[opensource] Women in Software: Open Source, Cold Shoulder

B A Bair bbair at cse.ohio-state.edu
Mon Jan 17 23:02:27 EST 2005

This is discouraging... (Next email: a response from Jane Margolis)

Software Development - November 2004 

Women in Software: Open Source, Cold Shoulder 

Proponents of open source software often describe their campaign as a
great equalizer: Not only is it freely available, but anyone who wants
to help can do so. But does the community welcome all with open arms?
By Michelle Levesque and Greg Wilson 

Proponents of free, libre and open source software (FLOSS) often
describe their campaign as a struggle for civil rights. They portray
FLOSS as a great equalizer: Not only is it freely available to everyone,
but anyone who wants to help shape it can do so, regardless of race,
nationality, faith, politics or sexual preference. 

But for a movement that claims to be open to all, very few women are
involved. Take a look at the roster of speakers at O’Reilly’s annual
Open Source Conference, or at the names of core developers on any of the
thousands of successful FLOSS projects. While the gender ratio in the
industry as a whole is roughly five to one, the ratio in FLOSS appears
to be several hundred to one. 

Our aim is not to complain yet again about gender imbalance in
computing. Instead, we believe that the gender skew in FLOSS is the most
visible symptom of a fundamental unfriendliness in that community. We
also believe that if this unfriendliness is not addressed, it will limit
FLOSS’s growth and success more than misconceived lawsuits or FUD from
would-be monopolists. Here, we’ll compare the current state of FLOSS
with that of industry, examine why FLOSS is so much more unwelcoming,
and speculate on its other effects. 

The State of Play 

People often speak of the FLOSS “community,” but that phrase implies a
degree of coherence that has never existed. While the stereotypical
FLOSS programmer is a volunteer working for the general good on his own
time, a lot of today’s FLOSS is actually produced by programmers working
full-time for corporations such as IBM and Red Hat, who do it because
it’s their job. We’re primarily interested in the volunteers, both
because it’s the way most programmers first encounter the movement, and
because it’s the easiest area on which to gather data. 

That data is depressing. Despite claims that FLOSS is based on a
“bazaar” model, as Eric Raymond famously dubbed it in his 1998 online
essay, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” almost all successful projects
rely on a fairly small team of core developers. Many have a single chief
architect (such as Linus Torvalds for Linux, Larry Wall for Perl and
Guido van Rossum for Python). An increasing number of these architects
are non-white, non-Anglophone and/or gay, but to date, we’ve been unable
to find a single widely known FLOSS project whose chief architect is
female. In fact, searches through the mailing lists of prominent FLOSS
projects (such as Python and the Apache Web server) usually fail to turn
up any names that are unambiguously female. 

This evidence of gender imbalance is corroborated by less anecdotal
data, such as the ratio of male to female authors in O’Reilly’s catalog
or the gender ratio of speakers at conferences. 

There are two possible explanations for this: Either women are
concealing their gender online, or the forces that discourage women from
entering computing in general are operating far more powerfully in
FLOSS. There’s much anecdotal evidence for the former. For example,
after a post about gender issues in his weblog, columnist Jon Udell
received mail from several women saying that they used gender-neutral
pseudonyms online to avoid attracting the wrong kind of attention. The
first author found out exactly what kind of “attention” that was after
writing an article for First Monday that appeared on Slashdot. The
flurry of mail that followed included more than a few inquiries about
whether she was single, whether she had a webcam and so on. A posting
several weeks later by the second (male) author elicited no such
inquiries (although it did result in several offers to refinance his
mortgage at low, low rates). 

Use of pseudonyms might explain some of the gender imbalance apparent in
mailing lists and at conferences, but it doesn’t explain the near-total
absence of women as FLOSS project leads. We are therefore left with our
second hypothesis: Whatever forces are discouraging women from entering
computing are even more pronounced in FLOSS. 

Exposing Root Causes 

In 1995, Jane Margolis (see “Explaining the Enthusiasm”) and Allan
Fisher began a multiyear project at Carnegie Mellon University to
examine the forces that contribute to the gender imbalance in computing,
interviewing 100 computer science undergraduates of both genders over
four years. In Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing (MIT Press,
2001), Margolis and Fisher identify several factors that contribute to
the gender imbalance in computing, many of which are magnified in FLOSS.

One issue is the experience gap. Males entering the field generally
begin their studies with far more prior computing experience—both formal
and informal—than their female peers. As a result, many female students
lose confidence because they feel that their classmates “already know
everything.” As well, many male students have friends they can learn
from. The effects of the experience gap are more pronounced in FLOSS
because most FLOSS projects have very steep learning curves. FLOSS
software is notorious for missing or out-of-date documentation, and for
requiring more effort than commercial off-the-shelf software to install
and configure. People with an established support community are much
more likely to make it over this hump than unconfident beginners with
fewer experienced contacts. 

Margolis and Fisher also found that the average female computer science
student had a broader range of interests than her male counterpart. As a
result, she was less likely to want to spend all of her “free” time in
front of a computer. “I know guys who live to program, or at least they
seem to. You find them on the weekends doing nothing but programming,”
one female student says in Unlocking the Clubhouse. Brian Behlendorf,
cofounder of Apache, agrees. 

