Discourse, gender, and online forums

I’m running a Discourse forum on Buddhism, and we have noticed that there are few women participating. As the forum runner (and a bloke) I’ve tried to encourage women to participate, and ensured that the moderators were all women. However the disparity is still there.

I haven’t analyzed numbers in detail, but it seems as if the disparity is both in people using the forum, and in willingness to participate.

Here at meta, it seems as if there’s same issue, and as far as I know it’s never been discussed.

The obvious culprit for such a disparity would be the very frequent, vicious, sexist attacks leveled at women participating in many online arenas. Even if this doesn’t actually happen on a forum—and it hasn’t happened on ours—it surely has a dampening affect.

Anyway, I was hoping that someone—especially women!—would have something to say about this, and maybe some suggestions for how to improve participation by women.


I don’t have any hard numbers, but I suspect that in neutral topics (such as here at meta), it is very easy to not disclose gender, so many women may be participating without anyone knowing or anyone else caring either way.


I must admit, I’m kind of shocked at the lack of responses to this, so thanks for replying.

But i have to say: really? A man explaining why gender issues aren’t a thing? This is exactly what happened on my forum, and why I was looking for help.

The sexism of the tech industry is well known and has its own extensive Wikipedia article. When you glance down the avatars on the main page, I would have guessed that 90% of those that can be identified are male. But I just did a rough count, and it was closer to 98%. Ninety-eight percent. This is clearly a symptom of a much wider problem.

But even if you’re right, it merely shifts the question. Instead of “why aren’t there any women here?” it’s “why do the women here need to hide their identities?” Which, frankly, is even more disturbing. And if it is the case, surely we need to find out from women why this is so and fix it.

One of the reasons I was drawn to Discourse was that the founders paid a lot of attention to the human side of online interaction. Code is not “neutral”, it’s deeply personal. The way we do things, the choices we make, express what we want, which is nothing other than our own desires.


It probably depends heavily on the topics being discussed, and the audience of the site. For example:


I saw this topic before but did not post for two reasons.

First, gender has nothing to do within the context of Discourse.

If any arbitrary distinctions were to be made I would think something like “core team”, “developers”, “end users” etc would be more appropriate.

Second, as a humanist, I find even the assertation that there is such a thing as gender distinction disturbing to say the least.

To me, the problems aren’t gender, race, age, socioeconomic, religious, nationality, intelligence, etc. etc. issues. They are Human issues.

IMHO, In the context of Discourse, if a member makes a personal attack on another member or even any “group” of people, then that member should be dealt with by Moderators.


Well, yes and no. Full disclosure: the nun in the article you linked to is a friend of mine, and I have been heavily involved in the struggle for gender equality in Buddhism for many years. So I’m certainly not going to deny that there is sexism in Buddhism, and that this has an effect.

Nevertheless, the traditional monastic communities are only a tiny percentage of Buddhists. In terms of who is actually practicing Buddhism, who shows up for retreats and teachings, it’s mostly women. This is the same in pretty much every Buddhist group I’ve seen all over the world. (Except Norway, for some reason. What’s up, Norway!) But while the community is mostly women, those participating in online forums are mostly men; and this is not just the case in our forum.

But hey, maybe you’re right, maybe there are plenty of discourse forums out there with healthy participation by women. Great: where are they?

All I know so far is that here, in a forum where 98% of the discussion is by men, we’ve now had three men explain why gender issues are not relevant.


(hmmm, I didn’t state my gender here anywhere)
Not relevant in terms of Discourse.

If I am wrong, I would be interested in how you believe Discourse is at fault for your forum not having the membership demographics you think it should


I didn’t say gender issues aren’t a thing. I said the topics here are largely gender neutral.

I am open to corrections on that point, if you have them.


Let me refocus: I’ve been told by women on many occasions that they feel uncomfortable, scared, and reluctant to participate in online discussions. What can be done to help?


What did the women you spoke to say would help? It seems like it would be best to ask the people impacted how things can be changed to be more inclusive, in specific respect to Discourse. In the broader context, I’ve heard suggestions from women that boil down to:

  • Take women’s mentions of issues seriously, without judgment, and without attempts to “explain the problem away” or otherwise suggest that it isn’t something that needs to be dealt with by the community or those in a position of power within the community; and
  • Publicly call out and act upon bad behaviour wherever you see it, without needing to have anyone else make a complaint about it beforehand.

