People behind Debian: Meike Reichle, member of Debian Women

Meike Reichle is a Debian developer since 2008 but has been involved for longer than that, in particular in Debian Women. She’s a great speaker and shared her experience in a Debconf talk.

She’s also part of the Debian publicity team and managed the live coverage of the last release on identi.ca. Enough introduction, learn more about her by reading the interview. My questions are in bold, the rest is by Meike.

Who are you?

My name is Meike Reichle, I am a studied information scientist and work as a project manager at Pengutronix, an embedded Linux company probably best known for their ARM kernel work. I live in Germany, more exactly in Lower Saxony, but I was originally born and raised in Swabia. Although I moved here ten years ago I still have a rather strong Swabian cultural identity. (Among other things I pride myself on having introduced a number of fellow DDs to the true promise that are real hand-made Spätzle ;-)) I am married to Alexander Reichle-Schmehl, we’ll have our third wedding anniversary this summer. Apart from Debian most of my spare time is used for all kinds of crafts and DIY activities. Making things with my hands always gives me a great sense of accomplishment.

My Free software history is summed up pretty quickly. Like most women of my age I wasn’t introduced to computers until well into my teens. I didn’t have a computer of my own until I started studying at the university in 2001. From there on things developed rather quickly: Working on the University’s Unix terminals got me hooked on *nixes, so I got me one of those “Linuxes” everyone talked about. I tried a couple of different distributions, ended up with Debian around 2004, started contributing in 2005, and finally became a full DD — what a nice coincidence! — exactly this day (Apr 18th) three years ago.

You’re part of Debian Women. How is the project going? I have the feeling that the number of women involved in Debian has not significantly increased.

The amount of women active within Debian is a tricky thing to judge. Here’s a quick example why:

When the DPL was elected in 2004 there were 911 Debian Developers eligible to vote, 4 of them were female. Shortly after, during DebConf4, debian-women was founded. When the current DPL was reelected last month, there were again 911 Debian Developers eligible to vote, but this time 13 of them were women.

You can look at these numbers and say “The number of female DDs has more than tripled, what a success!” Or you can pull out your calculator and it will tell you that in terms of ratio this puts us from a measly 0.4% to an only slightly less measly 1.4% ratio of female DDs. This still is — pardon my language — a bloody shame, but sadly also pretty close to the average ratio of women in Free Software.

So, while I do think that the debian-women project did already have a significant impact on the Debian project as a whole, I don’t think it has achieved its goals yet. Not for a long time.

There’s still a lot to be done but unfortunately the debian-women project has somewhat run out of steam at the moment. The seven years of its existence divide quite equally into the first half, which was very active and saw great results, and the second half, which was very slow and much more passive. In my impression debian-women is currently undergoing a rather bumpy generational change. On the one hand a lot of the original members, including myself, have reduced their involvement. Speaking for myself this is caused by shift of interests as much as general weariness. On the other hand there are only very few women following up. This development is also reflected quite harshly in DD numbers: If I don’t misjudge any first names (and I desperately hope I do!) for the last three years not a single woman has joined Debian as a developer! After the great start debian-women has had, this is a very painful thing to see!

That said, things don’t look all bad. There is a number of women maintaining packages without being DDs and there’s also at least one woman currently in NM, so there’s hope this standstill won’t last very much longer. But still, the fact remains that debian-women is suffering from a rather serious recruitment problem and I hope that this interview might actually help to spur some new or not yet active members into action. The aim of debian-women is far from achieved and now that its initial members are receding its time for new members to step up and take initiative.

What should Debian do to be more attractive to women ? I think the general atmosphere has improved, we’re less tolerant with rude behaviour, the usual tone on mailing lists has improved. Yet it doesn’t seem to be enough.

If there was a female DD for every time I answered that question…

First of all, I agree, Debian as a community has improved tremendously! Our general tone is much more friendly and cooperative and there is now a much better awareness of the impression we give to outsiders and newcomers.

Now on to the difficult part: The question what should be done to get more women into Free Software has been around almost as long as Free Software exists, and it has been answered very well by a lot of people: Twenty years ago Ellen Spertus wrote Why are There so Few Female Computer Scientists? and most of it still holds true. Almost ten years ago Val Henson (now Aurora) wrote HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux and that also is still pretty accurate. In 2006 Floss Pols undertook extensive research to find out why there were so few women in Open Source and Free Software and how that could be changed. They also came up with a very good set of recommendations. All of these texts highlight different aspects of that question and all of them have very good points.

I personally have, over the years, arrived at a rather sociological, not to say holistic point of view. In fact I answered the exact same question a few days ago, and the answer I gave then was this: “After ~10 years of women in tech advocacy I’d say the ultimate and final measure to get more women into Free Software is by finally achieving a truly equal society and at the same time dramatically improving child care support in almost any country.” I’ve come to the conclusion that what really holds women back in practice is not so much a lack of skill or interest but a simple lack of opportunity. For most of us Free Software is what we do in our spare time and that’s something that women, even today, have considerably less of than men. Even in couples where both partners work full-time it is still mostly the woman who does the majority of the housework and child care duties. In most cultures men have a perceived right to their leisure time that does not to the same degree exist for women.

That is one major reason, the other is instilled modesty, which has kind of become my personal arch-enemy by now. I’ve talked to so many girls and women at all sorts of events about why they won’t take up Computer Science studies or join a Free Software project and the answer I hear most often is that they do not consider themselves “good enough” in one or another aspect. Sometimes they will doubt their technical skills, sometimes their language skills, sometimes their stamina. Needless to say these girls and women were not any less qualified than the people already active in Free Software.

