Women in Open Source

The talk at Lugradio Live 2006 given by Kat, Jen and Phated about the representation of women in open source was a real eye opener for me. Having worked in I.T. for nearly 20 years (and it don’t seem a day too long) I was aware of an under-representation of women in I.T. especially in what are seen as the more technical areas such as software development.

Somehow, however, as a new comer to being active in the community, I kind of assumed the imbalance between men and women in the FLOSS world would be far less. It was therefore a rather shocking revelation that, according to figures presented in the talk, the percentage of women in open source is 1.5% as opposed to 28% in the “proprietary” world.

You can argue the toss about definitions of being “in open source” and “proprietary” but just looking around the room during the talk it rang true to what those headline figures showed.

What I can’t quite get my head round is why this figure is so low. Given that large parts of interaction with the FLOSS Community (flosscomm – a new coinage by me, according to Google anyway) is done electronically via mailing lists and IRC channels, theoretically the barriers to entry are lower than in the proprietary world.

The main thrust of the talk suggested that it was just good old fashioned sexist comments that was putting women off from participating (certainly in IRC channels anyway). Comments about “back to the kitchen” etc. gives you the basic gist.

I agree with Jono that:-

From what I can see, most of the problems that women have identified when coming into the community are problems not specific to women, but also other groups. I am sure many readers of this blog have experienced some kind of prejudice due to colour, creed, age, sex, accent, political persuasion, sexuality or other areas.

Yet Phated pointed out during the talk that she ticks three boxes in as much as she is young, female and not from a western cultural background, and yet she only gets comments about her gender. Looking round the room this time I noted that although there was a fair age range and the younger end of the spectrum was well represented the vast majority of the audience (in so far as one can tell by looking) was white western european. This was more noticeable than the small number of women, in fact.

So based on this highly subjective and annectdotal evidence, here is a theory as to why women in particular face hostility in the flosscomm:-

The social taboo about making sexist comments it not sufficiently strong enough to overcome the tendency for people to be far more forthright in opinions and comments that they make from behind electronic masks in emails and IRC conversations.

I’m sure you’ve all seen instances where people have said things in emails or IRC channels that they would never dare say to a person’s face.

If you compare that to the situation with racial comments I suspect that the social taboo is strong enough to stop such comments from all but the most hardened racists.

So does it all come down to social mores and education? Well I’ll make the analagy with motoring offences. There are laws against both drink driving and speeding but I would suggest that drink driving is far more socially unacceptable than speeding and that is in large part due to educational campaigns by the government. So it is with racist and sexist comments.

Without lapsing into the world of political correctness I think it behoves us all to point out to other people when they make obviously sexist comments in the flosscomm and explain the detrimental effect if can have for diversity in the community. This should of course be done with tact and diplomacy and maybe over time the message will get through.

One problem with this approach is that of context. One of the speakers in the talk said that context was important and that she had little problem with people she knew making sexist comments as she knew they didn’t mean it or were being ironic. The problem is other people seeing the exchange won’t be able to judge this context they’ll just see the comments and assume it’s ok to make them.

I am of course acutely aware that if my theory was correct then ethinic minorities and non-western cultures would be better represented in the flosscomm. Or perhaps there are other reasons for this under representation than there are for women.

I also realise I’m looing at just one tiny aspect of the issue of diversity in FLOSS. I’d love to hear what people think about these issues.


One thought on “Women in Open Source

  1. I’m gald you got something out of the talk. Interesting point re sexism/racism, and I think there may be something in it. Something else has also occured to me, and that’s is that the English language differentiates between male and female, but it doesn’t differentiate between black and white (or any other colour). In any irc conversation there will, sooner or later, be some comment along the lines of “/me goes to make herself a coffee” or something equally inane which necessarily highlights whether the writer is male or female. This means that gender becomes known, whereas race doesn’t. I could state the gender of every regular in #lugradio, but unless I happen to have met them, I couldn’t do the same with respect to race.

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