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(an archive from 2008)

Gender Shouldn't Matter

Gender Shouldn't Matter

Gender balance, global:

gender balance, global

In the ICT sector:

gender balance in the ICT sector

In the Free Software community:

gender balance in free software community

Is the free/open-source community
missing something?

A movement which is based on sharing and building together should not let half of our population feel excluded, unconcerned or unqualified to participate.

We all can make sure the free software community is a place shared by women as well. Three suggestions:

  • Never assume that female participants are "simply mainstream"; less knowledgeable, or more prone to error.
  • Make sure that within your community, women receive attention based on their participation, not their gender. Also, keep the community spaces free from sexist jokes and pictures, to keep them welcoming for everyone.
  • Encourage young girls to tinker with objects and software, just as much and as early as boys. Curiosity and involvement are often fostered early on.

The point here is neither to bring more women in order to "make better software", nor to achieve political correctness. The FOSS community should recognise, however, that women are often (unconsciously) excluded, rather than merely disinterested.

There is a lot at stake for the community. A movement which builds a set of technologies for the public good, with strong ethics and a deep societal impact, has every reason to welcome members of both sexes equally. Let's work so that gender doesn't matter anymore.

Frequently asked questions

Everyone is free to participate. Don't women generally choose not to get involved with software?

This is one way to see it but it generally fails to explain many unbalances. Consider for example that the percentage of women in proprietary software projects is 35%.

|| education ||One's decision to get involved ("do I want to participate?") is influenced by many factors, including education and how the group atmosphere is perceived. The fact is, the free software community is doing poorly at welcoming women.

The bottom line is: nobody is forced into or out of the community. But pretending that everyone is invited, welcomed and treated the same way will not help the problem. Stating that "women just aren't for software" only worsens it.

Should I make my project less technical?

This is not the reaction we would like to induce. Making projects more welcoming to beginners is always good and will attract newcomers, to include women of course. But equating women with "newbies" or assuming they are more prone to error is certainly not pushing in the right direction...

Free Software communities are meritocracies. Aren't your recommendations purely discriminative?

Everyone likes a true meritocracy. A community fails to achieve it, however, whenever female members resort to hiding behind male usernames.

Making sure that women are not considered to be beginners, assumed to be only documentation writers, systematically asked out, or the main subject of jokes, is not discrimination. That's what we're after, not preferential treatment or politically correct numbers.

Shouldn't occasional banter and friendly exchanges be tolerated? Are you promoting censorship?

Nobody "hates women". The exclusion primarily happens among people who often do not mean to appear, and who do not interpret their own actions, as hostile to them.

Bluntly said, even if you think it is funny, she has heard it 15 million times and it quickly gets very tiring. Sexist jokes and pictures can be excluded along any other racist or discriminative behavior. Even if the intention is not to exclude or harass, they nevertheless often have that effect.

To avoid creating an atmosphere of censorship, talk about it inside your community, with both male and female members. An open discussion, followed by an official stance, can have a large positive effect.

Sources / reading

The charts on top of page represent up-to-scale information from the following sources:

  • Women in ICT: This is most often an estimate based on the gender balance in students graduating from computing universities. The European Research Associates body, based on Eurostat data, reports that women represent 22% of graduates in computing, in the European Union (EU-27).
  • Women in free software communities: 1,1% of the community is female, according to a 2002 survey by Ghosh, Glott, Krieger and Robles (part IV). Other surveys have similar findings, for example, this more modest 2006 Ubuntu Census survey by Andreas Lloyd announces 2,4%. We picked 2% as a likely value.

For more information you can read:

  • FLOSSPOLS deliverable D16, a thorough description and analysis of the gender gap in free software communities; by Krieger and Leach from UCAM, University of Cambridge.
  • The Male Privilege Checklist, an easy-to-read account of typical tacit inequities encountered by women (not limited to software); by Barry Deutsch.
Last edit: Oct. 29, 2008. Feedback? Contact Olivier, the author.
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