Interview: Elizabeth Krumbach of LinuxChix

As women become more involved with open source communities, it's important that their voices be heard. The dot is beginning a new series of interviews with women who contribute to F/OSS. Our first interviewee is Elizabeth Krumbach, who is the coordinator for the Philadelphia area LinuxChix chapter. Read on to find out how she became involved with computers, why she likes to buy equipment online, and her advice for women contemplating involved in open source communities.

Please introduce yourself.

EK: My name is Elizabeth Krumbach, I've been using Linux since 2002. Currently I
use Debian and Ubuntu on my systems, but have a great deal of experience with
Red Hat and Gentoo. I have worked with Debian-Women
and Ubuntu-Women in
an effort to recruit more women into the F/OSS community. I coordinate the
Philadelphia area Chapter of LinuxChix,
the Montgomery County Linux Users Group and
am a regular attendee at the Philadelphia Area Linux Users
. I also write for O'Reilly's Linux Blog.

When did you first become interested in technology or computers?

EK: I've been interested in computers since the first PC came into our house in
1991; I was 10 years old. This PC was an old IBM 8086 that my uncle took out
of his basement to give us. It was sort of a hobby of mine while I went
through middle school and into high school, I'd save up money to buy computers
to tinker with. But I never really got serious about it (or even considered
computers as a career) until I got online when I was 17.

Did you have any friends or family as role models or mentors at that time?

EK: No. The combination of being a quiet kid and not taking my playing with
computers seriously caused me never to encounter other people who might share
my interests. It didn't matter to me at the time anyway.

Have you ever felt discouraged by others or frustrated by technical
hobbies or interests?

EK: Not directly, but there has been plenty of less direct discouragement along
the way, which I think can be more harmful.

Perhaps my first negative experience I was when I was shopping for the first
new computer I was paying for on my own. The salesmen consistently spoke down
to me, but not to some male I happened to be shopping with, one even tried to
persuade me to buy a less powerful computer because I "really don't need that
much RAM"! I lost track of how many times similar scenarios have happened
since then, I still prefer shopping online almost exclusively for this reason.

The F/OSS community online has been the primary source of discouragement
though. Many of the F/OSS forums out there are male-dominated, and women who
get involved in this world are often not treated equally. It might not be
direct insults or insults at all, but I know many women who have taken to
using gender-neutral pseudonyms in order to dodge snide comments and marriage
proposals that inevitably get directed their way when it's discovered they're
a woman doing something technical.

To be fair, LinuxChix and Women groups within the F/OSS community online have
been the primary source of encouragement. And it really is a small, vocal
minority in most F/OSS communities that make things uncomfortable, I've met
plenty of fantastic people through F/OSS who don't care at all what my gender
is. My fiance is one of these people, he's been fantastic.

"Real Life" F/OSS gatherings can be tough at times too. For example, I don't
like going down to the city alone, so I call up a male friend of mine who will
drive me down to LUG meetings. When I first started going I got the impression
that if I don't speak up during discussion with something smart and techie to
say, or don't actively detach myself from this male friend, it's often assumed
that I'm "just there as a girlfriend." Imagine having to prove yourself each
time you go out to such an event just to get an equal standing with your
fellow geeks: it's tiring.

These examples might seem trivial, but it adds up. I've heard the whole "just
get over it and grow a thicker skin" speech a thousand times, but why would I
spend my free time volunteering in a community where I don't feel comfortable?
I don't feel we should have to change ourselves by "growing a thicker skin" so
we can offer help.

In my case I did end up growing that thicker skin and toughing it out, but I
know several women who gave up on working with computers and F/OSS entirely
because they weren't willing to do this, I can sympathize.

How did you become more involved in F/OSS? How have you contributed
to projects or communities?

EK: It came pretty naturally to me. I started using Linux, I started writing
How-To articles on my own website when I figured new things out, and then one
day I joined the IRC channel for some F/OSS software I was using. In that
channel they were talking about needing some documentation re-written, I
volunteered and made my first official contribution to a F/OSS project.

Since then, I've written documentation for other projects, done some Debian
packaging, done some web development and wiki-based work for projects, and
helped out extensively with IRC-based support for several F/OSS projects.

What is the goal of LinuxChix? What role do you play in the
LinuxChix organization?

EK: The founder of LinuxChix, Deb Richardson, said she founded it for two reasons:

  • She "thought it would be fun."
  • "
    To give women
    who use Linux a comfortable environment in which to discuss
    the OS they love; to create a community that encourages and helps new users;
    to make others realize that the vocal minority does not necessarily represent
    the Linux community in general."

