Debunking myths, answering questions

I’ve seen a bunch of the same questions coming up again and again in comments on my OSCON keynote, both on my own blog and on other sites, so I thought I’d take the time to answer some of them in a central place.

1.5%? 20%? Really? Where did you get those numbers from?

1.5% women in open source: FLOSSPOLS survey, 2006, funded by the EU. 1541 open source developers were surveyed, from a range of projects both large and small. The surveyed developers were taken from those who had answered the earlier FLOSS survey and had provided their email addresses for subsequent contact; the 2002 FLOSS survey was a widespread survey of open source developers, who were recruited by asking people to pass information about the survey out to open source development mailing lists and the like. The FLOSS survey published a report on their methodology and validation of results which describes possible selection biases, etc.

5% women in the Perl community (users and developers): my own survey of approx 5000 Perl users in 2007. The specific figures were 95% male, 4% female, 1% other. In putting together my slides, I was working from memory and conflated the 4% and 1% into 5% total, who I represented as female. This was incorrect, and I will fix it if/when I give my presentation again. The results of the Perl Survey are available as a summary PDF (Letter, A4) or as a raw data dump.

10% women in Drupal community: DrupalChix website. Addison Berry, a Drupal contributor, told me at OSCON that the number is based on attendance at Drupal events. I have not had this confirmed as yet.

20% women in technology industry: figures vary between about 15% and 30% when looking at overall proprotions of women in IT roles from country to country. For example, some of the reports I’ve read say things like 24.5% of non-administrative ICT roles in the US (source – PDF), 19% of ICT roles in Australia (source), and 20% of the IT workforce in France (source – PDF). These surveys are usually done by either industry bodies such as the Information Technology Association of America or government bodies like the Australian Department of Workplace Relations. Usually they include all IT roles, including corporate IT and the like. When surveying for eg. women in technical management, the numbers are generally lower. I’ve been collecting links to such reports here.

Dreamwidth and OTW are about journalling and fanfic. Of course they have lots of women! But women don’t join other open source projects because they don’t use/care about that kind of software.

Here are some examples of widely-used open source software:

  • Ubuntu – desktop linux distribution
  • GIMP – graphic design application
  • WordPress – blogging platform
  • Adium – IM client
  • Firefox – web browser
  • Joomla – content management system
  • Moodle – online education platform

Each of these projects is in an area that either has a majority of women participating (blogging, IM, graphic design), or an equal or nearly equal number as men (desktop computing, education, web browsing), at least in western countries. And yet they do not have proportional representation of women in their development teams.

It is not (solely) the female-friendliness of the underlying application that leads to women joining an open source project. If it were, the above projects would have a high level of female participation.

Nor are there many applications so inherently female-unfriendly as to automatically explain a 98.5% male development team; the Linux kernel, which I’ve heard cited as an example, is no such thing, since the proportion of Linux users — including desktop and handheld devices such as the Kindle, Android phone, etc — is no doubt higher than 1.5%.

Isn’t 75% or 100% women on a project just reverse sexism? How come that’s OK when 100% men isn’t?

100% of men in a single project would be just fine if it were an outlier, and if that were an accurate representation of the user base for that software and the necessary developer skillset. But that’s not what’s going on. The problem we’re facing here is one of widespread inequality: a pervasive situation affecting thousands of projects, regardless of the skills and interests of the wider community.

A healthy open source community would show a bell curve of female participation rates, with the hump somewhere around the percentage of women who use that kind of software and/or the percentage of women who have (or can acquire) the appropriate skills — let’s say anywhere between 20% and 50% for most software projects. (That 20% is based on the number of women in the tech industry with the right kind of skills, and the 50% represents the number of female users for applications like blogging, web browsing, graphic design, or teaching.)

As with any bell curve, there will be outliers. Fan fiction, admittedly, is a heavily female activity so a higher proportion of female participants is not surprising. On the other hand, a man asked me at OSCON what to do about his all-male model railway automation project, and that’s one I think is just fine with 100% male developers given the pool of model rail enthusiasts he’s drawing from.

