Women in Open Source – Q&A with Myself

There has recently been a surge of activity to promote participation of women in open source that includes a series of interviews with women in open source in the ROSE Blog, plans to host a women in free software mini-summit, and the FSF and GNOME considering running another women outreach program.

Here are some questions that I was recently asked by friends or asked myself as I was contemplating the subject. Please share any additional questions or answers that you can think of.

What are the benefits of open source?

  • Better and easily modifiable code
  • Internet-connected worldwide community
  • Low-barrier entry as all the educational tools and mentorship is available online
  • Low-barrier for implementing an idea and making it widely available
  • Software products that are available to people who can’t otherwise afford them

What are the benefits to women of getting involved in open source?

  • Being part of a great community, transparent way of getting things done, and a powerful inclusive movement
  • Opportunity to affect development in areas such as education, science, usability, accessibility, and access to computers in poor countries and communities
  • Rewarding and flexible jobs

What are the benefits to the open source of getting more women involved?

  • Input from all segments of population will result in products that appeal to wider markets “The power and capacity of an open source community is determined by the quantity and quality of its social capital. If a community fails to invest in either – if it turns off or away qualified people because its culture (however unintentionally) discriminates against a gender, race or group – then it limits its growth and potential.” From “Women in Open Source – the canary in the coal mine” by David Eaves
  • Bigger community – addressing some of the issues that result in fewer women in open source will also improve the experience for all newcomers
  • More gender-balanced work environment

What are the activities that people take up in the open source community?

  • Software development
  • System administration
  • User interface design
  • Graphic design
  • Documentation
  • Community management
  • Marketing
  • Identifying issues and reporting bugs
  • Helping users
  • Event organization
  • Translations

Why are women staying out?

  • Lack of knowledge about how to get involved
  • Lack of spare time and different cultural hobbies and responsibilities
  • Lack of knowledge about how important and valuable the free software movement is
  • Lack of open source recruitment events

What are the things that can be done to get more women involved in open source?

  • Outreach programs that sponsor women who are considering careers in open source
  • Open source companies hiring more women
  • Promoting open source as a rewarding field to volunteer in to create something that has social value and strengthen the resume
  • Increasing visibility of women who are already involved in open source
  • Documenting the process for getting involved better
  • Publishing comprehensive overviews explaining the process, the products, the industry and the user stories

9 thoughts on “Women in Open Source – Q&A with Myself”

  1. I think you can drop “usability” from “Identifying usability issues and helping users” or at least add a general QA item: if women can get involved in software development, they surely get also involved in finding/triaging bugs in software.
    Also, documentation writing is another area open for contributions.

  2. I don’t see how lack of spare time could be a cause for women? If it were really a cause, wouldn’t it equally apply to men? I don’t see how it’s beneficial to think about which roles women specifically could play in OSS, shouldn’t they be able to do all the work men do?

    While the goal of attracting more women to OSS might be noble, in my opinion the ends do not justify the means. An outreach program for women would exclude men, which makes it benign discrimination. In my opinion there’s no such thing as benign discrimination, discrimination is malign in any case.

    The money for those outreach programs could better be spend on extra students for the Google Summer of Code.

  3. Why are women staying out?

    Lack of knowledge about how to get involved
    Lack of spare time and different cultural hobbies and responsibilities
    Lack of knowledge about how important and valuable the free software movement is
    Lack of open source recruitment events

    How exactly are these women-specific?
    You are right of course that they are problems that should be addressed, but men have the exact same problems.

  4. The fact there is very few women in OSS just reflects the fact that there a few woman in Software development in general. At the place I work, there are only men as developers. Like most other software shops.
    Generally speaking, women are just not interested by Computer Science. There’s not much that can be done about that…

  5. “The fact there is very few women in OSS just reflects the fact that there a few woman in Software development in general.”

    False. The proportion of women in open source is much less than in closed source (and closed source’s numbers aren’t stellar).

    “Generally speaking, women are just not interested by Computer Science.”


    Please don’t assert that there’s no problem. We’re trying to fix the problem, not debate its existence; such debate is a hindrance.

  6. Q. Can women get involved?

    A1. If they proactively seek it.

    A2. By wanting to contribute the other 50% perspective.

    A3. By being encouraged to join in

  7. Other reason for Women not taking particiapting in FOSS also becoz many times they wont be treated as fellow FOSS members but instead as a women and seen a bit different maybe sexually or some ting else 2. Recently read an article where some bad thing was projected at some conference.

  8. nicu:

    Thank you for very good suggestions. I updated the post.

    Alexander van Loon:

    Women might have less spare time because they have more responsibilities or they spend their spare time differently. The idea is to either make more women see that open source is a worthwhile hobby or to make more paid opportunities for women to participate. I list the reasons why we want to have more women involved in the post.

    I was listing all the roles people can play in the open source community, and have now updated the post to reflect that.

    Very few women apply for the Google Summer of Code and the goal of the outreach program would be to encourage women to apply and to get involved in the open source community, not to exclude men. Many of the improvements that we can make to encourage more women to participate will in fact attract more new contributors in general. The idea is that women are more likely to assume that the open source community is not for them, so they need that extra encouragement.

    Mirsal Ennaime:

    Thanks for sharing your story! I actually found that there are very few arrogant assholes on IRC (maybe they are on different channels, like #arrogant-assholes ?) and definitely never had any arrogance or the kind of attention you describe about how I need to be treated drawn around me. So I don’t think it’s that bad in general and female newcomers would generally be helped and encouraged (possibly, even more than male ones). They just need to decide to sign in and get involved first.


    You are right, these are not women specific. Though proportionally, it seems that men are more likely to figure out some of these things themselves. It’s true that addressing these will attract more newcomers in general.


    There are proportionally fewer women involved in open source vs. proprietary software (1.5% vs. 28%) as quoted here: http://gnomejournal.org/article/48/the-womens-summer-outreach-program


    I think people are much better about this nowadays. Of course, women need to have some resilience in the matter too and not get discouraged at the slightest remark that might seem out-of-line. The more challenging part is actually to dissuade women from believing the stereotypes that open source is intentionally male-dominated and to get them involved.

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