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Disbelief: women and Open Source

36 replies on 3 pages. Most recent reply: Aug 19, 2009 7:25 AM by Achilleas Margaritis

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Aahz

Posts: 14
Nickname: aahz
Registered: May, 2003

Disbelief: women and Open Source (View in Weblogs)
Posted: Jul 24, 2009 11:19 PM
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Summary
Many men in Open Source refuse to confront the fact that they need to do something about the lack of women in Open Source -- partly because they don't believe that there are so few women.
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At OSCON Thursday, Kirrily Robert gave a great keynote on women in Open Source. But the "fun" part came at lunchtime: I was eating with Anna Martelli Ravenscroft and Alex Martelli, and someone else at the table expressed doubt about Kirrily's statistic that only one-point-five percent (1.5%) of Open Source developers are women. The three of us took that as an opportunity to deliver an impromptu feminism 101 lecture and how it relates to geek women in general and Open Source women in particular.

Later on, I ran into Kirrily and thanked her for the keynote. She mentioned that it was somewhat disheartening to keep going through the motions over and over again (although an OSCON keynote does push the issue into sharper focus). So I'm posting this blog entry to do my part to at least get over the disbelief barrier -- like alcoholism, we can't even start to fix things until people acknowledge that there is a problem.

Added after posting: here's Kirrily's blog entry on her keynote, which is mostly the same as the speech.


Kay Schluehr

Posts: 302
Nickname: schluehk
Registered: Jan, 2005

Re: Disbelief: women and Open Source Posted: Jul 25, 2009 2:19 AM
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I do not quite understand what the kind of selected software license ( OSS is precisely about this ) has to do with the topic at hand but maybe someone can enlighten me?

If the question was "Why are there so few woman doing hobby coding?" then the natural answer might be that there are other hobbies which are far more exciting. It's just that the male nerds don't get it and seek gratification in doing odd things. Their intelligence might protect them from many things - in particular the oddness of other people - but not from this.

Tennessee Leeuwenburg

Posts: 2
Nickname: tjl
Registered: Jul, 2009

Re: Disbelief: women and Open Source Posted: Jul 25, 2009 3:50 AM
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What are the comparative statistics? What proportion of software developers are female? If 1.5 percent of software developers across the board are women, then Open Source is doing no better or worse than any other area of the profession.

I would say on the whole, it would be better if there were more women in software development across the board. I'm not sure how Open Source contributes to the problem, either in terms of making things worse or better.

I do think, though, that the problem is a lot more complicated that boorish men keeping out large numbers of women who would otherwise be interested in participating. I think the problem exists at the intake level also.

It would be great to know what IT as a whole could do about encouraging more women to participate, but in more ways than just not being part of the problem (although that is important). For example, I'm not sure whether what women find interesting / exciting about software development is the same as what men find interesting / exciting. Being able to understand more about that would be worthwhile.

The geek feminism wiki link is fantastic -- I have not come across that before.

One reason I think it is particularly worthwhile to understand the relevant gender dynamics better, is that I think that groups behave better when there is a reasonably even gender balance than when it is unbalanced either way. It would be great to hook into that to 'even things out' a bit.

Cheers,
-T

Tennessee Leeuwenburg

Posts: 2
Nickname: tjl
Registered: Jul, 2009

Re: Disbelief: women and Open Source Posted: Jul 25, 2009 6:04 AM
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Just a quick followup... I just thought my previous post didn't sound very sympathic, which isn't how I meant to come across. My point was just to try and understand the structure of the the issue a little more. 1.5% is obviously an incredibly low figure, and suggests that something really appalling is going on.

That said, I have observed boorish behaviour outside of the realm of software development probably as much or more than within IT. I've seen some pretty poor behaviour at conferences etc, but I've also seen poor behaviour down at the pub, at the sports match, etc. I'm just trying to understand whether there is something that's being missed beyond simple poor behaviour.

I'm not sure what, other than the effect of improved attitudes over a long period of time, could change the situation for the better. Is there anything other than generally trying to uphold good standards of behaviour which individuals could be doing?

I think it would be lovely if every woman who wanted to could take part in software development and, where competition for jobs and respect is concerned, be able to be judged without their sex being the determining factor.

