Women in Open Source

I had an email discussion recently with Anne Østergaard about the major lack of female involvement in GNOME, and free software in general. I’m so proud of our community and how it lets talented people get involved, without all the obstacles that they find in the offline world. But it’s obvious that women are not yet taking advantage of this opportunity. I feel ashamed of that.

I tend to blame schools, universities, parents, and society for not encouraging young women to be enthusiastic about engineering and software. In view of of our openness, plus our general left/liberal leaning I feel sure that we are part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Even if we can’t influence kids when they are young enough to start forming these opinions, surely we should be seeing the few women who are determined enough to get involved despite all the problems. But why isn’t that happening yet?

I don’t know how to personally help fix this problem. I don’t find new open source developers directly. They usually find us. Do we need to change something about how they see us or find us? Are there organisations that are trying to fix this problem that we should make contact with?

I don’t believe that this is about emphasizing different activities. It would be wrong to say “Here are some less demanding tasks for the girls”. And as long as the atmosphere is not actively sexist, I don’t think it’s a problem that we spend our time discussing technical stuff. I don’t think there’s anything particularly male about technology, or how we approach it. (We do need to get more non-technical people involved, but not for this reason.)

But clearly there’s something wrong in my theories, or I am overlooking something, because we should be doing better.

Update: Jeff pointed me at this Flosspols report. It’s fairly readable and has some interesting conclusions and recommendations, despite the unfortunately small sample size, but I think Callum does a better job of saying much the same thing.

One contradiction that troubles me is that we a) obviously need to do something proactive, but b) we apparently discourage some women simply by giving them too much help, making them feel uncomfortably singled out. But on balance, I don’t think we can make things much worse than the current 1%, and we can’t be more unjust than what we have now, so some kind of affirmative action must be worth a try. Maybe some kind of group project, like a women-only Summer Of Code in which the students are allowed to work together? If someone had a plan then us F/OSS veterans could try to make it happen.

Or should we advise women to try to conceal their gender online?

18 thoughts on “Women in Open Source

  1. Is it enough that the environment isn’t actively sexist, or does it need to be passively non-sexist also?

    I think the environment tends to end up being a very male one, but also is quite exclusive. I think there are a large number of people in general that end up being excluded because of the social environment.

    As an example, in a “technical” environment you’re supposed to be able to take vitriolic criticism so long as it is directed at your work, rather than your person, because the criticism is “valid”. That kind of attitude treats people as machines…

  2. If we could bring the general level of hostility down it would probably help all people interested in contributions.

  3. In my personal experience, girls don’t get involved because of the image they have of men doing software.
    I consider myself as a non-standar geek compared to the image that media gives. Think about a single news article, movie or tv serie that doesn’t give the nerd look to people involved in computers, software or whatever related to technical stuff. Every character that uses a computer (uses means that he/she REALLY uses it, not just press a button to destroy world or hits the monitor to destroy the building) is clearly marked as inmature, goofy, good-for-just-one-thing, virgin, perv, crazy, boring, stupid, make me laugh guy…
    I really think that this vision makes women stay away from computers, software, etc.

    Think about the last movie or tv show with a tech guy that you saw, did you thought while watching the credits: ‘man! that guy… what a cool person, I would like to have a long chat with him… he seems to be so funny and nice!’?? No.
    Almost all the time you think (as soon as you see the tech character) ‘god… what a whimp.. why is he on the show?’
    Think about it, young people today is very influenced by media.

    I think that this will vanish with time and this will be a job/career as any other. Today’s context is just consecuence of media BAD representation of tech world.
    It’s just time until we get popular and suddenly you will watch ‘Wires’ instead of ‘Bones’ in FOX or maybe ServerRoom instead of EmergencyRoom in WB. I don’t remember that prior to ER anyone would say that becoming a doctor was full of action or forensics was a really intrigating profession (it is in my opinion, but well).

    Just ask your friends at FOX or WB to make a new TV serie about hackers or something like that and you will get some points for us, and well your friend will make lots of money (maybe you should start the serie… omg, no, better I start the serie lol).

