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An insight into wrangles in the Ubuntu community

Ever since FSF chairman Richard Stallman was accused of making sexist remarks at the GNOME summit in Spain last year, the free and open source software community has indulged in much discussion about the proportion of women in the community and the reasons for the same.

If this wasn't reason enough for such discussions, they were fuelled by another incident later in the year, when Mark Shuttleworth, the head of the Ubuntu project, was accused of making similar remarks.

While the statistics cited in such discussions about women's participation are drawn from 2006 — they show that less than 2 percent of the community are women — one cannot escape the fact that the participation rate of women is still abysmally low.

Hence, when one hears of prominent women contributors making noises to indicate that they are unhappy with the way they are being treated in the FOSS community and saying they are reconsidering their involvement, it is a matter worth investigating.

In a recent interview given to the Ubuntu community site, the fridge, Melissa Draper, who by her own admission has been part of the Ubuntu community for the last four years, had this to say:

"There's some odd politics going on and I've been pushed away from a few things within Ubuntu lately. It's a complicated matter and I feel like I'm left holding loose ends. I'm still trying to figure how where I stand with things. At this point, I intend to continue with Ubuntu Women as it's an important part of the community, regardless of what others think."

This was in response to a query as to where she saw herself going with Ubuntu and free software in general. Draper has also been involved with other FOSS groupings such as the Linux Chix and Linux Australia.

If there had been some sordid attempt to try and push Draper out of the Ubuntu community, the group which has congregated around the most widely used GNU/Linux distribution, then it was worth a story. But a little digging came up with something entirely different.


Draper had already given vent to her side of the story as far as the "odd politics" goes. From what she wrote, it appears that she was merely miffed that she had not been given leadership positions in the Ubuntu community after a recent selection process.

The most recent was in the Ubuntu Women group; Draper had this to say about the person who had been selected: "Amber (Graner) is a smart and wonderful person and will try her best and probably do an ok job of it, and we're working on some really cool things together. However, I'm worried about the detriment of latency that a newcomer leading the team will bring about."

Of course, she was not annoyed at being overlooked. No, she only had the greater good of the community in mind.

In response to her blast, Jono Bacon, the Ubuntu community manager, offered his side of the story in the posts that followed. But he, and others who adopted a conciliatory note, were blown away.

In every community, there are people who decide who will be leaders. And when one joins a community, one accepts the leadership group as being the one that will make such decisions.

This goes for the Ubuntu community and Draper was not considered to be leadership material. That is no slur; some people are good at one thing, others are good at another.


But as this simple issue had been hyperflated into something else, I wrote to both Draper and Bacon, asking if they would like to say anything more. Bacon initially wanted to know what form the story would take; when I detailed it to him, he responded:

"This was already discussed at length some time back, and I think Melissa's blog captures everyone's views fairly well. I am also uneasy about offering comment on a story about Melissa without her being part of the conversation: I think that would be inappropriate of me to do so.

"The view I have expressed on her blog was that Melissa participated in two leadership opportunities in our community and other people were ultimately selected as leaders. Both leadership events were conducted in an open and transparent way and our independent Community Council (our primary governance board) acted in good faith and objectively in those cases. Subsequently the leaders that were selected have gone on to do wonderful work in both the Ubuntu Women and IRC Council teams.

"I am not sure how Melissa (sic) views on the leadership process relate to the number of women in Open Source: I am aware of the issues surrounding women in Open Source, but ultimately the Ubuntu Women leadership contest (one of the two that Melissa participated in) selected a leader in Amber Graner, and she has been doing a wonderful job with the team."

I wrote back to inform him that I had also asked Draper for comment. When it arrived, it was in the form of an imperious one-liner: "Do not publish anything about me." It had been copied to Bacon, who then quickly sent me an email saying: "I think that given that both Melissa and I are not interested in participating, you may as well knock the article on the head."

Draper was quick to post an entry on her blog, saying she'd been contacted by a "faux journalist". To this, Bacon appended a comment: "He emailed me too: I told him that what has been said has been said, and I did not feel comfortable participating."

As has been made plain above, Bacon had said plenty.

The lessons from this tale? People in the FOSS community often try to paint their issues with the community or its leaders with a brush that is vastly different from the original. But as usual, the source tells the real story.

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

 

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