“I certainly do see what I would call ‘alpha male behavior’ in open
source; you know, thump your chest and be the hunter-gatherer. I may be
treading on dangerous ground here, but I think it’s because these
developers don’t show up because they have a day job and were asked to
join the community,” Behlendorf says. “It’s something they decided to
spend their personal time on. Men are more likely to become gamers or
follow some technical pursuit in their free time. I don’t see as high an
incidence of women exploring this out of personal interest.” 

Since FLOSS volunteers work on these projects on their own time, women’s
preference for well-rounded lives makes them less likely to become
The most important factor, however, is the prominent geek/hacker culture
that dominates the FLOSS community. In his 1984 book Hackers (Anchor
Press/Doubleday), Steven Levy describes it like this: “You would hack
and you would live by the Hacker Ethic, and you knew that horribly
inefficient and wasteful things like women burned too many cycles,
occupied too much memory space.” Twenty years later, FLOSS has become a
haven for the antisocial singular-interest geek: a club where they are
safe from the jeers of high school jocks and the pity of college peers
who actually have something to do on Friday nights. Challenges to this
culture are often taken very personally; anyone who points out that it’s
an unwelcoming environment for most people (male as well as female) is
flamed or simply dismissed. This makes anyone who doesn’t fit the geek
profile feel unwelcome. 

LinuxChix is just one example of a community formed by and for women to
provide a supportive and friendly environment where they can discuss
FLOSS without feeling like intruders. Jenn Vesperman, the site’s
maintainer, writes in a mailing list posting, “What do you think
LinuxChix is FOR? It’s to provide a way for women to realistically get
into the geek community. We certainly aren’t welcome at Slashdot.” 

When asked about the large gender imbalance in FLOSS development, many
women relate stories about harassment or other inappropriate treatment
at a FLOSS meeting or in a FLOSS newsgroup. Since most FLOSS projects
aren’t affiliated with a company, university or other accountable body,
civilized behavior isn’t enforced. 

Helen Faulkner, of the University of Sheffield, believes that women have
to deal with more sexism in FLOSS because no one is present to police
it. A FLOSS mailing list she’s active in suddenly received numerous
posts that displayed a sexist attitude that she considers ample cause
for women to avoid joining in open source: “If I’d been a total stranger
to that community, I don’t think I would have persisted, and probably
wouldn’t have posted at all, because it’s too difficult and unpleasant
dealing with entrenched sexism,” she says. Many (male) programmers
dismiss this sort of comment out of hand, but you have to wonder whether
the OSCON speaker who decorated his slides with illustrations of men and
women from the Kama Sutra would have been comfortable if another speaker
had used similar images of gay men. 

It doesn’t take much for these factors to seriously harm the gender
balance in FLOSS communities. Even a slight increase in hostility can
have a significant impact on the skew. 

“This is just the nature of bell curves in a large population,” says
popular blogger and author Joel Spolsky of Fog Creek Software in New
York. “Take two overlapping bell curves plotting interest in computer
science—one curve for women and one curve for men. Assume that men are
just 1 percent more interested in computer science than women, and shift
their bell curve 1 percent to the right. Now if you try to select for
the 1 percent of people who are most interested in computer science,
you’re going to get 99 percent men, even where there’s only a tiny
difference in the average interest. Small changes in the mean can result
in big effects on the tail end of the bell curve.” 

Collateral Damage 

We believe that FLOSS’s hard-core geek culture is the cause of most of
FLOSS’s other problems. This mostly-male club is doing FLOSS
considerable damage and limiting its potential growth. 

For example, a core element of geek culture is a focus on “hard”
technical issues, such as operating system internals and network stacks,
with a corresponding scorn for “human” issues, such as usability and
user interface design. When people (male and female) who care about
usability attempt to contribute to FLOSS projects, they’re often
ignored, jeered at or told, “What do you mean, it’s ugly? I can use it!”
The result? Linux desktops like KDE/Gnome, which no one but a
propellerhead could love. Mac OS X is proof that it is possible to build
a usable environment on top of Unix; it’s ironic to compare the rush to
clone Microsoft’s .NET to the indifference with which FLOSS developers
have greeted Apple’s user interface. 

The FLOSS “boys’ club” atmosphere also damages public relations. FLOSS
advocates’ eccentricity and stridency are often better known than their
positions on technical and legal matters. Consequently, decision makers
often discount what those advocates have to say simply because they
can’t take them seriously. 

The greatest harm done by FLOSS’s cold shoulder is that it chases people
away. This is the real cost of any discrimination, including the passive
discrimination created by unwelcoming environments. When users (and
developers) feel that they’re not welcome, they’ll invest their time
elsewhere. What remains is a community that suffers from a lack of
diversity and new ideas. Only those who match the definition of a
hard-core geek remain, and thus the cycle perpetuates itself. 

Stunted Growth or Sustained Harvest? 

For 20 years, FLOSS has leaped from strength to strength. From Richard
Stallman’s GNU manifesto in 1985, it’s become a significant part of
corporate IT and serves as the glue that holds the Internet together. 
However, FLOSS may have already plucked all of the low-hanging fruit.
Further growth will require more effort and fundamental changes. If
FLOSS continues to turn a cold shoulder to people who care about more
than just “toys for boys,” it must accept the fact that others—who have
wider interests and priorities—will shape the future of computing. 

Michelle Levesque (ml at cs.toronto.edu) is an active participant in the
free/libre/open source community and an undergraduate student in the
Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto. Greg Wilson
(greg.wilson at hp.com) is a C++/Java programmer in the Select Access
product group at Hewlett-Packard and serves as adjunct professor of
computer science at the University of Toronto. 

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