Murray's Blog

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?

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