Who should lead us? April 24, 2023 on Drew DeVault's blog

Consider these two people, each captured in the midst of delivering a technical talk.

A picture of a young trans woman in a red dress A picture of a middle-aged white man in a red shirt

Based on appearances alone, what do you think of them?

The person on the left is a woman. She’s also pretty young, one might infer something about her level of experience accordingly. I imagine that she has led a much different life than I have, and may have a much different perspective, worldview, identity, and politics than I. Does she complain about sexism and discrimination in her work? Is she a feminist? Does she lean left or right on the political spectrum?

The person on the right looks like most of the hackers I’ve met. You’ve met someone who looks like this a thousand times. He is a man, white and middle-aged – that suggests a fair bit of experience. He probably doesn’t experience or concern himself with race or gender discrimination in the course of his work. He just focuses on the software. His life experiences probably map relatively well onto my own, and we may share a similar worldview and identity.

Making these assumptions is a part of human nature – it’s a useful shortcut in many situations. But they are assumptions based only on appearances. What are the facts?

The person on the right is Scott Guthrie, Vice President of Cloud and AI at Microsoft, giving a talk about Azure’s cloud services. He lives in an $11M house in Hunts Point, Washington. On the left is Alyssa Rosenzweig, main developer for the free software Panfrost GPU drivers and a trans woman, talking about how she reverse engineers proprietary graphics hardware.

You and I have a lot more in common with Alyssa than with Scott. The phone I have in my pocket right now would not work without her drivers. Alyssa humbles me with her exceptional talent and dedication, and the free software community is indebted to her. If you use ARM devices with free software, you owe something to Alyssa. As recently as February, her Wikipedia page was vandalized by someone who edited “she” and “her” to “he” and “him”.

Appearances should not especially matter when considering the merit of someone considered for a leadership role in our community, be it as a maintainer, thought leader, member of our foundations’ boards, etc. I am myself a white man, and I think I perform well in my leadership roles throughout the free software ecosystem. But it’s not my appearance that causes any controversy: someone with the approximate demographic shape of myself or Guthrie would cause no susurration when taking the stage.

It’s those like Alyssa, who aside from anything else is eminently qualified and well-deserving of her leadership role, who are often the target of ire and discrimination in the community. This is an experience shared by many people whose gender expression, skin color, or other traits differ from the “norm”. They’ve been telling us so for years.

Is it any wonder that our community is predominantly made up of white cisgendered men when anyone else is ostracized? It’s not because we’re predisposed to be better at this kind of work. It’s patently absurd to suppose that hackers whose identities and life experience differ from yours or mine cannot be good participants in and leaders of our movement. In actual fact, diverse teams produce better results. While the labor pool is disproportionately filled with white men, we can find many talented hackers who cannot be described as such. If we choose to be inspired by them, and led by them, we will discover new perspectives on our software, and on our movement and its broader place in the world. They can help us create a safe and inviting space for other talented hackers who identify with them. We will be more effective at our mission of bringing free software to everyone with their help.

Moreover, there are a lot of damned good hackers who don’t look like me, and I would be happy to follow their lead regardless of any other considerations.

The free software ecosystem (and the world at large) is not under threat from some woke agenda – a conspiracy theory which has been fabricated out of whole cloth. The people you fear are just people, much like you and I, and they only want to be treated as such. Asking them to shut up and get in line, to suppress their identity, experiences, and politics, to avoid confronting you with uncomfortable questions about your biases and privileges by way of their existence alone – it’s not right.

Forget the politics and focus on the software? It’s simply not possible. Free software is politics. Treating other people with respect, maturity, and professionalism, and valuing their contributions at any level, including leadership, regardless of their appearance or identity – that’s just part of being a good person. That is apolitical.

Alyssa gave her blessing regarding the use of her image and her example in this post. Thanks!

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