November 22, 2005

A Problem with the Free Pie, and Debian Women

by Nick Montfort · , 5:30 pm

Hanna Wallach spoke today at Penn about women in free and open source software development. She described the pervasive nature of free software, the “four freedoms” that are referred to in the word “free,” and the distinction between the terms “free” and “open source.” Hanna also mentioned several commercial free software endeavors and many large-scale cases of free software use. She also showed a map with many Debian developers indicated, throughout the globe – at least one in Antartica.

The startling statistic that introduced Hanna’s discussion of women in free software: while 28% of proprietary software developers are female, only about 1.5% of free software developers are. This is certainly the sort of result that provokes a vigorous WTF? reaction, isn’t it?

Hanna presented some preliminary results from FLOSS-POLS survey, which investigates this matter, and she also provided her own insights as part of the 1.5%. In Debian GNU/Linux specifically, which Hanna is involved with, the statistic for official developers is even worse: only five developers of a bit more than 1000 are women. Hanna is one of many Debian volunteers who have not yet progressed through the new maintainer process to become a developer, by the way, so she’s not one of these five. But the involvement of others besides developers doesn’t make the breakdown of this group much less distressing.

Based on the survey data, boys got to use computers, on average, a bit earlier than girls. More striking was the gaps between the ages of first computer ownership: boys were 15, on average, while girls – women – were over 20 when they got their first machine. For tinkering with software, installing a free OS, and otherwise playing around in the ways that befit free software developers, Hanna explained that it really helps to have your own machine, not one you share with several other family members or use at school. This could help to account for the result that the women surveyed, on average, got involved in free software later.

Hanna went on to discuss Debian Women, a project devised to deal with this issue – and one that seems to working well at this. Debian Women pairs women with mentors and offers helpful conversation (without acting as a simple support group). The project is not about segregation – men are involved in it – and doesn’t try to preclude the debates and useful discussions that characterize much online work, but focuses on making Debian more welcoming and human.

Working in information technology is of course not always rewarding and is not always held in high esteem by society; I often think about nursing as a very different profession – one that is more directly connected to helping other people, of course, and is more taxing in many ways – which nevertheless shares some features with programming, CS, and IT work, in terms of the balance of work, training, and social esteem. Of course, this field also sports a noticeable gender imbalance: in 1980, 2.7% of registered nurses were men; by 2000, there were 5.4%. I don’t meant to say that the status of women in computing and free software development is perfectly analogous. Women have a different status in larger Western Culture, and this certainly has an effect. Still, there are some issues that are probably common to endeavors where one gender dominates the population.

Looking for analogies can help in some ways, but projects like Debian Women really do the work of change. It was good to hear Hanna’s talk and the reaction of the Penn computer science crowd; I’m sure the talk left others besides me thinking about how to humanize and diversify their own corners of computing.