There is a tremendous gender imbalance in the free software (or “open-source”) community – men outnumber women by roughly 99 to 1. Should anything be done about it?
I have noted with pleasure that the 1-page-website I built about the situation got noticed before I tried to spread the news. The idea came up as I attended Aurélie Chaumat’s conference at the RMLL [fr] this summer – when the position and efforts of the women from LinuxChixFrance [fr] and GrepGrrl [fr] made a strong impression on me.
My thoughts are as follows:
- The imbalance happens despite there being free choice. This is a crucial point: nowhere in the community are women intentionally rejected. We should ask ourselves what causes women to decide that the community is not for them (whether before even trying or after some efforts to join).
- This is obviously a chicken-and-egg process to which one will never find a single source. On average, women spend less time on computers, therefore are less advanced computer users, therefore are less inclined to join, therefore spend less time on computers, therefore etc, etc. (there are plenty of better descriptions around).
I noticed there is a great tendency for people, especially male, to systematically shift the responsibility elsewhere (“but the girls just don’t want to study IT!”). Changing the imbalance is never going to happen if we don’t tackle the problem everywhere at once.
- Some people believe the situation is simply not a problem, and argue that nobody should intervene. The argument goes that since free will is preserved, then it must be that free computing is a naturally masculine thing to do. This is often supported with a variety of arguments in the line of “Women are child-bearers, naturally (from birth) attracted to socializing, negotiation, human contact, and naturally (from birth) less attracted to technology and computers”. This is, from my experience, an argument brought up mostly by the privileged group, and I obviously disagree with it.
It sprung into my face, while teaching several highschool classes last year (physics and chemistry), that girls were just as interested in technology and tinkering as boys. If the ideas above still echo in your mind, get in a school and spend time with kids.
- I am not even willing to discuss the idea that women would be less naturally able to handle technology or computers. The idea is mostly found in various forms of humor – but it also transpires in real life (I can tell from feedback from a female airline pilot friend, as well as other situations). I find it not only stupid, but also insulting.
- This is of course not about having nice-looking numbers, or politically correct policies. It’s not, either, about making “better software” with women, or even “communities that run better”. I view this as a question of ethics.
In any case, and independently of the above, we can do better, indisputably. Because, every time we buy horribly stereotypical toys for our kids, every time we laugh at the dumb-miniskirt-blond-woman “joke”, every time we make a sick sexual allusion to sell a server [comment], we label our community as “male-only”.
Now, can we do more? We can go on making empty statements on how discrimination is bad (sorry Jono), to which everyone obviously agrees. Or we can start really tackling things – but it’s hard, and requires caution all along, to not drift into the wrong side (for example, looking exclusively at numbers and discriminating entrants until satisfied).
I thought setting myself a simple set of guidelines would be a good start, and I published them on that website. Please join me in working towards making the community a place where gender doesn’t matter.