    Finally I should be fair and say that a good portion of tech people is really perv or crazy or boring. Thanks god I know non standar geeks.

    Greetings \o>

  4. dieguito, yes, but I don’t think it’s the geekiness that puts them off. It’s not that they are male geeks on TV. It’s that they are male. I’m convinced that women can be geeks too.

    Actually, the geekiness puts me (a male) off, but it isn’t enough to put me off completely.

  5. Well I actually meant that it’s the look that gets people scared. Male or female, geeks are always portrayed as not-so-cool people.
    In 24 for example (the tv serie), one of the geeks is a girl, she’s kind of normal but HOWEVER she has a very weird personality and behavior.

  6. I think this problem in general is not well understood, and most people that talk about it are just taking wild guesses. What I personally don’t understand is that women had no trouble taking over previously man dominated fields such as medicine and law, but still stay away from the “hard sciences”. They didn’t need any specific type of encouragment from parents, school, etc. Of course, society pretty much changed, but in principle it should affect all fields…

  7. One of the points the FLOSSPOLS study made is that there’s a huge technical prerequisite to becoming an open-source hacker; I’ve wondered how many years of “work” you can consider obtaining the skills to be writing GNOME applications to take, and given the prerequisite CS skills, and the comprehension skills such as being able to look at an API and get a sense of what’s going on, I think my answer would be something like “three” or “five”.

    The study made the point that women own computers far later in life than men, as a trend. In the current generation, a computer isn’t being seen as desirable an tool for women as for men.

    So, we can make things “non-sexist”, and claim that we’re a meritocracy and interested women will get involved the same way everyone else did — with a lot of self-learning — but we don’t have equal conditions for that, and it can take massive effort to get up to speed with free software. Another way the conditions aren’t equal are that women are less likely to be rewarded for specialising as thinly as one needs to be to really enjoy free software; it helps to spend hours a day on IRC, stay up to date on mailing lists, etc. The study also points out that women have fewer hours of “free time” that could be devoted to things like that than men.

    This could be more coherent. To summarise: I think the “as long as we’re not overtly sexist, women have as much opportunity to contribute as men” is a fallacy. I’d also love to see a Summer of Code for women happen. Maybe a group like LinuxChix, debian-women, etc, could organise such a thing rather than Google?

  8. It’s not just sexist. I’m male, but I don’t do much work with the open-source communities any more because it’s so … stereotypically *geek*. It feels like you’re not so much missing women (there are some) as you are missing the creative (right-brain) people. I know geek women who contribute to open-source, and artistic men who don’t, but not the opposites.

    Which is not to say that today’s open-source programmers aren’t creative — far from it! It’s just that they’re people who would be on computers, no matter how bad they were (Linux 1.0!).

  9. > It’s just that they’re people who would be on computers, no matter how bad they were (Linux 1.0!).

    Well, I can’t argue with that, as someone who’d rather be using ethical “bad” software than non-free “good” software. :)

  10. I didn’t mean to suggest, of course, that Linux 1.0 was just “bad”-bad. It was free, and obviously had great potential (which it is now starting to realize). Simply that Linux 1.0 was a C project, so it appealed to people who wanted to hack a C program, or play with a Unix kernel (that had no decent UI and few apps); even people who valued freedom hacked on it mostly because it was a fun project for them.

    As Hardy said, “[I]f a mathematician, or a chemist, or even a physiologist, were to tell me that the driving force in his work had been the desire to benefit humanity, then I should not believe him (nor should I think the better of him if I did)”.

    It’s a lot easier to trumpet “freedom” when it consists of something you’d want to do anyway, like hacking a kernel in C. Those of us (of both sexes) who don’t love hacking kernels in C can certainly appreciate the work that’s gone into it, even if we had no desire to help at that level.

  11. I’ve read your blog entry and the other gnome guy’s response blog entry and all of the comments. Im really surprised no one has even hinted at why I think women arent involved in software. Everyone thinks its because of male dominance or sexism or males excluding women.