As for the goals, I believe LinuxChix has accomplished both these founding
reasons and now LinuxChix is really what you make it to be. For me, finding
the LinuxChix network of friendly, intelligent, and supportive women who
shared my interests was transformational. I felt quite alone as a woman in
F/OSS before I learned of LinuxChix, and suddenly that wasn't the case
anymore. In addition to friends, I found mentors and people who I could look
up to, and people who had shared experiences of discouragement and frustration
working and volunteering in tech.

Currently I'm the coordinator for the Philadelphia area LinuxChix

What are your goals going forward with LinuxChix and F/OSS?

EK: In my chapter coordinator role for LinuxChix I've found my goals to be
generally more social. It's just fun to get together with women who share my
interests and to encourage other women who are interested in getting into
Linux and/or furthering their knowledge.

As for F/OSS, I've been working with Ubuntu-Women these past few months to get
more women interested in contributing to Ubuntu. I really hope that someday
there won't be any sexism or "boys club" feel to get over in order to get
involved with F/OSS, and that anyone who can offer help with anything will
feel comfortable doing so and feel that their contribution is valued.

Do the
computer hardware and software industries have issues due to
programmers/developers being mostly male while consumers are more gender

EK: I'm not sure I'd go this far. There is a tendency among less developed
software products to have a feel that's more geared toward developers than
users, but I wouldn't say this was a gender problem.

I think some hardware manufacturers target certain things toward young men
though, I remember the first 3D accelerated graphics card I got had a picture
of a hot cartoony/digital woman with green hair on the box, but this is more
of a marketing issue.

What advice do you have for girls interested in technology, computers,

EK: Hang in there, you're not alone.

And always remember that you're doing this because you enjoy it. If you
encounter a community that is too hostile for you to contribute to either
speak up to the proper project authorities or walk away. As much as I want to
see more women contributing, I've found that it's better to admit defeat in
one project than to get burnt out and walk away from all of it. There are
projects out there that will value your contributions.

You might also want to join LinuxChix, we're a great bunch and have always
been very supportive of each other.

What advice do you have for communities such as KDE about female
participation and gender balance?

EK: Reach out to women specifically. I believe that by recruiting more women now
we open ourselves to a future where women coming into these communities will
notice and feel comfortable with becoming involved.

And work to value all contributions to F/OSS equally. There are more women
working with Artwork, Translations and Documentation writing than Programming
and Software Packaging, but often these skills are taken to not be "worth" as
much. Although I don't believe people should contribute to F/OSS to be recognized, it is important to make it clear that work done in all areas of a project is important and valuable. After all, a big hurdle F/OSS has to overcome is becoming more user-friendly, and things like Artwork, Translations, and Documentation are important.

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by martin ponce (not verified)

I really sorry, i found this interview very sexist.

> There are more women working with Artwork, Translations and Documentation writing than Programming and Software Packaging, but often these skills are taken to not be "worth" as much.

By who these skills are not taken be "worth" ?

Take it simple, people search for what they perceive interesting,
and nobody says you, what is "worth and interesting" for you.

by arawn (not verified)

Most of the opinions I've ever read on the whole gender bias thing in ANY field seem to get bogged down in the question of whether or not the minority has to be specially treated in some way.

I'm a heterosexual man who was a nurse for 15 years. I can't tell you how many cross- shift reports I've sat though where the female nurses went on and on about their menstrual difficulties until one of them remembered I was there. She would say, "Oh, we shouldn't be talking about that, should we?" Then change topics to their fantastic new bra.

Gender bias happens on both sides of the fence and on both sides it's purely a display of personal disrespect to the minority person. Every example EK cited in her interview was somebody who didn't respect EK enough to step outside their own bubble of self importance to meet her in at least neutral territory, as it were.

My own fantasy about how to right this sort of wrong, be it involving women in the computer field, men in nursing or gays in the military, is that simple respect for another human being becomes universally accepted as the default mode of social operation.

Just think- "if everybody [involved with computers] would just" adopt personal respect as their modus operandi, we geeks could evolve the reputation of being, not only the smartest subculture on the planet, but also the most enlightened! From the sounds of some of the responses to this interview, we're well on the way already.

by martin ponce (not verified)

Came on !!! WAKE UP !! And of course I DISAGREE.

I read every day Linuxtoday and after +2 years i never have
read NOTHING about mencal !!

btw, i have a daughter that love music, khangman and ktouch
( thanks again Anmarie ) and who sometimes ( also loves ) crack my PC.

And until today sometimes i am afraid of talk about some themes !!

I think that the women have a GREAT CHANCE to talk about some themes (items)
that REALLY MATTERS to women ( hacking and coding included ).

And i am disappointed. I Really want to hear about some interesting
hacking from all that beauty women that are proud members of this comunity.

Please, don't get me wrong. I love you all.

by Nerd (not verified)

Comn I don't want to be a virgin forever. :(