-T

Aahz

Posts: 14
Nickname: aahz
Registered: May, 2003

Re: Disbelief: women and Open Source Posted: Jul 25, 2009 8:54 AM
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In general, the proportion of women in tech jobs runs around 20%. So
yes, Open Source does substantially worse:

http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Technology_industry#Proportion_of_women_in_the_tech_industry

Note that I've edited my blog entry to link to Kirrily's.

Aahz

Posts: 14
Nickname: aahz
Registered: May, 2003

Re: Disbelief: women and Open Source Posted: Jul 26, 2009 1:34 PM
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> I do not quite understand what the kind of selected software license
> ( OSS is precisely about this ) has to do with the topic at hand but
> maybe someone can enlighten me?

You are conflating the license with the community; they are connected
but are not the same thing.

> If the question was "Why are there so few woman doing hobby coding?"
> then the natural answer might be that there are other hobbies which
> are far more exciting. It's just that the male nerds don't get it
> and seek gratification in doing odd things. Their intelligence might
> protect them from many things - in particular the oddness of other
> people - but not from this.

Open Source is partly but not strictly about "hobby coding". Perhaps
you should read up on Open Source in addition to the URLs I linked to
above. Have you read my URLs yet?

Michael Goldman

Posts: 9
Nickname: keppla
Registered: Jul, 2009

Re: Disbelief: women and Open Source Posted: Jul 26, 2009 5:51 PM
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An unneccessary suggesting start, in my opinion.

> Many men in Open Source refuse to confront the
> fact that they need to do something about the
> lack of women in Open Source

so do I, but i would not call it "refuse a fact".
I try not to discrimintate against by sex, race, whatever.

Beyond this basic responsibility, i dont see why i have any further responsibilities.

Kind of anecdotical evidence, but at the university, there were 4 women and way more than 200 men in the first semester, despite constant "girls days" and a "Frauenbeauftragte" (kind of an official who makes sure that theres no discrimination).

The majority of studends had just finished their Abitur (degree neccessary to enter a university), so any discrimination responsible for this must have happened WAY before you see anyone in their jobs and should been fought there.

And, from a very subjective view, it seems to me that girls nowadays have far less discrimination to endure for persuing an IT job, than the nerds of the 80s and 90s.

So, what fact which i refuse provides for the neccessity for me to get women developers and not just good developers into OS?

Kay Schluehr

Posts: 302
Nickname: schluehk
Registered: Jan, 2005

Re: Disbelief: women and Open Source Posted: Jul 26, 2009 10:05 PM
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> And, from a very subjective view, it seems to me that
> girls nowadays have far less discrimination to endure for
> persuing an IT job, than the nerds of the 80s and 90s.

The discussion is not about corporate IT. If OSS would be mainly driven by corporate actors and becomes the prevalent model of creating OSS for gathering cheap labor, getting early user feedback and talent recruiting for future job positions, the economical ramifications are becoming clearer.

Right now it seems to me there are a few geek woman who complain there are just few of them who engage in OSS and this is somehow a problem to them; but it's none for all those woman who stay away from self-organized OSS communities and spent their time with things they consider more worthwhile. There aren't any implications which requires building "political conscience" and fighting for rights which have been the major targets of feminism in the past.

The only effect this discussion had so far is that some men feel bad now about their own moral or more hypocritically feel bad about the moral of other men. However their pc self-censorship didn't have any effect on attracting new woman in participating in OSS communities. That's at least what the numbers are telling.

Erik Engbrecht

Posts: 210
Nickname: eengbrec
Registered: Apr, 2006

Drifting off topic... Posted: Jul 26, 2009 10:30 PM
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> The discussion is not about corporate IT. If OSS would be
> mainly driven by corporate actors and becomes the
> prevalent model of creating OSS for gathering cheap labor,
> getting early user feedback and talent recruiting for
> future job positions, the economical ramifications are
> becoming clearer.

I think parts of this are happening already. Enough companies are making money off of pure, or relatively pure, OSS that an ever increasing number of companies will see it as a means to increase their labor pool without increasing their costs. I don't think this has the negative connotations implied by your phrasing, but it's still accurate.