    I think its pretty obvious that women often just dont have the technical ability that some of the men have. Its genetic, or hormonal, or just part of being the gender. Of course this doesn’t apply to all women. Also, I have to say that Im not saying women are stupid or lacking intelligence. Im just saying much more men have the technical ability to program that women. Its just a fact. Not everyone is born with the ability to program.

  12. Brain, there’s no evidence that that is true, and certainly nothing that even remotely hints at something that could account for a mere 1% involvement. You would have said the same thing fifty years ago about women in other professions. You are deeply wrong, and you are offensive.

  13. Murray, great post. Thanks for taking the time to make it. A follow up to Callum’s blog post:

    The solution – again, as I see it – is to get a critical mass of women in one place, then things get done on female terms not male terms. In an open-source situation this might take the form of an all-female project. It also means that the male members of the open-source community might be better off not helping so much. Sure, answer questions, help out, but give them breathing space, let them be women.

    I’m not sure I agree with this. I do think a critical mass of women is crucial, but not for the purpose of getting things done on specifically female terms rather than male terms. I think it’s important for the diversity of the free software community, and important for both men and women to see that women can and do participate in free software development. A critical mass sends a powerful message that female participation is normal, not an anomaly.

    I don’t think the best way to achieve critical mass is by with all-female projects. Our goal
    should be integration, not segregation. By focusing on all-female projects, we encourage women to segregate themselves, not to integrate themselves into the free software community. This is potentially damaging for two reasons — 1) women aren’t really part of the free software community if they are working on separate all-female projects, and 2) the free software community as a whole doesn’t benefit from experiencing first-hand and working with other (e.g. female, as you say) ways of getting things done. Plus, it reinforces the notion that women are somehow “different”.

    Anyway, there’s more about this here as well as elsewhere on my blog.

    One last thing: Mairin Duffy and I started a GNOME Women mailing list last year, in order to encourage and facilitate discussion of these issues. The list has stagnated rather, but perhaps this would be a good time to rectify that. So, if you’re interested, please join. Let’s continue this discussion and start throwing some ideas around.

  14. Hanna, obviously I would consider all-female projects as a short-term solution. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be a start. What we are doing now doesn’t seem to be working.

    Thanks for pointing out that the GNOME Women mailing list is not just for Women. I’d welcome any additional suggestions for how I can be helpful.

  15. Yeah, it might work as a short term solution. I am, however, aware that often short term solutions end up being the long term solution simply out of inertia, so I’m keen that we think through any repercussions at this stage.

    Something I’ve learnt from the Debian Women project is that the involvement of influential men in projects to encourage women to contribute to free software makes a huge difference. One of the most intimidating things as a female newcomer to a project is being faced with a mailing list or IRC channel of entirely unknown men, partly because of the unknown and partly because of one’s prominence as a woman. One of the great successes of the Debian Women project was the involvement, enthusiasm and support of men who are fairly influential in Debian. Women would get to know these men via the relatively unthreatening environment of Debian Women, which would then give them the confidence to join other areas of the project. Upon joining other IRC channels aand mailing lists, they’d recognise a few names from Debian Women and would feel as if they weren’t alone and as if there were some friends in the list of unknown names.

    I’d be keen to try something like that in GNOME. Other things that make a huge difference are online tutorials (held via IRC, and then written up and put on the web) and mentoring on specific small projects. The problem, though, is time. For something like this to succeed, we need a number of people who are really willing to put the time and effort in and ensure that stagnation doesn’t occur. I’m hopeful that there are sufficient people in the GNOME community willing to give it a shot — though finding them and convincing them to do so is probably the hardest part!

  16. I think it’s important to realise that Open Source does include a widespread sexist element, and most people aren’t even aware of it. I think Slashdot’s “OMG PONIES” April Fools joke is a good example of this. Very few people seemed to object to the fact that one of the major Open Source discussion sites was stereotyping all women as brainless idiots who write like AOLers. I know this was intended as a joke, but as Val Henson mentioned in “HOWTO encourage women in linux”[1], “Sexist jokes are the number one way to drive women out of any group”.

    [1] http://infohost.nmt.edu/~val/howto.html

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