Bonum Certa Men Certa

The Article Ulrike Uhlig Regretted Publishing (or Was Pressured to Remove)

posted by Roy Schestowitz on Dec 22, 2023

Does Debian silence women who speak out? With uncomfortable facts?

Planet Debian leads to this page today:

A deleted Debian post: Ulrike Uhlig: Ignore this post: (unpublished)

It is still in Google cache, so we're reproducing it (we saw how Planet LibreOffice censored bloggers in the past, hiding suppressed but frank/sincere opinions).

It raises important points - similar to the ones long raised by Daniel Pocock, who also specifically covered what happened to people like Ulrike Uhlig. She signed the anti-Stallman letter 2.5 years ago.

>How volunteer work in F/LOSS exacerbates pre-existing lines of oppression, and what that has to do with low diversity

If Google can legally make a copy of her blog post, which is no longer accessible (for a fee or no fee), so can we. Debian can silence people inside the project (by means of coercion, threats, retaliation), but it cannot censor us:

How volunteer work in F/LOSS exacerbates pre-existing lines of oppression, and what that has to do with low diversity

This is a post I wrote in June 2022, but did not publish back then. In this post, I talk about unpaid work in F/LOSS, taking on the example of hackathons, and why, in my opinion, the expectation of volunteer work is hurting diversity.

Previous findings

In 2006, the Flosspols survey searched explain the “role of gender in free/libre/open source software (F/LOSS) communities because an earlier [study] revealed a significant discrepancy in the proportion of men to women. It showed that just about 1.5% of F/LOSS community members were female at that time, compared with 28% in proprietary software” (which is also a low number).

Their key findings were, to name just a few:

We also know from the 2016 Debian survey, published in 2021, that a majority of Debian contributors are employed, rather than being contractors, and rather than being students. Also, 95.5% of respondents to that study were men between the ages of 30 and 49, highly educated, with the largest groups coming from Germany, France, USA, and the UK. The study found that only 20% of the respondents were being paid to work on Debian. Half of these 20% estimate that the amount of work on Debian they are being paid for corresponds to less than 20% of the work they do there. On the other side, there are 14% of those who are being paid for Debian work who declared that 80-100% of the work they do in Debian is remunerated.

So, if a majority of people is not paid, why do they work on F/LOSS? Or: What are the incentives of free software?

In 2021, Louis-Philippe Véronneau aka Pollo, who is not only a Debian Developer but also an economist, published his thesis What are the incentive structures of free software (The actual thesis was written in French).

One very interesting finding Pollo pointed out is this one:

Indeed, while we have proven that there is a strong and significative correlation between the income and the participation in a free/libre software project, it is not possible for us to pronounce ourselves about the causality of this link.

In the French original text:

En effet, si nous avons prouvé qu’il existe une corrélation forte et significative entre le salaire et la participation à un projet libre, il ne nous est pas possible de nous prononcer sur la causalité de ce lien.

Said differently, it is certain that there is a relationship between income and F/LOSS contribution, but it’s unclear whether working on free/libre software ultimately helps finding a well paid job, or if having a well paid job is the cause enabling work on free/libre software.

I would like to scratch this question a bit further, mostly relying on my own observations, experiences, and discussions with F/LOSS contributors.

Volunteer work is unpaid work

We often hear of hackathons, hack weeks, or hackfests. I’ve been at some such events myself, Tails organized one, the IETF regularly organizes hackathons, and last week (June 2022!) I saw an invitation for a hack week with the Torproject. This type of event generally last several days. While the people who organize these events are being paid by the organizations they work for, participants on the other hand are generally joining on a volunteer basis.

Who can we expect to show up at this type of event under these circumstances as participants?

To answer this question, I collected some ideas:

So, who, in your opinion, fits these unwritten requirements?

Looking at this list, it’s pretty clear to me why we’d mostly find white men from the Global North, generally with higher education in hackathons and F/LOSS development. (“Great, they’re a culture fit!”)

Yes, there will also always be some people of marginalized groups who will attend such events—because they expect to network, to find an internship, to find a better job in the future, or to add their participation to their curriculum. To me, this rings a bunch of alarm bells.

Low diversity in F/LOSS projects—a mirror of the distribution of wealth

I believe that the lack of diversity in F/LOSS is first of all a mirror of the distribution of wealth on a larger level. And by “wealth” I’m referring to financial wealth as much as to social wealth in the sense of Bourdieu: Families of highly educated parents socially reproducing privilege by allowing their kids to attend better schools, supporting and guiding them in their choices of study and work, providing them with relations to internships acting as springboards into well paid jobs and so on.

That said, we should ask ourselves as well:

Do F/LOSS projects exacerbate existing lines of oppression by relying on unpaid work?

