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Home  > Gender & ICT  > Women in FOSS > Article

Opening doors to open source for women
| 18 January 2007

From thoughtless comments on mailing lists to outright rudeness, women constantly battle the perception that there is no comfortable place for them in the predominately male world of open source software. That, however, may be beginning to change. Article by Lisa Hoover.

From thoughtless comments on mailing lists to outright rudeness, women constantly battle the perception that there is no comfortable place for them in the predominately male world of open source software. That, however, may be beginning to change.

With the advent of projects like GNOME Foundation’s Summer Outreach Program aimed at supporting women developers, and with women-centric LUGs such as LinuxChix and Debian Women springing up, women are finding the respect that most community members — male and female — feel they deserve.

The perceived inequality of women in computing has been felt since the inception of computers. Computing has long been seen as a "man’s world" where women are not actively encouraged to participate. According to a 2002 report by the Free/Libre/Open Source Software: Policy Support (FLOSSPOLS) project, a survey on gender within the open source community revealed that only 1.5% of its members were female.

To blame men exclusively, however, for overt gender delineation would be inaccurate and unfair. According to Linux kernel developer Val Henson, author of "How to encourage women in Linux", females bring their own set of issues to the table: a lack of confidence, a high need for socialization not typically found in computing, and a distaste for the competitive nature of the open source community.

The good news is that the obstacles women face, whether internal or external, can be overcome.

Avenues for women

Pia Waugh, president of Software Freedom International, says finding a way to get involved in the community is the first step, and there are several avenues available. "I think some of the women initiatives, such as Debian Women, GNOME Women->, Fedora Women, and Ubuntu Women, are great ways to start getting involved. [Women] can find great mentors there, information, and it gives them a launch pad into the wide world of FOSS. These organisations don’t segment our community, they give yet another road in, and the more roads we give people to getting involved, the more people will follow them.

"Women can also attend local FOSS user groups, get involved in projects directly, start volunteering for things that need doing, ask their friends who may already use FOSS, and get in and get their hands dirty. The best step is to start using and playing with FOSS, and then you can find how you can participate."

Hanna Wallach, one of the leaders of the Debian Women project, echoes similar sentiments. "Think about what you’d like to contribute, and what you hope to gain from your involvement. On a more practical level: file bug reports, help fix bugs, participate in IRC discussions, and read project mailing lists. Get to know the project’s developer community. If the project you’d like to contribute to has a women’s group, contact them and ask for advice about getting involved."

Once a woman has joined an open source community, there are several things she can do to help prop open doors for other women. "One of the major things missing from free software right now is female role models — being a role model for other women is one of the best ways to promote women’s involvement," says Wallach. "There are many ways to go about this, including giving talks at conferences and LUGs, working with the developer community to increase understanding of the issues facing women who wish to get involved in free software development, and participating in mentoring programs for women.

"Be visible!" Waugh says. "The more rocking women that are visible, the more we’ll encourage new women to get involved. Help your projects to create positive environments for all participants, and encourage your friends and newcomers to get involved. I think just being visible would really make the difference, and start breaking down the negative perceptions that can work against our community as a whole.

"Ultimately FOSS gives all people an opportunity to do great things. FOSS values are about freedom, about opportunity, about working collaboratively in a global environment that is cooperative and focused on freedom rather than the politics and social norms of the world around us. FOSS gives everyone such great opportunities, as it is a meritocracy. There are great opportunities to do great things, and I certainly feel that all my great opportunities have been a result of my participation in FOSS. With that in mind, we need to help others realise the opportunities they can find in FOSS, so we should all be doing our part to encourage new people of all backgrounds to participate."

What’s a project leader to do?

While there is much that women can do to help themselves, project leaders can take steps to open their communities to participation by a more diverse community. "Project leaders can play two types of roles to gain more involvement in FOSS by women and other groups underrepresented in FOSS," Waugh says. "The first role is basic common sense in creating an atmosphere where great people can actually be great, regardless of individual or cultural biases. Project leaders need to take an active role in defining a positive environment for all participants, regardless of their age, gender, race, religion, or anything else. This is really just in line with the true spirit of FOSS.

"Project leaders should actually be good examples of encouraging newcomers, of constructive feedback, and they should actively work against negative factors in their projects. Sexist, racist, and other negative comments should be outright rejected from projects, otherwise silence can send a message of acceptance of such behaviour, which will drive potentially great people away from your project. Ultimately a project leader is responsible for maintaining a positive social environment in a project, not just for the code.

"The second role is the active encouragement of women, which some projects are choosing to do as well. This is a role specifically focused on increase numbers of women, and the GNOME Women’s Summer Of Programming is a great example of this (and they had over 200 female applicants, where the Google Summer of Code had 180 applicants and not a single female). These initiatives are useful in addressing a current need, and I certainly dream of a day when women and men can equally play in the IT space generally without bias, which unfortunately for many countries is not currently the case. I would hope that this second potential role of project leaders would become unnecessary as we start to accept IT jobs, and software development itself as gender neutral, not a ’guys thing.’"

Wallach acknowledges that successfully assimilating women into existing projects may be challenging for managers who have never addressed the issue before. "I think the biggest obstacle project leaders can face is that they may not be especially interested in the problem. Almost all project leaders in the free software community are male. Many haven’t previously given much thought to issues regarding gender equality, so this is uncharted territory for them."

Wallach recommends that managers "facilitate discussion and awareness of gender issues relating to their projects [and] be willing to try innovative ways of encouraging more women to get involved in free software development."

The most important thing project leaders can do, she says, is "read the FLOSSPOLS report and recommendations ... [which] contain a number of suggestions for increasing participation of women."

The bottom line to erasing gender distinction within the open source community is for both men and women to actively work to change negative or unhelpful patterns. Women already involved in open source need to step up and be willing to role models to other women, give talks at FOSS conferences, and attend FOSS user group meetings.

Men need to keep in mind that "Lack of experience doesn’t mean lack of ability," says Wallach. "It’s often a reflection of the different way girls and boys are brought up in Western society. Given time and encouragement, women can (and do!) become awesome developers!"

Article by: By: Lisa Hoover
Originally published on: IT Manager’s Journal on October 11, 2006

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