(Of course, we can also work in parallel to address imbalances in user communities or in the pool of people who have appropriate skills, but that’s not where I’m focussing right now. If you’re interested in that, you might like to look into organisations working on encouraging girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) education or teaching computer skills to adult women. For all I know there are also groups working to encourage women in the model railway community.)

15 thoughts on “Debunking myths, answering questions

  • Pingback: Emma Jane (emmajanedotnet) 's status on Friday, 31-Jul-09 02:15:16 UTC -

  • MikeP

    HR has a 4/5 rule: if you have 100 men and 10 women applying for a job, and you’re hiring 16, you’d better offer jobs to at least 2 women or you could have some issues in your recruitment or selection stages. That accounts nicely for fields where you have less than equal representation. (Goes the same for male nurses and, nowadays, elementary school teachers.)

    No reason not to apply same to OSS development teams. Of course, it’s hard to say who “applies” and who is “hired”, but if your expected representation is off by as much as it is – or if your expectations are as low as under 10% – then you’ve got issues one way or another. “That’s just the way it is” is a cop-out.

  • joqiu

    Wow, this article is worth 10 years of education! Thanks for providing all the empirical evidences. And what I like best is that everything is put into context, so it really helps people understand your argument!!

    I have been wondering, if we’ve got more female developers in open source, would the software be very different from what we currently have, in terms of functionality, features, etc. I think this piece provides some answers.

  • Skud Post author

    @MikeP: yes, I’ve heard of that rule, and it’s a good one for situations where there is a clear pool of applicants. It very much informed what I said in this blog post :)

  • Pingback: Infotropism – Debunking myths, answering questions |

  • Abigail

    Skud: “and if that were an accurate representation of the user base for that software and the necessary developer skillset.”

    But that’s not uncommon in the “real” world. There are far more male chefs than there are female chefs, and there are far more female nurses than male nurses, while the gender spread among restaurant patrons and hospital patients is close to 50/50. Car mechanics also have a larger male/female ratio than drivers, while the male/female ratio among pre-school and elementry school is far less than among the children themselves.

    There will always be differences between gender ratios if you compare the producers with the consumers.

  • MikeP

    Saying so might help bolster your argument somewhat. Then again, it might just add to the verbiage without convincing; I suspect that those who claim there is no problem would not be convinced by HR-type arguments, as lots of techs seem not to trust HR at all.

    Anecdotally, I work in an IT department with ~150 staff; 20% seems high for our female representation, and if you exclude administrative staff, it plummets. I directly work with about 20 people, one of whom is female. My last department was 20 people; excluding our admin assistant, who actually has an MMath and probably could have been a techie-type if she were so inclined, our female representation was 0.

  • Pingback: The where-are-all-the-women question, this time in Open Source | Lady Only! Blog.

  • John, the train dude

    Thanks for remembering all of us train nuts :-)

    As I mentioned at the BOF, much of life (as well as Open Source) seems driven by interest first, and then by opportunity. @Abigail touched on this – if few women are interested in model trains in the first place, then it doesn’t matter how good or bad our JMRI developer community is in welcoming and empowering them – their numbers will be small either way.

    (In the interest of full disclosure, I find this lack of interest in trains both welcome and disturbing – it is nice having some nicely bounded “guy time”, but it feels like half of my friends are missing out on a good thing…)

  • Aaron Trevena

    I don’t buy the “there is sexism in the real world too” argument you replied to abigail with.

    When I studied IT at school and college (i.e. high school, not university), there was about 10% girls at age 15/16, and 5% age 17/18.

    When I studied at university there wasn’t a single woman in the 40 or so students who started the course, this despite the lack of science or maths requisites that could make it disproportionately male.

    The computing society had between 1 and 3 active female members year to year, out of between 8 and 15 active members year to year.

    I’m not entirely sure how it could be sexism that an overwhelming majority of girls showed no interest in IT at the age of 15 and it seems to make sense that the reducing numbers showing an interest get’s smaller as you specialise academically from general IT at school to more specific undergraduate and post-graduate courses at university.

