Sexism, Software and Organizations

The lack of women in open source software has been getting some attention lately, and the numbers are pretty shocking:

According to Angela Byron’s keynote at the Open Web Vancouver conference earlier this year, women compose 28% of those involved in proprietary software, slightly more than half what you would expect from a random distribution.

Asked to guess what percentage of FOSS developers are women, mostly people guess a number between 30-45%. A few, either more observant or anticipating a trick question after hearing the proprietary figure, guess 12-16%. The exact figure, though, is even lower: 1.5%

So, just to be clear, there are two issues here: Why are there less women than men in programming generally? And why is the proportion of women so much lower in open source software than in proprietary software? The second question is what I’m writing about here.

Byron’s keynote (PDF) lists four reasons why open source may be specifically hostile to women:

I’ll suggest a fifth. At last year’s ASAs, Dan Hirschman and I were talking about how the informality of OSS could be part of the problem. (I say we discussed it, but I remember all of the good ideas coming from Dan.)

Much of the commentary on this topic seems to revolve around the personalities of open source developers or the culture of particular communities. But a big, obvious difference between community-run open source projects and proprietary software produced by for-profit corporations is that they’re controlled by very different types of organizations.

Large businesses and organizations put formal hiring and promotional policies in place. Yes, they have formal policies with respect to racial and gender diversity, but it’s more than just those specific policies. When informal criteria weigh more heavily in hiring and promotion, in-group biases have more of an impact (think “Jack’s one of the guys,” vs. “Jill just doesn’t fit in here”). Even if the people involved deny explicit bias (“It’s not because she’s a women she doesn’t fit in!”), people tend to prefer people like them. This is particularly true in jobs with a more informal work environment. Think of businessmen hammering out deals on the golf course, or schmoozing clients with box seats at the big football game. Or two geeks chatting on IRC at 3 a.m. Or filling a conference presentation with crude images in an attempt to be “edgy”.

Byron suggests some ways to make OSS more conducive to female participation, and others have made suggestions, too. Here’s another thought though: as open source software increasingly becomes big business, with large corporations like Google, Oracle and IBM supporting much of open source software development, the pathways to get involved with open source projects will become more structured and formalized, and this will diversify OSS. In other words, “Oracle is looking for a full-time MySQL developer” vs. “Just email this patch to that nerdy white guy who looks exactly like all your friends.”

I’ve always been interested in—and sympathetic towards—attempts to create less hierarchical, bureaucratic and informal organizations. This is part of the reason I’m a big fan of open source software. It’s also one of the reasons I’m fascinated and frustrated by the weak spots in these kinds of organizations and communities. The idea that a takeover by big bland corporations could actually diversify OSS would probably rub most open source folks the wrong way as well. They pride themselves on being free, open and all that good happy stuff. But sometimes, paradoxically, these inclusive values can actually foster social arrangements that facilitate exclusion.