So, yes, in the short and medium term making Debian a more welcoming and friendly place is the way to go. As many others pointed out already this will not only benefit prospective contributors but the community as a whole: those new to it as well as those who’ve been in it for a long time. In the long term however what we need is empowerment! Women who are just as confident about their skills as men and are not discouraged by uncooperative environments. This is of course something that is culturally deep-rooted and can only happen in a very large time frame. So, for the moment the way to go in my view is accessibility: a cooperative atmosphere, a code of conduct, comprehensive documentation not only of technical aspects but also of structures and processes. The other thing we need to do is to have as many already active women as possible attend as many Linux/Debian/Free Software/Whatever events as possible. In my experience it happens quite often that other women see these women, feel very inspired by them, get to talk to them and then a few days later show up on some mailing list or IRC channel. From what I’ve seen personal contact still beats any other kind of “recruiting” measures.

You’re a Debian developer but you’re also married with a Debian developer (Alexander Reichle-Schmehl). Did you meet because of Debian? If not, who introduced Debian to the other one? :-)

We did in fact meet because of Debian. More specifically during our booth shift at the Debian booth at LinuxTag 2005, where I did a talk on the debian-women project and Alex organised the DebianDay. After that our relationship developed pretty much along our Debian activities: After our initial meeting we talked a lot on #debian.de, when Alex went to DebConf5 and I didn’t we noticed that we kind of missed each other. The first gift he ever gave me was a Debconf5 shirt and a box Finnish chocolates (I still have one of them today. :)) Our first secret kiss was at ApacheCon 2005, where we were both staffing the Debian booth (kudos to abe for pretending not to notice). We then became an “official couple” at Berlinux 2005 where we were both staffing the Debian booth and giving talks on packaging and user motivation. Our first real relationship stress test was when we both joined the DebConf6 orga team. It was a stressful time, but we passed it with flying colours! About a year later we announced our engagement via planet.debian.org. Our wedding was a veritable MiniDebConf, one of the best gifts we got was a Debian cookbook including the favourite recipes of DDs from around the world.

By now we’ve both finished university and work full-time jobs, so we don’t do as many talks and attend as many Debian events as we used to. Instead we now mainly focus on press and publicity work, which is quite practical to work on as a pair. It’s actually rather funny that way, Alex and I get confused with each other quite often, since we have almost the same name, often pick up on each other’s E-Mail conversations and are most often quoted by our function rather than by name. Because of we have kind of merged into this virtual Debian Press Person in the perception of many of our contacts.

You also have another “hat”: Debian Press Officer. What is this about? What would you suggest to people who would like get involved in that domain?

Debian press work is mainly about providing an official and coordinated point of contact to anyone wanting information from or about Debian. The press team answers all sorts of inquiries (the most popular one is is of course always the next release date) and makes sure all important events and developments within Debian receive the attention and recognition they deserve. Debian is a diverse project where every sort of contributor is free to voice his or her opinion in any way. We don’t have NDAs or prescribed terminology. That’s one of the things I love about Debian but also something that makes us difficult to handle for conventional media. They want official statements, in generally understandable terms, at appointed times. That’s what the press team takes care of. Almost all of the press work is done in the publicity team, which coordinates using IRC, Mail and SVN. The publicity team also publishes the Debian Project News, which are very popular among our users and developers. Press work is also an area of work that offers lots of possibilities for non-technical contribution. http://wiki.debian.org/Teams/Publicity lists a number of possibilities for contribution and, like most Debian Teams, we’d be more than grateful to get some more helping hands and happy to introduce interested newcomers to our work.

What’s the biggest problem of Debian?

In my view: Overwork. Debian has thousands of contributors but still a lot of the main work rests on very few shoulders. We need more contributors, especially, but not only in the key teams. In order to get more people we need to do some marketing which is very hard for us, since we are very proud of our independence and have a strong focus on purely technical aspects rather than aiming for popularity. However, with the current amount of Open Source and Free Software projects to join we find ourselves not only in a contest on technical excellence but also a sort of popularity contest that is about perception rather than hard facts. This popularity contest is difficult for Debian and currently costs us quite a bunch of very capable people.

Do you have wishes for Debian Wheezy?

My answer to that is a non-technical one: I think Debian is currently very under-appreciated, we do a lot of great work and maybe even more importantly we do a lot of important work for Software Freedom, sometimes even at the cost of our above-mentioned popularity. I hope people will appreciate that more again in the future.

Is there someone in Debian that you admire for their contributions?

Over the years I have made a lot of friends within the Debian community, some have even become family. That makes it somewhat hard to single out individual people. I think what I admire most is continuous commitment. I am very impressed by those among us who have kept up a high level of commitment over many years and at the same time managed to bring that in line with a fulfilled personal/family life. That’s something that I hope I’ll also be able to achieve in the years to come.


Thank you to Meike for the time spent answering my questions. I hope you enjoyed reading her answers as I did. Subscribe to my newsletter to get my monthly summary of the Debian/Ubuntu news and to not miss further interviews. You can also follow along on Identi.ca, Twitter and Facebook.

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Comments

  1. Thank you Meike and Raphaël. Very interesting.
    I agree continuous commitment is very important, but also a challenge :-S

  2. Jens Van Broeckhoven says:

    Good article.
    I’ ve used her video-howto a few times myself.

    It’s nice to read about the more “social” people in debian as well :)