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Home  > Gender & ICT  > Women in FOSS > Article

Bridging the gender digital divide in FOSS: Women’s engagement with Free Open Source Software
Christina Haralanova | 3 July 2006

Social justice advocates welcome the development of Free Open (or Libre) Source Software (FOSS) and regard it as having the potential to make a significant contribution towards bridging not only the digital divide, but also the gender divide.

Social justice advocates welcome the development of Free Open (or Libre) Source Software (FOSS) and regard it as having the potential to make a significant contribution towards bridging not only the digital divide, but also the gender divide. According to the Association for Progressive Communications, the Free Open Source movement is based on ’’Open’’ pillars: Open Source, Open Standards and Open Content. [1]

FOSS (or FLOSS, as it is sometimes called) gives a licence to users to access software source codes, modify them and redistribute the original or modified programs. Its advantage is not only in its affordability, but also in its appropriateness to individual and localized needs. In this way, the software has the potential to keep evolving to suit users’ needs, and facilitating the flow of information and knowledge. Women, both in the North and South, stand to gain tremendously from the FOSS movement and it is hailed as having the potential to deliver appropriate information and communication technology on a grand scale to disadvantaged groups.

Linux, Debian and Gnome are some of the several FOSS initiatives which are attracting more and more computer programmers into their communities. However, only about 1.1% of FOSS developers are women. [2] This dearth of women reflects the situation in many other areas of scientific and technological development. Not only are there far fewer women programmers than men, but the female end user’s software needs are not adequately catered for, a factor that is directly related to the low numbers of women software designers.

Adapting software to women’s needs

According to Yuwei Lin, ’Software is at the heart of the development of information communication technologies (ICTs). In an ICT-based society, it is increasingly important that software is designed to meet the requirements of diverse users.’ [3] In order to satisfy the needs of diverse users, there has to be diversity in the community of software designers, not only in terms of gender, but also in terms of different other social, geographical and economic contexts. She says that there are three main inter-related issues to be addressed in including women in the FOSS community:

  1. Providing women-friendly software and services;
  2. Creating a women-friendly environment for developing and using [FOSS]; and
  3. Fostering a gender-balanced ICT innovation system for both competition and collaboration. [4]

Why are there so few women in FOSS development?

There are several obstacles to women’s participation in FOSS development, some of which are:

- The computing world is still regarded as a male domain right from childhood. One US study showed that a family’s home computer was most likely to be put in a boy’s room than in a girl’s room. [5]. The media, too, portrays computers as being for men primarily, with women’s images being used simply to sell products to men.

- Many women in the computer science field in general and the FOSS field in particular report that sexist jokes, computer games that depict women as sex objects and other offensive conduct put them off computing. [6] The programming language too is rarely gender-inclusive.

- Gender concerns are absent from studies and policies on FOSS development and there are therefore no concerted efforts to include women or address their needs and consequently, the software is not particularly suited to women’s requirements. [7]

- Val Henson says that ’objective ratings (such as grade point averages or quality and speed of programming) don’t agree with most women’s self-estimation.’ She reports that ’ while 53% of the male computer science freshmen rated themselves as highly prepared for their [computer science] courses, 0% of the female [computer science] freshmen rated themselves similarly. But at the end of the year, 6 out the 7 female students interviewed had either an A or B average.’ [8] This is most likely to be a reflection of women’s socialization to underplay their abilities and achievements, or their lack of self-confidence, again an effect of their socialization.

- According to Lin, the ’text-based coding environment somehow reinforces how users’ ICT experiences are gendered.’ She hastens to add that she is not saying that women do not have the ability to code in a text- as opposed to a graphics-based environment. Rather, there are two main reasons why women tend to be ’graphics-coders’ rather than ’text-coders.’ Firstly, frequent programmers are likely to use text-coding simply because they have more experience, and frequent programmers are likely to be male simply because the field of computer programming is male-dominated. Secondly, female programmers are more likely to have obtained their programming expertise through the formal education system, a system that teaches graphics-based programming. FOSS, on the other hand requires text-based coding skills. [9]

- The FOSS world, and the Linux world in particular are reportedly extremely competitive. Since women are not socialized to competitive, they do not thrive in these environments. [10]

Space for women within the FOSS community

Female FOSS developers are asserting their need to have their own supportive space within the FOSS community in order to encourage their active participation in the development of software. LinuxChix [10] and Debian Women [11] are two such communities of women. These communities serve as forums demystifying the software design process, for learning programming techniques as well as providing software and book reviews.

Within LinuxChix, there are Brazilian and African chapters, to make the Linux more locally useful and relevant to software developers. Hopefully the FOSS revolution within the ICT revolution will make a significant contribution towards finally bridging the gaping gender and digital divides in the world.

Author: Kathambi Kinoti

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