The first few minutes of the Linux meeting, held in a small room behind a coffee house, were awkward.
After all, these geeks weren't used to being surrounded by so many women. In fact, most of them worked in settings almost completely dominated by men. A few settled into a dingy couch that looked as if it had been white at one time, others crouched in any space they could find on the floor. Some sat up in stiff plastic chairs pulled together in a semicircle. Then, without fanfare, the inaugural meeting of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of LinuxChix commenced -- and a dozen she-geeks confessed their love for Linux.
And, for once, they found they weren't alone.
LinuxChix is the brainchild of Deb Richardson, a technical writer and Webmaster at The Puffin Group, an open source consulting firm. The group, which started as a mailing list last spring, has gradually evolved into eight chapters that meet face-to-face in locales that range from San Francisco to Dublin, Ireland, to Melbourne, Australia. "I knew there were other women out there who use Linux, but they're really hard to find," Richardson said, speaking to ZDNN via telephone from her office in Canada. "This was a way to get them together."
Eventually, LinuxChix hopes to launch a speaker series, community outreach programs to introduce young girls to Linux, and even hold install-fests aimed at women who want to load the Linux operating system on their machines.
LinuxChix isn't gender biased, though. Men are welcome at meetings and, by Richardson's count, about 20 percent of the 200 members of the LinuxChix list are male.
Jenn Wu, a technical manager at Personic Software, came to the San Francisco LinuxChix meeting Tuesday night looking for mentors, after hearing about it through an Internet posting. "Because women are a really small portion of the technical community, you really don't get to see a lot of examples of really technical women," Wu said. "It's exciting because the people who are into Linux are the alpha geeks. They're doing it because they really like technology."
It's often said that the closer to the machine you get, the fewer women you'll find. That is, women tend to be less common in companies that produce chips and cards, and more prevalent in companies creating such applications as productivity software. And, as an operating system, Linux is awfully close to the machine.
The Linux movement has sparked perhaps the most active user-groups of any technology trend -- not surprising, considering that before Linux became mainstream, community members had no one to turn to but each other for information. The problem, according to the LinuxChix, is that in a room full of 300 Bay Area Linux User Group members, only three or four are women. "I'd like to see more women there," Amy Abascal said during the San Francisco meeting. "And not just because their significant other dragged them."
At the Bay Area LinuxChix meeting, the wide-ranging discussion included: speculation on whether Linux will kill Microsoft; technical information on administering email programs; and questions about the number of women in the room who'd met their significant other through a mutual Linux interest (at least two did).
But the discussion also turned to more serious issues that many women in technology have faced at one time or another. More than half the group shared stories of bumping -- or shattering -- glass ceilings and dealing with guys who think that femininity somehow interferes with technical knowledge.
One woman shared stories about executives referring to women techies as "girls" or "interns". Others lamented the lack of women in management positions at tech firms and pay discrepancy between men and women. And some worried that some men aren't aware of -- or don't care about -- the problems. "A lot of people don't see it because it's not happening to them," said Deridre Saoirse, a systems analyst at Linuxcare. "There is some awareness that needs to be raised in the Linux community."
Raising awareness of such issues is one of the goals of LinuxChix. Richardson started the group not only for networking purposes, but also because she was sick of the sexist postings on some of the Linux technical sites. She said they sometimes included putdowns and inappropriate references to pornography. "The forums tend to be really male-dominated," she said. "Sometimes it's hard to break into the macho, testosterone-addled discussions that go on."
But the San Francisco meeting also had its lighter moments. Stephane Miller joked about the perks of being one of a handful of geeky women at work. Because she's a tech worker, the ratio of women to restrooms is about one-to-one on her side of the building.
"Every woman there could have her own toilet stall," she said. "I'm thinking of labelling mine."