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.

5 Responses to “A Problem with the Free Pie, and Debian Women”

  1. Jill Says:

    Thanks for this interesting write-up, Nick!

    I was particularly interested that women get computers so much later than young men do. I hadn’t realised, but Hanna’s quite right that that would make a huge difference. Possibly relatedly: I was surprised to learn from Nick Yee’s research that while something like 90% of young players of WoW are male, the gender balance is much more even (40/60, I think, sorry, too tired to check right now but it’s linked above) for players in their mid-twenties and older. Perhaps it’s simply because young women don’t have their own computers?

  2. Greg Wilson Says:

    Michelle Levesque and I wrote about this depressing statistic last year in Software Development magazine. The responses to our article (which is on-line at on Slashdot and the Apache developers’ list were, well, also depressing.

  3. Libby Says:

    Wow, that’s sad. It makes me want to contribute to Debian just to pull up the percentage a tiny bit! ^_^ I actually do like Linux a lot. Too bad I can’t program…. :(

    Perhaps it’s simply because young women don’t have their own computers?

    Nah, most girls I know have tons of computer time. They just spend it on AIM. Or playing flash games. My geekier friends (anime fans) like free MMOs like Maple Story and Runescape. I guess they just aren’t interested in something you have to pay for, not when you can get all the fun stuff (collecting different outfits and weapons, selling stuff, chatting) in the free ones. Grown women with jobs will probably be more willing to pay money for better graphics and gameplay and all that. Maybe that’s the reason for the gap?

  4. Ted Leung on the air Says:

    How I got into computers

    It’s nice to see that Nat Torkington followed up on Julie’s wish for interviews with people who became hackers (the good kind) as children (although I’ve noticed that a number of folks who were interviewed started a bit later in life). I don’t k…

  5. mark Says:

    I can say that every single person I knew in high school (1996-2000) had a computer, but there was a huge gender difference in what we chose to do with it in our free time. Everyone (male or female) used it for schoolwork (papers, etc.), most used it for talking on AIM and general webbrowsing, but only males (with a handful of exceptions) seemed to treat it as a hobbyist end-in-itself rather than as a tool to do something else. Of course, most males didn’t tinker much either—only the geekier ones did—but it was still a far larger proportion.

    It would be interesting to get some hard numbers and compare the two situations further, but if I recall correctly the results of a survey from a year or so ago, a large proportion of Wikipedia contributors are also male, despite it requiring relatively little technical knowledge to edit it.

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