Thursday, May 31, 2007

Women in Open Source

The discussion started with one simple stat: only 4% of Summer of Code participants are women. Comments suggest that the numbers for open source software in general are even worse and that, although not ideal, the field of computer science in general does seem to be doing somewhat better. The question posed was simply this: why are women interested in development shying away from open source in particular?

My first thought on this was that women tend to appreciate social contact. And I'm going to guess that this means face to face, bona fide real-life interaction, not just the virtual variety. There seem to be relatively few opportunities to meet other members of an open source project's community other than the occasional conference. Would most women enjoy working with people they've never met, knowing only their online personalities?

A timely technology news update from ACM included an article about why there aren't more women working in high-tech in general. Sadly, I can't find the article now, but the main point was that many women are turned off by the working environments found in most high tech places. With open source development largely happening online only, it goes without saying that there isn't much of an 'environment' at all. No lunches with coworkers, no fun days, and no jokes during team meetings. It is also possible that the virtual environment created by the community would be suitable, but that women aren't able connect to their fellow developers in a meaningful enough fashion to discover this. This comes back to the whole social contact thing.

Finally, ask yourself which gender is more likely to come home after a long day of work (possibly of coding) and fire up the laptop to scratch that burning itch by working on some project that doesn't result in any kind of financial gain. You're picturing a guy, aren't you? Even women without families seem to enjoy taking on activities that have nothing to do with work during the evenings and weekends. It's not that they didn't enjoy the programming they did during the day; it's just that there are so many other things to get done after the steam whistle has sounded.

I know I can relate to each of these three issues myself. I definitely appreciate the social aspects of a regular job. I always look forward to fun days out of the office, and getting together with coworkers over lunch. Heck, I even enjoy meetings because of the opportunity to interact with others! I have found that even regular high-tech companies can often fail to satisfy my social needs - too many employees don't tend to want to do anything except work on their piece of the project. And yes, these tend to be the males!

Having said that, however, I can also say that I can enjoy working on my own as well. So far, I don't mind the 'reclusiveness' of open source too much; I guess we'll have to see what my feelings are at the end of an entire summer of doing it. I can absolutely see myself contributing beyond the Summer of Code, but I could never put in the huge amounts of time into open source (or any coding project) that I see some guys doing. After all, I have to save time for laundry, gardening, motorcycling, taekwondo, yoga, snowboarding, ...


Chris said...

Hi Gail!

I've thought about this problem a lot -- I ran a project for GNOME last year to have a Summer of Code for women going on alongside our regular one, since for GNOME we had zero female applicants out of 181 for Summer of Code in general. :/

And, I don't think the stereotyped conclusions you come to ("women are better at social things", "women don't like activities that require lots of attention outside work") are the answer -- if anything, they might even be sexist themselves. I thought you might enjoy reading the two PDFs in the FLOSSPOLS report, which came to some stunning conclusions about why there are so few women in free software, such as:

* women receive their first computer several years later than men, on average, so they're naturally less experienced at the same age.

* women self-rate themselves as being worse at programming than the men in their college classes, even though testing shows their ability to be the same!

Just reading these two sections of the report gave me a huge insight into why we're so bad at encouraging women to become programmers, and why the "are you the best of the best?" attitude often associated with Summer of Code turns women away rather than attracting them. There's also the problem of joining an open-source community being the social equivalent of walking into a room with 500 men where you're the single woman -- there are so few female role models out there that we need some kind of bootstrapping process to get things moving. That's what the motivation for the GNOME WSOP project was, to generate strong role models.

Anyway, hope you find all that interesting; we certainly need all the help we can get to involve women in the community. :)

- Chris.

Gail said...

Hey Chris!

Thanks for the interesting comment. I will certainly check out your links.

I believe that thinking about some of these stereotypes is just as important as the (very good and completely valid) points you bring up. I think that many are afraid to consider these issues because they may indeed come off as sexist (we live in a politically correct world after all). That's why I even bothered writing a blog entry about it; it seems to be one of the only areas that hasn't been touched on much.

But until we recognize that men and women are indeed different in these ways (based on multitudes of studies and my own personal experiences), it will be hard to attract women to open source or high tech in general, even if we address the issues you pointed out.

I should also point out that I never said "women are better at social things" - I only said that women tend to appreciate social contact. Related to this is the idea that many women often want to contribute to society, which is why many are in the service industry. Perhaps this second idea can also be used to attract more females to open source, as it should be easy to demonstrate how such software benefits many groups.

Again, hopefully you will take the second statement (which is not a direct quote from my text), "women don't like activities that require lots of attention outside work", with a grain of salt. All I was saying in that paragraph was that, based on observation, female programmers seem much less likely to go home from school or work and continue programming (other than school assignments). Have you noticed otherwise?

Thanks again,

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