Technology recruiting, especially of software developers, is subject to enormous information deficiencies. I've read statistics indicating there is between a 10x and 40x productivity difference between poor developers and great developers. The problem is employers have no good way of evaluating prospective employees, and in turn employees evaluating employers. High participation rates in OSS would change that. Even a non-technical manager could, given a little patience and the communities where the developer is active, at least make a sound judgement as to the reputation of that developer. Likewise, the prospective employee can check up on existing employees of his prospective employer.

Participation in OSS is no where near high enough for this to have a broad market impact yet, but I think someday it will be. In some niches I think OSS participation is already making a significant impact on hiring. Eventually it will hit critical mass and will become the norm.

When that happens there will be significant economic ramifications on ones career for not participating.

Of course, significant economic ramifications tend to be a very good motivator, far more scary the people being rude in forums, mailing lists, and IRC.

Kay Schluehr

Posts: 302
Nickname: schluehk
Registered: Jan, 2005

Re: Drifting off topic... Posted: Jul 27, 2009 2:35 AM
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> I think parts of this are happening already. Enough
> companies are making money off of pure, or relatively
> pure, OSS that an ever increasing number of companies will
> see it as a means to increase their labor pool without
> increasing their costs. I don't think this has the
> negative connotations implied by your phrasing, but it's
> still accurate.

I don't think it has to have negative effects either. But it should be made clear that OSS is not some sort of social romanticism.

> Technology recruiting, especially of software developers,
> is subject to enormous information deficiencies. I've
> read statistics indicating there is between a 10x and 40x
> productivity difference between poor developers and great
> developers. The problem is employers have no good way of
> evaluating prospective employees, and in turn employees
> evaluating employers. High participation rates in OSS
> would change that. Even a non-technical manager could,
> given a little patience and the communities where the
> developer is active, at least make a sound judgement as to
> the reputation of that developer. Likewise, the
> prospective employee can check up on existing employees of
> his prospective employer.

Visibility of skills is indeed a problem although I do think its foremost one for programmers. If you vanish inside of a company for years all you have for your future career when you leave is a short lists of projects and the role you've taken in them. Acting as a "public programmer" might change this. It's an opportunity to show, not just to tell.

> Participation in OSS is no where near high enough for this
> to have a broad market impact yet, but I think someday it
> will be. In some niches I think OSS participation is
> already making a significant impact on hiring. Eventually
> it will hit critical mass and will become the norm.
>
> When that happens there will be significant economic
> ramifications on ones career for not participating.
>
> Of course, significant economic ramifications tend to be a
> very good motivator, far more scary the people being rude
> in forums, mailing lists, and IRC.

It would be quite interesting to make this quantifiable. In my own case I can say it had a rather negative impact working out non-mainstream technologies with low market demand ( borderline "academic" projects ) and I feel the need to counteract. I also stay away from advanced technologies I'd otherwise be interested in like Haskell which consume too much of my time to master properly.

Note that at places like Artima where people don't post anonymously the tone is already civil. Social engineering civility in open networks can be trivial but this hadn't any impact on the gender proportion in programming.

Michele Simionato

Posts: 222
Nickname: micheles
Registered: Jun, 2008

Re: Disbelief: women and Open Source Posted: Jul 27, 2009 3:49 AM
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Very few women have programming as a hobby.
Very few men have cross-stitching as a hobby.
I do not see a problem with either things.
Let us employ our time on more relevant issues (disparity
of salaries between man and woman, for instance) not
on what people prefer to do on their spare time.

Michele Simionato

Posts: 222
Nickname: micheles
Registered: Jun, 2008

Re: Disbelief: women and Open Source Posted: Jul 27, 2009 4:19 AM
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I have read the keynote by Kirrily. I see her point now:
she says that the OSS community is sexist and it makes
the entry barrier higher than needed. I think she is
basically right. However, on one hand it is quite difficult
to change the mind of people, and on the other hand I do not
think there would be much more women in OSS even if
the community was not sexist at all. I know lots
of women working in Mathematics, or in Physics, or
in Biology, or in other sciences, but not in programming.
I do not think such communities were less sexist
than the OSS at the beginning. If women wanted to do
OSS they would just do it.

