Friday, June 1, 2007

Women in Open Source II

My previous post, Women in Open Source, received an interesting comment just hours after I wrote it. The commenter Chris suggested that my thoughts on the issues preventing more women from entering open source were perhaps sexist and too stereotypical. In fact, this is probably true, and is why I even wrote the piece in the first place.

We live in a politically correct world where certain issues have become taboo. It seems that many are somehow afraid to bring up the inherent differences between men and women lest they come across as sexist. Sometimes, this can be a good thing, but sometimes it can do a great disservice. After all, according to the studies, treating everyone in an open source community the same, without considering gender, is one reason that women don't get involved.

So where are these 'studies' anyway? Well, Chris pointed me to a project called Free/Libre/Open Source Software: Policy Support. Linked to from this home page, I started to read their first listed deliverable, D16 - Gender: Integrated Report of Findings. After reading through the Executive Summary, I came to realize that this report was essentially saying the same things I did, just in fancier words.

The opening paragraph of the key findings reads:
Listed below are the factors significant in excluding women from F/LOSS communities. These factors are nearly all underwritten by a central cultural dynamic within F/LOSS. F/LOSS participants, as in most scientific cultures, view technology as an autonomous field, separate from people. This means that anything they interpret as ‘social’ is easily dismissed as ‘artificial’ social conditioning. Because this ‘conditioning’ is considered more or less arbitrary, in their view it is supposed to be easily cast aside by individuals choosing to ignore it. F/LOSS also has a deeply voluntarist ethos which values notions of individual autonomy and volition. As a result participants largely do not believe that gender has anything to do with their own individual actions. The situation is thereby perpetuated in spite of the expressed desire for change.
Here is the first hint that the issue is highly related to the social aspects of open source communities. Notice that the culture underlying the communities is described as having a lack of any real social environment, since anything considered social is simply cast away and ignored. This quote also implicitly tells us that the social aspects of the community are indeed important to women.

Let's examine two of the key findings. (The others are equally as interesting and relate to what Chris said in his comment, but are less directly associated with my previous post.)
F/LOSS communities actively perpetuate a ‘hacker’ ethic, which situates itself outside the ‘mainstream’ sociality, but equates women with that mainstream. Women are treated as either alien Other or (in online contexts) are assumed to be male and thus made invisible. Women are seen as innately more able to organise, communicate and negotiate among F/LOSS projects as well as with the outside world. Thereby they become carriers of sociality that is seen in a contrast to the 'technical' realm ascribed to men. Additionally F/LOSS women receive a high level of attention due to their gender which decreases their feeling of acceptance as community members as well as their willingness to further engage with the community.
I feel that this finding correlates nicely with my earlier notion that even when a satisfactory social environment might exist, women may not be able to come to realize it. Nobody wants to feel like an outsider, yet becoming invisible isn't going to facilitate the social interaction most women seem to desire.
The reliance on long hours of intensive computing in writing successful code means that men, who in general assume that time outside of waged labour is ‘theirs’, are freer to participate than women, who normally still assume a disproportionate amount of domestic responsibilities. Female F/LOSS participants, however, seem to be able to allocate a disproportionate larger share of their leisure time for their F/LOSS activities. This gives an indication that women who are not able to spend as much time on voluntary activities have difficulties to integrate into the community.
This one touches upon what I was saying about women not generally wanting to come home from work and continue programming. Interestingly, this point seems to suggest that it is the domestic responsibilities, whether perceived or real, that make women feel they don't have enough free time to contribute effectively to open source projects. I figured that women simply wanted to take on activities outside of technology moreso than men, and maybe this gives a possible reason why. If women have been responsible for certain aspects of home life for many centuries, then it is not hard to believe that they would feel even today that they did not 'own' their free time in the same way as men, even if in modern times these responsibilities don't always exist.

And now for a couple of key recommendations.
Provide tangible resources to help women devote time to their F/LOSS activities. This means both funding helping women to take part at specific F/LOSS events, as well as continuous support to enable women to take part in F/LOSS projects over a longer period of time.
Women would probably feel less like they are interfering with life outside of their careers when developing for open source if they had, say, financial resources. Funding for attending conferences would help increase face to face social opportunities.
The European Commission, and EU Governments should use their commissioning role to encourage a greater variety of working methods in the production of software.
These methods could include ways that boost the social interaction of community members. For instance, web cast meetings might be considered, and when feasible, more in-person encounters.