    I really thought that maybe it was society that was to blame for this until I had a daughter who is now nearly 3 years old.

    She is *Girly*, seriously – fairies, animals, nursing and ‘mummying’ a huge number of dolls and all the stereotypical gender behaviour – we’ve even repainted her room from our ‘gender neutral and tasteful’ original scheme with teddy bears to bright pink with flowers and butterflys as that’s what she likes.

    This is purely anecdotal, but it was surprising just how much you gender affects from birth, despite deliberately trying not to reinforce it and offer (but not push) alternatives.

    In the end the best I can hope for is to ensure she feels confident and unafraid of maths and science, as I’ve seen many female friends and family become (often despite much better ability than me).

    Based on everything being pre-determined at such an early age, the best I think we can reallistically hope for is not to alienate or scare off the small proportion of women who remain interested in tech and open source despite a complex (and not yet understood) combination of nature, nurture and sociology pulling in other directions.

    Based on that I think positive discrimination or targets of equality to be unrealistic and unhelpful.

    It’s much harder to quantify and harder still to implement, but just making it less uncomfortable for women and not losing (or driving) so many them to other interests and commitments is more acheivable and worthy aim.

  • Skud Post author

    Aaron, if you would like to learn more about what girls face at elementary through high school age, and how that can turn them off computing, I suggest you read “Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing” where a lot of research has been done on the subject. Here’s a hint: gender essentialism is *not* the answer, and there *is* sexism afoot.

  • Jenny

    Aaron, you’re right that gender starts young. But to the degree that gender roles are cultural, that means we have myriad opportunities to “level the playing field.”

    There’s increasing research showing that when CS and IT are not gendered, or have a positive gendered connotation for women, more women participate. In Malaysia, for example, at the University of Malaya …
    •52% of bachelor’s CS students are women
    •66% of bachelor’s IT students are women
    •42% of master’s students are women
    •39% of Ph. D students are women
    •All Heads of Departments are women
    •The Dean was a woman
    (From research by Vivian Lagesen, here:

  • Meg

    Aaron, a three-year-old child is not untouched by culture. Three-year-old children recognize brand name products. It’s not that surprising, then, that they’ve picked up on the culture — even if the parents tried to protect them from it. Kids are quick learners, and unfortunately not everything we (as a society) teach them is a great lesson. If you want to know how women would behave in a non-sexist society, you have to create a non-sexist society, not point to kids who have been immersed in this one from birth.

  • Aaron Trevena


    I’ve got a trained and experienced Nursery and childcare expert as mother-in-law as well as myself and my wife who are both graduates and neither of us wear a dress.

    Little girls in the Amazon will still be attracted to “pretty” things and decorate themselves regardless of the lack of Childrens TV.

    I’m glad to say that most brand names are of no interest to my daughter, although she is a sucker for characters from Mowgli to Manny (Ice Age) and Snow White to Cinderella.

    I’m pretty shocked at how feminine and girly she is given the environment and careful way we’ve brought her up, on the other hand, she’s happy that way so I don’t want to try and make her anything else.

    To be perfectly honest I’d be happy for her not to go into IT, it’s not a good career for either sex : You’re pigeon-holed and ostracised from society (but women will IME find that more of a problem than men) and at work (unless it’s all geeks, and who wants to work with just geeks), the pay isn’t that good, their is little to no job security, you’re expected to train yourself, the degrees don’t prepare you for work, and it’s so agist that chances are you’ll find it hard to find work when you reach 50.

    At least it’s not as bad as Dancing, which my wife and sister both had to give up from injuries and illness, worryingly it looks like she might want to head in that direction and a 10 year career leaving you needing hip replacements at 30 or 40 and brittle bones and mis-shapen feet and few useful working skills doesn’t exactly enthrall us.

    Anyway, long story short – I’m not going to be tilting at windmills and a lot of what I’ve heard about full parity seems very much that way, I will be happy when all kids, boy or girl see IT as normal but more importantly, when any child can feel confident with maths and science.

Comments are closed.