Women in free and open source software

GNU/Linux has a reputation for being very male-dominated, but women's groups are emerging and becoming active in the FOSS movement. These groups also support women in ICT more generally.

Gender exclusion in ICT is a huge problem globally and this has been reflected in GNU/Linux development and use. Fewer than 20% of ICT developers are women and this drops dramatically at strategic level. At entry level, women's wages are 17% of men's. By the time women reach their 40s, they will typically be earning 40% less than men. This is actually getting worse and there are many national and international initiatives to address the problem. It's crucial to get more women involved in ICT because exclusion from information technologies will increasingly translate to social exclusion.

The free software movement prides itself on being community-based, committed to equality and open to change. FLOSS could make a space for the empowerment of women in ICT as users and developers but more women need to get involved. There are daunting barriers to participation, however, many of which are a product of the industry's culture. There is a huge dropout rate as a result of factors ranging from bullying to the inappropriateness of long-hours culture to women starting families.

Professionalised organisations concerned with promoting women's participation in the technology industries often take a functionalist approach to the problem -- woman-to-woman mentoring, women only courses? Pink computers? After-school girl's clubs? Until the cultural gendering of technology as emphatically male is seriously challenged, however, there seems little likelihood that technology industries will be able to recruit and retain women effectively.

FLOSS, for all it's 'openness', actually has an even lower female participation rate than proprietary development. FLOSSpols has carried out detailed research on women's participation in FLOSS, the findings are much as you might expect, with some pretty dismal experiences for women in software development environments. The FLOSSpols Report and Policy Recommendations can be downloaded here.

On the 'upside', Semira has written an account of her positive experience as female Debian developer. Indeed, Debian seems to have a relatively good reputation as an environment for female developers.

Organisations promoting women's participation in FLOSS

This list includes women in FOSS and also organisations promoting gender-inclusion in ICT globally:

  • LinuxChix is a community for women who like Linux, and for supporting women in computing. The membership ranges from novices to experienced users. They have produced a really useful bibliography on women and FLOSS. Their culture is highly professionalised and has a strong neo-liberal flavour which many European women might find offputting, however.
  • HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux is a LinuxChix document which does what it says on the tin! I find it rather liberal and niaive in its gender analysis but it's a step in the right direction.
  • Debian Women was founded to balance and diversify the Debian Project by actively engaging with interested women and encouraging them to become more involved with Debian. There's an article on Debian Women at Newsforge.
  • Women in Debian and Ubuntu is group within Planet Debian and Ubuntu working to promote women's involvement in Linux development.
  • GenderChangers is a group of women who organise an annual international carnival of exchanging computer related skills by and for women. The Eclectic Tech Carnival (/etc) is named for the /etc directory in which Linux stores system configuration files.
  • Gnurias is another women developers' group working to promote respect for women's contribution to the free software movement and to form effective collaborations between women free (libre) software developers.
  • There is also a group of KDE Women which is about building a community of female KDE contributors and users. This group isn't only for developers but also for women who want to get involved as developers or as users, researchers or organisers.

ICT and gender more generally:

These groups promote effective and appropriate use of ICT in UK and international women's organistions:

  • GenderIT.org is promoting women's involvement in the development of global IT policy and strategy as well as effective use of IT in women's organisations.
  • Microsyster and the Womens Resource Centre both offer ICT support and training to women's organisations. Microsyster promotes FOSS to some extent.
  • Women Connect supports women's organisations in becoming more ICT savvy and lobbies for changes in policy to promote gender inclusion. No focus on FOSS here.
  • Women’s Information Technology Transfer (WITT) is a portal site to link women’s organizations and feminist advocates for the internet in Eastern and Central Europe. They envision ICT as a tool for women's social activism and want build ICT capacity for women's groups. WITT actively promotes and supports FOSS.
  • WomensNet is a networking support program designed to enable South African women to use the Internet to find the people, issues, resources and tools needed for women's social activism.

These are governmental and non-governmental organisations addressing gender exclusion in the ICT industry which don't necessarily promote FOSS:

  • Wise-Women is a world-wide, online community of web designers, developers and programmers dedicated to supporting women who work as, or aspire to becoming, web designers, developers, and programmers. Members are from all parts of the world and share information, tips, and concerns about developing the World Wide Web in an environment designed to encourage women in this field. They provide really good, clear developer tutorials.
  • Equalitec is an initiative co-funded by the IEE (Institution of Electrical Engineers) and DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) to facilitate work placements for women entering ICT as a career. The Equalitec website has information for women considering an ICT career and useful open discussion forums.
  • BCSWomen is a women's group within the British Computer Society. It provides networking opportunities and support for all women working in IT around the world. They also have a list of womens ICT professional organisations and networks.
  • Women in IT (WINIT) offers an excellent roundup of stats and theories about the under-representation of women in IT with a refreshingly feisty attitude.
  • SIGIS is a European strategic project to promote gender inclusion in ICT covering everything from women-only training to gender-inclusive software design. They have downloadable reports on gender and ICT and a roundup of mailing lists for women ICT professionals available at their site.
  • The Eldis (Hosted by Sussex University's International Development Department) has resources on ICT and gender globally. A lot of innovative work on FOSS and also promoting women's participation is going on in developing countries.
  • Womens Networking Support Programme supports networking for women in ICT globally.
  • DevChix is a very diverse group of women from varied technical backgrounds and levels of experience hoping to build a brand around their group as a community of women who want to give back to the development community and generally make it a better place for everyone.
  • Or you might want to blog your disaffection at Misbehaving
  • Hours of fun for the geek girl at ladyada — kits and howtos to get started experimenting with hardware, firmware and software.
  • There's some lesbian participation in Gaybuntu community. This started off in a promising burst of enthusiasm but has petered out a bit without developing a strong sense of direction.
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