gender and software

March 12th, 2008  |  Published in Uncategorized

I was browsing the web looking for information about social justice movements and technology and I found a blog post talking about the involvement of women in free/libre/opensource software projects.  The conversation centers around the question of whether the disparity between male and female participation in FLOSS projects is because of fundamental differences in preferences based on gender; like women preferring more social interactions which some perceive as rare within the FLOSS-development world or women preferring not to allocate their leisure time towards software development; or  larger cultural factors (which seem to parallel some things I’ve read elsewhere about gender, power, and sexism).   The discussion is nuanced and civil and pretty interesting:

The reliance on long hours of intensive computing in writing successful code means that men, who in general assume that time outside of waged labour is ‘theirs’, are freer to participate than women, who normally still assume a disproportionate amount of domestic responsibilities. Female F/LOSS participants, however, seem to be able to allocate a disproportionate larger share of their leisure time for their F/LOSS activities. This gives an indication that women who are not able to spend as much time on voluntary activities have difficulties to integrate into the community.

Interestingly, this point seems to suggest that it is the domestic responsibilities, whether perceived or real, that make women feel they don’t have enough free time to contribute effectively to open source projects. I figured that women simply wanted to take on activities outside of technology moreso than men, and maybe this gives a possible reason why. If women have been responsible for certain aspects of home life for many centuries, then it is not hard to believe that they would feel even today that they did not ‘own’ their free time in the same way as men, even if in modern times these responsibilities don’t always exist.

Through the blog post, I found out about Free/Libre/Open Source Software: Policy Support project whose report on gender and FLOSS provided a lot of the context for the blog’s discussion.  I also found out about the GNOME project’s Women’s Summer Outreach Program.  Which got funding from Google to provide 3 additional allocations for Summer of Code GNOME projects for developers who were women.  I liked this from the program’s web page:

Isn’t this unfair to men? What about people who were rejected from Google’s Summer of Code?

The recent FLOSSPOLS report describes many opportunities that women miss out on when getting involved with computing and free software, ranging from being introduced to computers at a later age, being less encouraged to specialise in computing, having few female role models, having less free time to spend programming than men do, and being on the receiving end of sexism when they do try to get involved. We think it’s this imbalance that’s unfair, and we’re trying to help fix it.

As for whether this is unfair to Summer of Code applicants, we don’t think so – this is GNOME’s money to use how it sees fit, and we want to use it to correct a disturbing lack of participation from women in the GNOME development community. We’re doing this for outreach reasons as well as for technical ones, and so just adding another three projects to the twenty Summer of Code projects being sponsored wouldn’t achieve our stated goals. If you’d like to talk about this with us, feel free to get in touch.

Link to Women in Open Source II blog post from The Female Perspectiveon Computer Science blog.