Erik Engbrecht

Posts: 210
Nickname: eengbrec
Registered: Apr, 2006

Drifting back on topic... Posted: Jul 27, 2009 8:00 AM
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> > Participation in OSS is no where near high enough for
> this
> > to have a broad market impact yet, but I think someday
> it
> > will be. In some niches I think OSS participation is
> > already making a significant impact on hiring.
> Eventually
> > it will hit critical mass and will become the norm.
> >
> > When that happens there will be significant economic
> > ramifications on ones career for not participating.
> >
> > Of course, significant economic ramifications tend to be
> a
> > very good motivator, far more scary the people being
> rude
> > in forums, mailing lists, and IRC.
>
> It would be quite interesting to make this quantifiable.
> In my own case I can say it had a rather negative impact
> working out non-mainstream technologies with low market
> demand ( borderline "academic" projects ) and I feel the
> need to counteract.

That's really interesting. Now that i hear someone say it, it's not surprising, but still... It goes counter to what a geek would expect.

> Note that at places like Artima where people don't post
> anonymously the tone is already civil. Social engineering
> civility in open networks can be trivial but this hadn't
> any impact on the gender proportion in programming.

I think she has a more subtle point about what it means to be civil.

Take a look at these blog entries:
http://geek-knitter.blogspot.com/2009/07/lost-in-syntax-part-1-or-omg-im-going.html
http://geek-knitter.blogspot.com/2009/07/lost-in-syntax-part-2-or-omg-im-going.html

Now imagine if she found herself in the middle of (or unknowingly instigating) some of the civil, but heated debates that take place here on Artima and on open source mailing lists among some real top-notch experts.

These debates can be intimidating (I know I get intimidated from time to time), but they are necessary. People need a reason to get their complex, hard to express thoughts out for all to see. They also need a context in which to express them so they know how to frame it. Explaining why someone is wrong provides both a motivation and a context.

But I can imagine these debates on an open source project giving the impression than the bar for contribution is a heck of a lot higher than in really is. Her presentation is saying the experts need to find a way to tone it down as to not scare people away, especially people like the teacher who's blog I linked to above.

Catherine Devlin

Posts: 4
Nickname: catherine
Registered: Mar, 2006

Re: Disbelief: women and Open Source Posted: Jul 27, 2009 12:36 PM
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I wonder if arguing about the existence or scale of the problem hasn't become a distraction from fixing it.

We can argue with people who think there's no problem, or think they have no responsibility to fix the problem - but, honestly, what's the likelihood of people like that ever becoming helpers in fixing it? Trying to convert the wilfully useless sounds unrewarding. Maybe we just shouldn't let them distract us.

There are also arguments about whether the problem is small, medium, or large, but those arguments doesn't really help find solutions to it, either.

There are plenty of people who truly want to help fix the problem. Maybe we can get further on it if we just ignore the others, the peanut gallery.

James Watson

Posts: 2024
Nickname: watson
Registered: Sep, 2005

Re: Disbelief: women and Open Source Posted: Jul 27, 2009 4:57 PM
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> I have read the keynote by Kirrily. I see her point now:
> she says that the OSS community is sexist and it makes
> the entry barrier higher than needed.

I think it would be helpful if someone would explain what kinds of barriers are being placed in way of (only) women.

I guess my confusion around this is that I always thought of OSS as a 'self-selection' process. Most projects have a hard time getting anyone else to help, let alone women. I'm not really sure what is being asked of us.

I didn't hear the keynote but the presentation seems a bit specious. First of all, where does this data come from? The 'wiki' (really when has a wiki ever been wrong? says: "Estimates range from 1%-5% depending on the survey". First, that's a pretty big range and second, what surveys? Are they statistically insignificant? Are they online (self-selected)?

Can someone give a concrete example of this sexism? Don't get me wrong. I think that programming can be a very hostile environment for women. Firstly because it's mostly male and secondly because a lot of programmers have had very little romantic interaction with women and not for a lack of desire. I'm not saying that this argument is wrong. But if you are going to put an argument out there, put some meat on it. Don't waste people's time with correlation equals causation nonsense.

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