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Matt Arnold and I were recently discussing the low numbers of women in the Python, Rails, and Linux communities, an issue that I've been puzzling over for quite some time. I go to a lot of Python conferences in particular, and I've noticed that the ratio of women to men is approximately 1 woman to every 40-50 guys -- and at least a handful of those women are non-tech girlfriends or wives, as opposed to women who are there for the conference itself.

Now it's true that women are overwhelmingly underrepresented in tech fields in general. But open source technical convention turnouts are incredibly dismal even for the computing world. Women only comprise about 1.5% of OSS developers, whereas they make up one fifth to one quarter of the proprietary work force. From a personal standpoint, I see far more women when I've gone to Microsoft events, or even when I've done volunteer programming sprints with Java/C#/etc., much closer to the ratios I see in the real world.

Even when I've gone to "women in computing" type conferences where 99% of the attendees are female, almost everyone I meet uses Windows, Sun Java, Visual Basic, C++ and C#.

So I'm going to attempt to synthesize a few of the articles I've read, discussions I've had, as well as personal experiences, into an answer to the question: Why are there so few women in open source relative to the rest of the computer programming world?

I've had more than a few conversations with people, male and female, trying to understand this question, and I've found that the answers usually fall into two categories: "Women aren't interested because..." and "It's more of the same..."

In general the first set of answers stems around some nebulous biological-cultural dismissal of behavior amounting to "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, so of course women aren't in open source". A very simplistic example might be saying "Open source is pretty geeky, and women just aren't geeks". While this particular statement may be true, I usually find these sorts of hypotheses lack explanatory value at best; at worst the can be patently wrong and underestimate women.

The second set of answers revolves around well-documented issues such as sexism and lack of exposure to computing that act as barriers to the entry of women in general. A classic example might be to point to a particular sexist remark by respected a FOSS developer, or many similar remarks across a myriad of mailing lists. However true these problems may be, these answers are incredibly unsatisfying to me, because they don't adequately explain the difference in behavior of the open source and more proprietary communities without other information.

So this is Part One of a [hopefully] series of articles where I'm going to go through the most common answers I've received in each of the categories, show how I think they're incorrect or incomplete, and then give you a synthesis of what I think the larger picture may be.

To Be Continued...

on 2010-11-10 09:44 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] amanda_lodden.livejournal.com
Can I add to the mix, with a take that may already be covered in your other articles?

The OpenSource community has a lot more virtual dick wars, or at least appears to from the very biased view of, well, me. I expect that there are lots of valid psychological reasons why, starting with "if you don't put a price tag on the worth of the finished software, then how do you measure 'success' for the people responsible for bringing the software together?"

My own programming skills are pretty weak, but I have had occasion to search for answers to particular problems, and pretty much every time I went near an OSS forum/blog/whatever, I had to dig through a lot of smug "I am better than [you|everyone|this one particular programmer/community working on a similar product]" bullshit to get to the answer.

Where exactly that turns from "scare off newbies" to "scare off more women than men" I am not sure, but I know that nowadays, I tend to scroll through Google search results looking for forums for paid software instead of open-source software. Perhaps it is that women have a lower tolerance for it. Perhaps it is that more women are newbies, or likely to seek help on problems earlier in their programming career than men. Perhaps it is a coincidence and not causal at all. Perhaps I am an anomaly and most women don't notice or don't care.


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