It should be fairly obvious by now that this report supports the ideas from my previous post. Social interaction and a good working environment do matter to women, and is one aspect that has been keeping women away from open source development. Furthermore, not realizing the importance of this issue because the sexism card might be played can clearly cause more damage to the open source industry than good. After all, it seems that everyone agrees -- open source needs more women!


Mental said...

Hmm. For me personally, Open Source activities are partly a social outlet, so social factors strongly determine my participation in projects. I'd like to think I'm not _that_ unusual. I know Bryce invested a lot of time establishing a social environment for the Inkscape project, for example.

I wonder if there may be a difference in the preferred socialization styles of men and women at work here. I know guys tend to consider working on projects with each other to be socialization. If we want to get to know someone better, we look for stuff to do together. The social environment that arises from that may not be so fun (or even recognizably social) for most women though.

Mental said...

On a separate note, are you familiar with LinuxChix? If so, what's your impression of the organization?

Gail said...

Mental: Interesting point about the different kinds of social environments that men and women enjoy. I think you hit a nail there.

I have not heard of LinuxChix (remember, I'm a total newbie of open source ;), but I'm checking it out now.

Yashka said...

Good points.

I too have found OSS to be fairly social, at least compared to other modes of computing. It feels more significant because of the shared progress towards a goal.

On another note, the quoted language of that report (haven't read the rest) is nigh-indecipherable.

Gail said...

Yashka: It's funny you mention the language of the article. It is a bit too convoluted for my taste, but more interestingly, there are some sentences that read like grammatical errors to me.

Lion Kimbro said...

It seems to me that most of the recommendations are at the level of the society, or at least, very large organizations.

If you're starting a new scrappy project, you don't have money to give to women who would participate in the project. Webcasting meetings would be great, but requires that all participants synchronize on video protocols and so on- nowhere near as easy as setting up an e-mail list. It also makes your meeting less accessible to most people, by today's technology. More in-person meetings? Great, but our members are all over the world, and we don't have the money for our own tickets, much less others'. More chores balance at home? Great, I can support that. But how can I help counsel your husband to balance the gender assignment of chores in your home, which is 100s of miles away from my own?

I wish that there were some directions for men, themselves, that they could follow through on. The above all communicate to me, "If you want women in open source projects, you must (A) stop everything you are doing, (B) abandon your OS project, (C) take on social justice jobs for the next 10-50 years, to effect the social changes required, in order to make it possible for women to participate in Open Source."

Perhaps more directly, would be to make a company to make video technology easier, to StarFire levels, at least, since that's a goal that can be achieved within 10 years.

So what I take from this, is, "Scrappy OpenSource projects is not something that interests women." I don't think that's true, (calling for Elizabeth Swann?), but that's what I'm hearing from the article.

Perhaps looking at the founding archetypes of projects is more of what I would want to look at.

Gail said...

Lion Krimbo: You make some good points. Perhaps the smallest projects will never have the resources to attract women in the ways I suggested, but perhaps they also don't need to attract a very large number of women to reach the desired percentage, and therefore don't need drastic measures?

Also, some of the ideas thrown around address only one aspect of the problem - as Chris pointed out in a comment to the original blog post, there are many other problems as well. As such, smaller projects could easily focus on some of the other issues.

Finally, I'm sure there are many more realistic ways to tune the atmosphere so it is more attractive to women. Take these as initial ideas to get the brain moving ;)

Adamm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adamm said...

Great post, Gail! I liked part one as well.

I've met very few female software engineers, and not a single FLOSS-active female software engineer.

Any speculations on whether the ratio of males to females of all software engineers parallels that of male to female FLOSS-active software engineers?

Gail said...

adamm: It would seem that the ratio is much worse in the open source world than it is in high tech in general.

The article found pegs the percentage in open source at 1.5% and the percentage overall at 20%.

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