Why Women Are Underrepresented in Open Source
Technology has given us a new blank canvas to draw and create from scratch, an opportunity to overcome the inherited problems from previous times. New tools have come to boost wider and more democratic types of participation. In a global and faster world, differences and similarities are more visible than ever, helping us to express ourselves and work together.
Beyond this ideological perspective, diversity and inclusion are real challenges in the digital world. A community is only diverse if it can foster a plural scope of backgrounds and points of view. Inclusivity is achieved when not only the doors are open to everybody, but when, also, the rules of the game are decided by all and for all, changing from their very roots. An unbalanced power structure leads to unbalanced relations. If decisions are made by a small segment of society, something (or a lot) will be missing.
Ultimately, an environment created and driven by a few will reproduce their narrow view of the world, focusing on the objectives of an elite. Far from diversity, this structure will always be poorer in its perspectives. And what is worse, it won’t be efficient when tackling social issues and enhancing people’s lives.
The Big Picture
That women are underrepresented in the technology field is nothing new. It’s also true in an open source context. This situation must be reflected and reversed, but it must be fully understood first. That is why it is necessary to know the causes and consequences that allow us to understand how we get there.
However, getting the real big picture of the issue is difficult. Gathering the stats on the number of women participating in open source is difficult due to the tricky task of precisely tracking this information. Many studies have tried to analyze this data, and we could say from an optimistic perspective that the number of women working in open source is around 10% of the total.
Beyond the clarity or vagueness of the numbers, the good news is that open source communities are becoming progressively aware of this problem. Communities are fighting to reverse it. In fact, with greater or lesser success, they are working hard on measures to alleviate this historical — and still present — gender gap.
That is why many open source initiatives, companies and foundations are actively working to attract more female talent and other underrepresented groups to make the open source environment a place for everyone.
But is it enough? Is it really working? These questions form the hypothesis that led me to conduct interviews and questionnaires with women working in open source to learn more about the current state of this situation.
Let’s Hear What They Think
I began by reaching out to open source initiatives, corporations and foundations, though making personal connections proved challenging. To overcome this, I connected with a few key individuals who helped me network with other women in their circles. Through this approach, I was able to gather insights from 46 women. While this sample size may not be large enough for precise statistical analysis, it does offer a broad understanding of their perspectives.
The geographic, cultural, socioeconomic and lifestyle conditions were very diverse, as well as their roles and ages. Most were young women who have collaborated in open source for an average of three to four years. This information is relevant for a more plural context since open source has no geographical, social or cultural barriers, providing diversity in all these areas.
Some relevant topics were tackled in the interview:
- Why open source?: Almost unanimously, most interviewees say they collaborate with open source because they are enthusiastic about this system. They consider collaborative work the most enriching. It allows them to continue learning and to meet like-minded people with whom they can work as a team toward the same goal. At the same time, they say it is a flexible environment, which allows them to adapt their work to their style and vital needs at any given moment.
- Visibility: Questioned on whether they believe that their jobs are less visible or relevant because they are women, they mostly agree that they have not felt that. Nor have they had to show more effort to have their work considered or valued, although most accessed open source through a mentoring program for women or underrepresented groups.
- Opportunities: There is a diversity of opinions on whether they believe women have less opportunity than men in open source. The general opinion is that there are equal opportunities. They talk about having even more opportunities if you are a woman since there is less competition and many specific programs dedicated to women and underrepresented groups.
- Glass ceiling: Regarding the number of women in positions of power within their company or project in which they collaborate, they all say that there are either none or very few.
As far as positions of power are concerned, here we do run up against glass ceiling barriers that penalize women just for being women.
- Inclusiveness: In open source communities, inclusive and respectful language appears to be pretty well established. In some specific cases, the interviewees point out that it is still a work in process, but that it is something they have in mind, and initiatives and colleagues seem to be working on it.
- Awareness: When asked if they are aware of programs and policies to include and encourage the participation of underrepresented groups in their current company or project, the vast majority mention mentoring programs and a code of conduct.
- Patriarchal roles: Women in positions of power don’t seem to be reproducing inherited patriarchal roles. Those who know women in positions of power within open source are the ones who are trying to make the change, betting on inclusion programs aimed at women and underrepresented groups. They are flexible; they listen to the needs and requests of the collaborators with more attention than most of their male colleagues; and they invest more money and time in building a more welcoming and diverse environment.
So What Is Going on? Where Are We?
Most of the answers to the questionnaire and interviews are unanimous, which helps us form a picture of the current state of open source. If we do a global reading above these answers, it may seem we are on the way to reversing these inequalities. Still, when we delve a little deeper into these data and the results of relevant studies on the subject, such as “Gender differences and bias in open source: pull request acceptance of women versus men” and “Women’s Participation in Open Source Software: A Survey of the Literature,” we can deduce that something is changing, but it is not completely working.
While it’s true that more and more women are joining open source, they are still a minority. Inclusion policies favor this growth but to certain positions: mostly women juniors who are in peripheral positions to the creation of code, working for the OSS community, and in positions to push the OSS community forward. And, of course, we can see that men are in positions of power.
The importance of role models is essential. If women reach positions of power, they will show girls it is possible. Many mentoring programs use positive discrimination toward underrepresented groups, such as women, which is great and fair. Nevertheless, we will have more women at the mountain’s base. We don’t know whether those girls will believe they can glimpse the landscape from the top without other women pulling them up.
All the women who participated in the interviews and questionnaire are truly dedicated to their professional lives. In addition to being women, some are mothers, penalizing them doubly. They stated that since there was no real conciliation coming from their colleagues and the system, they had two options: delegate the care of the home and their children to a woman with less economic resources than them or try to combine the two things by living with the constant feeling of not achieving anything at work or personally.
This is a clear example of the problem in the patriarchal capitalist system: Women continue to be low-level workers and high-level caregivers.
Where Do We Want to Be?
Not surprisingly, programs committed to including women and underrepresented groups are usually driven by women.
Companies and groups led by men are betting on this change through mentoring programs, using positive discrimination. But all these changes still need to be improved because we are still at the bottom of the pyramid.
All the adversities and potential changes for enhancing the inclusion of women within open source are summarized in the image created by researcher Bianca Trinkenreich image below:
The current inclusion of the historically disadvantaged might help wash some consciences without changing anything from the root. However, what is needed is a mental and structural paradigm shift. From there, it will be possible to build a more horizontal structure where decisions are made more inclusively and democratically.
While those profound changes are finally coming (or not), it is necessary to grant spaces in positions of power to women and people from underrepresented groups who are role models and referents for the new generations. This might change the open source stereotype. For this, it’s necessary to promote women and people from other underrepresented collectives as mentors. We want a more diverse, inclusive and powerful open source space.
Thank you to all the women who have participated in this work for their generosity and time. Thank you for working daily in a man’s world and being a reference for future generations. Thank you because you are the ones who are genuinely changing this.
Thanks to the people who have helped me contact these wonderful women and the AsyncAPI Initiative for continuing to look for ways to build diversity.