Sexism: Open Source Software's Dirty Little Secret

Wednesday Sep 9th 2009 by Bruce Byfield
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Women's participation in open source development is far lower than it is in proprietary software development. It’s time for change.

On September 19th, the GNOME Foundation and the Free Software Foundation will host a mini-summit on how to increase women's participation in the free and open source software (FOSS) communities. The summit is probably an effort to repair relationships between the two foundations after Richard Stallman was pilloried for sexism after his keynote in Gran Canaria a couple of months ago.

However, regardless of its reasons, the summit represents one of the first official recognitions of an open secret: sexism is systemic in FOSS, and has been for years.

Of course, that is not what the official mythology says. Officially, the FOSS community is a meritocracy, where characteristics like gender don't matter, and everybody is judged only on their contributions.

For instance, in describing FOSS culture, Eric Raymond writes:

"Hackerdom is still predominantly male. However, the percentage of women is clearly higher than the low-single-digit range typical for technical professions, and female hackers are generally respected and dealt with as equals. . . . When asked, hackers often ascribe their culture's gender- and color-blindness to a positive effect of text-only network channels, and this is doubtless a powerful influence. Also, the ties many hackers have to AI research and SF literature may have helped them to develop an idea of personhood that is inclusive rather than exclusive --- after all, if one's imagination readily grants full human rights to future AI programs, robots, dolphins, and extraterrestrial aliens, mere color and gender can't seem very important any more."
Raymond is not read much any more, but many members of the FOSS community voice almost identical convictions.

But the figures prove the conventional mythology wrong. True, women continue to be under-represented in computing science and high-tech business in general, not just FOSS. According to Angela Byron's keynote at the Open Web Vancouver conference earlier this year, women compose 28% of those involved in proprietary software, slightly more than half what you would expect from a random distribution.

Asked to guess what percentage of FOSS developers are women, mostly people guess a number between 30-45%. A few, either more observant or anticipating a trick question after hearing the proprietary figure, guess 12-16%. The exact figure, though, is even lower: 1.5%

In other words, women's participation in FOSS development is over seventeen times lower than it is in proprietary software development. Proprietary software is inferior in so many ways to FOSS that the fact that it is more successful in recruiting women highlights, more than anything else, that FOSS has a problem -- even if you allow for the widest possible margins of error. The figures are a galling reversal of what those of us in the FOSS community prefer to believe. We're the idealistic and progressive ones, we like to believe.

The situation is slightly better here and there. Byron suggested that Drupal, the project she is mainly involved in, consists of about 12% women. In conversation, Aaron Seigo suggested a similar percentage for KDE. You can also point out individual women who have made their mark in FOSS, such as Stormy Peters of the GNOME Foundation, or Carla Schroder, the editor of Linux Today. Yet such exceptions do not change the overall situation.

Look at the boards of prominent FOSS projects. No women sit on the Free Software Foundation's board of directors, nor the Linux Foundation's board. KDE e.V's board has one woman, and GNOME's board one. If anything, the number of female maintainers in Debian is probably lower than 1.5%. The figures don't change much, no matter which FOSS organization you look at.

Or, if you prefer, listen to the horror stories female developers tell about sexist remarks or being asked out for dates. Look at the constant trolls on the mailing lists for female developers.

Or notice how raising the issue inevitably brings accusations of exaggeration and political correctness. Despite the obviousness of the evidence, many people would prefer to pretend that the problem doesn't exist except in the minds of a few feminist radicals. And, while everyone is in denial, the FOSS community loses female -- and male -- developers when it needs every possible volunteer.

A culture of denial

The problem is not new. People have been discussing it at least since 1998, when Deb Richardson founded LinuxChix to combat it. Moreover, Val Henson's "Howto Encourage Women in Linux" pinpointed the problem, its causes, and the most common reactions to it as long ago as 2002.

Next Page: Sexism and Open Source: Solutions?

However, since then, about the only thing that has changed is that every FOSS conference has a panel discussion on the topic. The community acts as though giving the subject limited recognition is sufficient; everyone can get on with ignoring it.

Instead, when the subject comes up, everybody goes into a frenzy of rationalization. They may say that women are less technologically oriented than men, or lack the confidence or socialization to participate in the free-for-all discussions in which FOSS is developed. They may say that women lack role models, or are less likely to become obsessively devoted to an idealistic cause. A favorite comment is that FOSS is a meritocracy, and only a few women measure up to the standards needed for contributors (although more might if everyone is just patient).

Some of these rationalizations may even have some truth to them. Yet the fact that the same problems do not stop proprietary development from having greater female participation shows that they are not enough to explain what is happening. Nor is explaining the problem a substitute for taking action.

Yet, if anything, the situation is getting worse. The front page of LinuxChix is still active, but its mailing list and chapter pages show little activity in the past few years. Debian Women is much the same, while KDE Women appears entirely inactive.

Typically, such groups are active for a while, encourage a few women to participate in FOSS projects, then settle down to a core of a few members who keep loosely in touch with each other. Occasionally, activity flares, but the groups are largely isolated in their communities, and do little to affect the overall culture.

Meanwhile, the culture of denial continues. When obvious examples of sexism occur, such as Stallman's keynote -- or, much worse, Matt Aimonetti's "Perform like a pr0n star" presentation at a Ruby conference last spring -- provoke outrage, the complaints are too often dismissed.

Aimonetti's presentation, for example, was defended as part of the edginess of Ruby culture. Similarly, defenders of Stallman claimed that those who took offense were attacking Stallman's character because of his anti-Mono comments. Although these examples are extreme, they show just how far some of the FOSS community will go to pretend that sexism doesn't exist.

Looking for solutions

Part of the reason for the sexism in the culture may be that FOSS arose on the Internet. The anonymity that the Web allows has always encouraged flame bait, and no doubt some of the sexism is simply an extreme example. The aggressive language in FOSS development probably comes from the same source. Nor is there much doubt that online culture was originally male-centric, because historically men tended to get connected sooner than women, and that is what they created.

Yet none of these origins are insurmountable. What would happen if the women's groups became part of the power structure of projects, instead of being primarily self-referencing sub-groups? Or if women's mentoring programs were established that both brought individual women along and actively recruited them to act in the mainstream of projects?

Perhaps the most useful step might be a code of conduct with zero tolerance for sexism. A code of conduct assures that the development of Ubuntu and several other projects is conducted politely and constructively, and seems to have no ill effects. If sexism was outlawed as strongly as rudeness or personal attacks, and people were encouraged to speak out against it, perhaps the atmosphere in FOSS projects would become more friendly to women.

But all these measures depend on admitting that sexism exists in FOSS. While I don't expect miracles from the upcoming summit, if nothing else perhaps it can start to put an end to the denial. FOSS is such an idealistic movement in other ways, I suspect there must be thousands like me who prefer not to see it disfigured by sexism any longer -- especially when a united effort could cure the problem.

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