Attracting women to Free Software communities

There was recently a discussion on the coreboot mailing list about coreboot being more welcoming to female developers. What follows started out as a short reply and blossomed into something that was just begging to become a blog post.

I think that our discussion raises a very important question: Why should coreboot (or any Free Software project) specifically state their support for women to participate?

Semantically, saying that everyone is welcome to contribute does indeed include women as well as three-toed sloths, children, and any sentient beings we don’t know about yet. But I think it can be very welcoming for the coreboot community to mention, even if only briefly, that we are supportive of female developers.

Traditionally the Free Software community has been mostly male. If you look at the subset of the community that is Free Software developers, I’m going to guess that the group is even more heavily male. There just aren’t as many girls and women out there hacking on stuff. I’m not saying that it’s desirable to have equal numbers from each gender, I’m just saying that the skew is so high that it wouldn’t hurt for us to put a little effort into encouraging women who might not otherwise contribute.

Having more women developing Free Software is a good thing because (1) it means more Free Software hackers and (2) it means that more girls will have female role models that they can look up to. Having strong, visible role models that use and develop Free Software is great for us, no matter their gender, but it wouldn’t be half bad to have a few more strong, visible female role models in the community.

Here’s a quick thought experiment: Name 5 male Free Software developers. Now name 5 female Free Software Developers. Much harder to name the women, eh?

When was the last time we had a female DPL? How about a GNU/Linux distro with a female lead? Who is the highest-ranking female officer/employee of the FSF?

Given that women make up 50% of the population, I think it would be great to see more women involved in Free Software. I don’t want to make any quotas or to give preference to women over men when picking positions or anything like that. I just think that we should spend some time trying to figure out why there aren’t more female participants in Free Software. It’s definitely worth our time.



4 thoughts on “Attracting women to Free Software communities

  1. qubit's status on Thursday, 25-Jun-09 19:54:24 UTC -

    • Thanks! I’m reading through the article now.

      I was very interested to hear some of the suggestions, such as using a forum instead of a mailing list, a wiki instead of version control, a high-level language instead of a low-level one, etc. While I can understand that some people might feel more comfortable using one type of tool over another, I see a mailing list and a forum as basically two different views of the same data. Similarly, one could create a mapping between a version control repo and a wiki — e.g. some wikis have a VC backend.

      I think that the reason that mailing lists and version control have succeeded for development is that they are the simplest, most interoperable tools available. Everyone can write a client for email or for CVS/SVN/Git/Hg, but (generally speaking) you have to use the web interface for a forum or wiki. With distributed version control like Git, people can even continue to write code and respond to email when they are offline, and then push their changes when they return to to a network connection.

      Part of the problem here might be that forum and wiki software aren’t mature enough. Last time I checked, the Ubuntu folks were using non-Free forum software because (presumably) they haven’t found a good enough Free Software alternative. Better tools might be enough to bring all the boys to the…forum/wiki. 🙂

      As for languages, I’m interested to hear that some projects aren’t using very-high-level languages when appropriate. Obviously some projects like the Linux kernel or coreboot will continue to write their code in C, but I figured that most projects will choose as high-level a language as possible, balancing the overall speed of the program against the speed of development.

      When choosing a language for a new project, there’s also the interesting case of potentially non-Free languages, such as Java (in the past — I believe they’ve freed it up) and .Net (right now). Using a VHL language is great, but if a given language is potentially patent-encumbered then I could see it being tough to advocate its use.

      Thanks for the great article! I especially liked the quotes from women in Free Software. Please let me know if you have any follow-up stories.

  2. In case you were wondering, here are some answers to the questions above. If you haven’t tried to answer them yourself yet, begone, rascal! Get thee hence to the main article above!

    > Name 5 male Free Software developers

    Here are 5 big names.
    – Linux Torvalds
    – Richard Stallman
    – Larry Wall
    – Guido Van Rossum
    – Bruce Perens

    > name 5 female Free Software Developers

    Okay, Lovelace, Hopper, … wait, they have to still be alive?

    There are a number of women who work on FOSS projects, like Mitchell Baker who is currently the Chair of the Mozilla foundation and Val Henson who works for RedHat on file systems and was involved with LinuxChix. I can’t name many more off the top of my head, but you can read about more of them on the linuxchix women-in-foss page, the Wikipedia Women in computing page, and the Debian Women page.

    > When was the last time we had a female DPL?

    According to the list on wikipedia, every DPL so far has been male.

    > How about a GNU/Linux distro with a female lead?

    I haven’t been able to find a complete answer for this one, but the big distros like Debian, Ubuntu, RedHat, and SUSE all seem to have leaders that are male.

    > Who is the highest-ranking female officer/employee of the FSF?

    The FSF board is all men. Deb Nicholson, membership coordinator, appears to be the highest-ranking woman at the FSF.

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