Discourse can help somewhat with that latter, I think, because of the extensive flagging and moderation powers, but the former and some of the latter are things that the individual forum community has to engage in, as a whole, and there’s not a lot I can think of, at least, that Discourse could do to improve the situation. However, I’m not the directly impacted group here, so my opinions aren’t worth much.

if someone who is the target of any sort of this kind of thing (women, LGBTQ, or any other racial/ethic/religious/etc harassed minority) has insights as to how Discourse could do better, that would be a far more valuable contribution than my opinions.


Thanks so much!

Indeed. I’ve been informed of a successful Buddhist forum run by a women (not on Discourse, sadly, no-ones perfect!) and I am trying to contact her for some feedback.

I agree with your two points, and would add a third:

  • Avoid a mode of discussion that degenerates into point-scoring, seeing who “wins”, rather than focusing on connecting and working towards a positive outcome.

I also agree that discourse does pretty well as far as the social engineering part of coding goes, and that can never be a substitute for community engagement. Hopefully we can find areas for improvement is both aspects.

Like i said earlier: what drew me to the discourse environment was the clear focus on the digital realm as a meaningful space for genuine human interaction. I just came across this beautiful and moving article, which says it much better than I could:



Sure, let us know what you find out.

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A crude analysis of our user profiles reveals a 60/40 male/female ratio on https://se23.life/ (a local community Discourse forum)

However the three real-life meetups we’ve had so far have been increasingly female-dominated:

Example post showing how we’ve worded our meetup invitation:


I’m going to keep my post short, because I know the PC police have taken over rationality in many domains… I don’t think this one is any different. Don’t you think consciously choosing to make all moderators women is in itself sexist? I don’t understand the logic of this at all.

Perhaps the reason there is less female participation has to do with the unspoken (or it may be too well spoken, I don’t know) way in which things present itself in your channel? You can’t force change, or equality, but you can sure attempt to mess with instincts and cause a lot of unease and tension in the process.

Eh, like I said I’ll keep it short. I’m certain this is something you’re very passionate about, and find no reason to spell this all out in detail (though it appears obvious).

There’s nothing to fix. If you can’t handle that men and women have different instincts, inclinations, and natural preferences in general, and therefore will tend to gravitate towards different things then you will find issue with much in this world throughout your journey.

Women may find a need to hide in the online world of tech, sciences, and mathematics because they are dominated by males. The reason should be very straight forward.


My understanding is that Discourse closely follows “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

That is, unless a forum adds a custom user field requiring personal information there is no obligation to provide it.

And even then, except for a valid email address what a member enters can range from entirely fictitious to entirely factual.

After reading this

I’m wondering if making the various profile settings more clear as to who can see them might help.

this info can be seen by all members
this by only you and Staff

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Yes, because they’re harassed and hit upon every time they don’t hide. While I’m fine with “men and women like different things, and therefore there will be different gender ratios in different places”, I’d say that until women have a free choice in deciding where they wish to be, rather than having awful behaviour drive them away, there’s work to be done.


If these things are inate, then we should be able to pin down the genetic factors that all of a sudden became very prevalent in baby girls born around 1965. It looks like there was a further influx of “doesn’t like computers” genes in 1980.

It is social factors that keep women out of tech, and those social factors are entirely in the control of the male majority in that world. If you are a man in technology and you’re not doing something (it doesn’t have to be much, acknowledging the problem and observing your own behaviour is enough), then I’m afraid you’re part of the problem.

Anecdata: Out of all my female friends, three are “coders” of one shade or another. Two have already quit the field and the other would like to. Reason? Unpleasant male-dominated/sexist atmosphere at work.


That graph looked familiar, I recall the planet money podcast about it:


This book by Jan Margolis seems to be referenced


When I started this thread, I took it for granted that gender bias (in online interactions generally and Discourse in particular) was a real problem and needed to be addressed. Perhaps I should have made myself clearer, but in any case let me do so now.

This thread is not for people who want to dispute whether gender bias exists and whether it is a problem. If you want to discuss that, please do so somewhere else. This thread is for those who want to address the problem and try to do something about it, if only to share experiences and support each other.


Thanks, Chris. It looks like you’ve got a vibrant and friendly community going, so congrats. It seems your community is not a tech-focused one, so it would be interesting to hear from the women especially about how they find using Discourse.

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