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Dreadfully Few Women Are Open Source Developers

But instead of just whining about it, some organizations are actually doing something. A refreshing change.

By Amy Vernon on Fri, 03/05/10 - 2:25pm.

If you can prove your open source community "is not made up of jerks," you can join the PHPWomen Partnership Program. The organization's goal with the program — whose partners already include Spaz, Habari, Phergie, PHP-GTK, The PHP Documentation Team, Lithium, FUDForum and Joind.in — is to make up for the pathetically low numbers of women developers in open source.

Depending whose figures you look at, just 1.5 percent (Kirrily Robert, speaking at the O'Reilly OSCON (Open Source Convention) last summer) or just 3 percent (an article this week on OStatic) or just 5 percent (the FLOSSpols survey of the European Open Source community in 2004-06) of open source developers are women. Even on the high end, that's nothing less than pathetic.

It's not just open source development - just 13 percent of those who edit and contribute to Wikipedia are women.

I admit I get a bit tired, sometimes, of hearing "woe is me" and "why aren't more women represented in tech?" But with figures that low, I can't help but think it's not just a lack of interest or skill that's keeping women out of the field. That's why it's great when organizations liked PHPWomen don't just bemoan their fate but rather actively work to change things.


They're not mandating quotas; they're just mandating that their partners keep them in the loop and let them help find developers who can do the job. In any field, it's often who you know that determines the jobs you get. Tech in general, and open source in particular, is no different.

And there's plenty of women with the skills to do open source. What I liked about Kirrily's talk at OSCON was that after getting the facts and figures out of the way at the start, she didn't stand there wringing her hands like, well, like a helpless female. She laid out two open source projects that were exceptionally successful at getting involvement from female developers: Dreamwidth, an artists' social community, and Archive of Our Own, an archive of fanworks (fan fiction, fan art, etc.) from all types of fandoms.

I especially liked this statement from Kirrily:

"So, what can we learn from this? Well, one thing I've learnt is that if anyone says, 'Women just aren’t interested in technology' or 'Women aren’t interested in open source,' it's just not true. Women are interested, willing, able, and competent. They're just not contributing to existing, dare I say 'mainstream,' open source projects."

And it's not just PHPWomen who are taking matters into their own hands. The GNOME Foundation has set up an outreach program for this summer to pair women interested in working in the "free software community" with mentors to show 'em they're not alone. And GNOME isn't a women's organization, it's just an open source community that recognizes there aren't a lot of women among its ranks and wants to change that. Sure, the foundation is run by Stormy Peters, one of the best-known open source advocates around, but GNOME started the outreach program a couple years before Peters came on board.

That made me think about how most people I've met, male or female, who do any kind of tech or coding or web design or anything tech-related at all, have been generous with their time and knowledge when faced with someone who clearly wants to and is capable of learning it. Lisa Hoover at OStatic put it quite well: "I believe that, in general, the male segment of the tech population either supports our success or doesn’t give it nearly as much thought as we assume they do."

And that means that women need to give it more thought and stop psyching ourselves out about it. Instead of worrying that other people aren't going to think we can do things, we need to just do them. Show people what we can do instead of waiting for someone to ask us. That's what the boys do; haven't we spent the last 40+ years saying we want to be treated equally?

So just learn what you want to learn and do what you want to do. Tech is one of the few areas that's going to continue to grow in this economy. Don't get shut out.

 

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