maetl

Room for improvement: Women in OSS

It just wouldn't be fair to ask where are the women in open source and criticize open source usability without providing some kind of summary of how we can do something about it. Humanized recently posted an interesting series of articles relating to exactly this topic. While John Gruber's critique is still relevant, it is refreshing to see this from the perspective of an organization who actually wants to work towards change: Ten Ways To Make More Humane Open Source Software.

There have been plenty of high profile discussions about how to better involve women in the notoriously male dominated open source community. The story about the artificial hearts is an intense reminder of how debilitating gender based assumptions can be:

The classic example was the very first guys who did the artificial hearts. They built them so that they would fit in a man's chest. You know, a six-foot tall American man's chest. So they completely ignored women. So women couldn't get an artificial heart. Neither could other ethnic groups such as Asian-American or just Asians.

I found it interesting to consider the most commonly supposed reasons for the lack of female participation. Let's take the fear of looking stupid and being flamed as one potentially significant barrier to participation. What if we spun this around and looked at it from the opposite perspective of male motivation. Does this mean that a key reason for male participation in open source is because they want to show off, 'be right', and abuse other people for being wrong? It doesn't take a huge stretch of the imagination to assume this. No wonder women are less than enthusiastic about jumping into the OSS ring. Perhaps a key goal for open source projects that aim to be successful would be to devise barriers to nullify the kinds of gratification which obviously attract the wrong types of male ego. This reminds me of the presentation by the developers of Subversion: How Open Source Projects Survive Poisonous People.

Personally, I think the most important changes are going to have to take place in primary and secondary schools. Until our education system links programming with creativity, problem solving, and art, younger students are going to miss out on all the potential benefits, and the whole open source world is going to miss out on some extremely talented and spirited contributors.