are not interested or are not able to intervene, since the community is open for all”. In LinuxChix, we made the commitment to debate the reasons behind such small participation of women in the technological field - especially working with Linux - and we started to reflect on what could be done to change this scenario, so that the next generations don’t need to face so many barriers as ours. We produced documents on this issue and also other materials more focused on technical aspects to contribute to the debate of the FLOSS community in Brazil. This led to a chain reaction – where more women met other women’s examples, felt supported and were inspired to deepen their interest in technology development and FLOSS.

Regretfully, after some time, the great majority of the FLOSS community still wasn’t friendly to women, since it works as a meritocracy: you are worth what you contribute. If women weren’t included, it was because they hadn’t contributed enough – so, why should they deserve any recognition?

Of course, there were always women contributing to the community, and LinuxChix was created to give them more space and create a motivating environment to increase women’s contributions. And, as the examples of valuable contributions made by techie women were more and more frequent, most of the women finally felt that they deserved to be part of the FLOSS community – men were making no favor in accept us in it. As the space for women grew – and, consequently, the contributions made by women -, today the Brazilian FLOSS community accepts much better women’s participation and is open to discuss women’s role in it.

Graciela Selaimen - Do you think that FLOSS is an empowerment tool for women? Why?

Sulamita Garcia - Free and open source tools make knowledge free and enhances the development of professional capacities, it imposes no limits to what a technology professional can do. There are researches that prove that 70% of the poor in the world are women, and this is a result of thousands of years of oppression and constraints to women’s education and professional development. Today, women are majority in the universities, however we still don’t have the same opportunities as men to enter the labor market.

Computers are still seen as boy’s toys – even before going to the university many boys are ready to work with technology and develop careers in technical fields. Women, most of the times, need to dedicate much more time to study and professional improvement. In the FLOSS community, what is more important is the exchange of knowledge – through codes, documentation, debates and ideas. It’s like a library, a huge live encyclopedia available. This is very important for women and can be very helpful to their development.

Graciela Selaimen -How does the LinuxChix are positioned in regard to ICT policies? Is there any involvement with other women organizations, or even with other institutions that work towards bridging the digital gap? Do you see any gender perspective in the ICT public policies in Brazil?

Sulamita Garcia - Although many people affirm that our work is political, we don’t face it this way. There are other groups, such as the Gnurias and the PSL-Mulheres that are focused in policies and digital inclusion. What we believe is that, without changing the minds, fighting the prejudice that exists against women in technology, and without overcoming the idea that women aren’t capable of working in this area as well as men does, to include women in technology merely as users would increase the prejudice.

Also, it’s important to stress that we contribute on issues that we understand better – mostly, technical discussions. In one hand, our group has an inclusive character as we support women to develop professionally and find motivation and inspiration to overcome difficulties in their careers and studies. Also, we support women to fight against prejudice and stereotypes, many times expressed through abusive behaviors by men, verbal aggression and psychological aggression. Recently a guy entered several women’s lists and threatened some women - and their relatives. Of course in such cases, when you feel supported and motivated by the group, it’s easier not to feel depressed and discouraged.

Graciela Selaimen - One of the LinuxChix, Vanessa Sabino, is dedicated to a study on women and technology. What is it exactly about?

Sulamita Garcia - It’s about mapping out the women who made valorous contributions in the history of informatics and Linux. Many of these amazing contributions are invisible and this study aims at demonstrating this invisibility and how it misleads the perceptions regarding women’s participation in technological development. For example, Vanessa’s research has found that it was a woman who was responsible for the development of the concept of recursive functions, what was a great advance in the technological field. Also, there is a Brazilian woman among the team of people who contributed to the kernel. This has to be shown and we will gather this information in a website.

Graciela Selaimen - When it comes to training women in FLOSS development, what are the initiatives of LinuxChix Brasil? How the participation of women in courses is – are there more women participating when the training is delivered by a woman?

Sulamita Garcia - For sure. We have no statistics on this, but there are always comments about women being more motivated to enroll a course when they know that the trainer or facilitator is a woman. In the past, many few women would feel encouraged to spend a weekend in a hostile environment and take the risk to be bothered with chauvinistic comments and jokes, coming from classmates and even the instructor. This also happened in events. Last year, during the National LinuxChix Meeting in São Paulo, about 15% of the participants were women. A few weeks ago, in the Slackware Users’ Meeting, in the same venue, I was the only women speaker and there were 15 women among 300 participants.

We foster the organization of professional training whenever there is space for that. In this year’s LinuxChix National Meeting there was a laboratory avaiable, where several training courses were held – in half of them, women were the instructors. We have several other courses being organized, both in face to face meetings and in online environment.

Graciela Selaimen - In your opinion, what are the things and situations that still constrain a more intense presence of women in technical careers – and how can they be overcome?

Sulamita Garcia - The first challenge is to overcome the generalized idea imposed by our male dominated cultures that women are not skilled to computing and technology and that the best they can do is to develop cute interfaces or organize documents. Women are very often not considered when it comes to the development of activities that deserve more recognition and experience in computing. This is a kind of problem that women themselves have to be responsible to overcome. I always say that women have to change behaviors if they want to gain respect and open the doors to more opportunities – such as stop competing among themselves and be more united and work in partnership. Without gathering forces, things are much more difficult for us.

Graciela Selaimen - What kind of advice would you give to women who feel like learning how to develop FOSS ?

Sulamita Garcia - I’d suggest that they take the first step. They can subscribe to a women’s list, to LinuxChix or to other women’s community, and participate, share their knowledge and experiences. I’m sure once this step is taken, they’ll find mates ready to help overcome any difficulty. This is a natural and gradate movement. The more you contribute, the more you receive and improve your skills. This is the principle of exchange upon which the FOSS movement is based. And, last but not least, women shall not be discouraged when facing difficulties: believe me, they have been much worst not much time ago.

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