Let’s look again at the causality question of Pollo’s research (in my words):

It is unclear whether working on free/libre software ultimately helps finding a well paid job, or if having a well paid job is the cause enabling work on free/libre software.

Maybe we need to imagine this cause-effect relationship over time: as a student, without children and lots of free time, hopefully some money from the state or the family, people can spend time on F/LOSS, collect experience, earn recognition - and later find a well-paid job and make unpaid F/LOSS contributions into a hobby, cementing their status in the community, while at the same time generating a sense of well-being from working on the common good.

However, F/LOSS projects cannot expect to have more women, people of color, people from working class backgrounds, people from outside of Germany, France, USA, UK, Australia, and Canada on board as long as volunteer work is the status quo and waged labour an earned privilege.

Wait, are you criticizing all these wonderful people who sacrifice their free time to work towards common good?

No, that’s definitely not my intention, but I think we need to talk about this subject with these thoughts in mind.

Lots of projects, even Outreachy and GSoC, require one contribution to F/LOSS to be made prior to be able to apply for a paid internship. I do well understand the incentive of this, but it’s quite a high entry barrier.

In 2014/2015 I was able to have 3 months of work on Debian paid for via an Outreachy internship. I was extremely grateful for that opportunity because without this paid internship I would never have found the time to engage with the Debian and F/LOSS ecosystem in depth simply because I would have had to work on my usual day job; I have rent to pay, and a health insurance which is really not cheap. These programs are key because they help counter existing lines of oppression at a strategic point: they buy someone’s time by providing them a small income. Back then, the internship was paid 5,500USD gross for 3 months, meaning after taxes and paying social/health insurance, I was left with roughly 1100€ per month, really not much money for living decently in Western Europe, but enough to get started.

By the way, to my knowledge, 4 women who did an Outreachy internship subsequently became Debian Developers. 3 other female Debian Developers are or were part of Outreachy on the organizer side. I think this shows that this program is a success that we don’t celebrate enough!

Some types of work are never being paid

Besides free work at hacking events, let me also underline that a lot of work in F/LOSS is not considered “payable work” (yes, that’s an oxymoron!). Which F/LOSS project for example, has ever paid translators a decent fee? Which project has ever considered that doing the social glue work, often done by women in the projects, is work that should be paid for? Which F/LOSS projects pay the people who do their Debian packaging rather than relying on yet another already well-paid white man who can afford doing this work for free all the while holding up how great the F/LOSS ecosystem is? And how many people on opensourcedesign jobs are looking to get their logo or website done for free? (Isn’t that heart icon appealing to your altruistic empathy?)

In my experience even F/LOSS projects which are trying to “do the right thing” by paying everyone the same amount of money per hour run into issues — when it turns out that not all hours are equal and that some types of work do not qualify for remuneration at all or that the rules for the clocking of work are not universally applied in the same way by everyone.

Not every interaction should have a monetary value, but…

Some of you want to keep working without being paid, because that feels a bit like communism within capitalism, it makes you feel good to contribute to the greater good while not having the system determine your value over money. I hear you. I’ve been there. But - as long as we live in this system, even though we didn’t choose to and maybe even despise it - communism is not about working for free, it’s about getting paid equally AND adequately.

We may not think about it while under the age of 40 or 45, but working without adequate financial compensation, even half of the time, will ultimately result in not being able to care for oneself when sick, when old. This may not be an issue for people who inherit wealth, but for many people of working or service class backgrounds, this is a problem.

(Oh and please, don’t repeat the neoliberal lie that everyone can achieve whatever they aim for, if they just tried hard enough. French research shows that (in France) one has only 30% chance to become a “class defector”, and change social class upwards. “But I managed to get out and move up, so everyone can!” - well, if you believe that I’m afraid you might be experiencing survivor bias.)

Not all bodies are equally able

We should also be aware that not all of us can work with the same amount of energy either. There is yet another category of people who are excluded by the expectation of volunteer work, either because the waged labour they do already eats all of their energy, or because their bodies are not disposed to do that much work, for example because of mental health issues - such as depression-, or because of physical disabilities.

When organizing events relying on volunteer work…

…please think about these things. Yes, you can tell people that they should ask their employer to pay them for attending a hackathon - but, as I’ve hopefully shown, that would not do it for many people, especially newcomers. Instead, you could propose a fund to make it possible that people who would not normally attend can attend. DebConf is a good example for having done this for many years.


I would like to urge free software projects that have a budget and directly pay some people from it to map where they rely on volunteer work and how this hurts diversity in their project. How do you or your project exacerbate pre-existing lines of oppression by granting or not granting monetary value to certain types of work? What is it that you take for granted?

Worth a read

These ideas are far from being new. The ethics of unpaid labor and the OSS community, by Ashe Dryden, 2013


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