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Women in Free Software, by Fernanda G. Weiden
Sunday, September 11 2005 @ 08:00 PM EDT

Why aren't there more women involved in technology? Back in July, when we wrote about David Wheeler's account of his trip to Brazil's 6th International Free Software Conference (FISL 6.0), he specifically mentioned meeting Fernanda G. Weiden there and how successful she has been in getting women there involved. I contacted her and asked if she'd be willing to explain to us why she thinks there are so few women in software development and what can be done to improve the numbers. What is her secret?

Fernanda is a Free Software developer at the IBM Linux Technology Center in Brazil, and she also works maintaining some packages for Debian. She is involved in the Debian Women project and also founded in Brazil the "Projeto Software Livre Mulheres". She is also a member of the Free Software Foundation's Latin American team. She was the first woman to get Red Hat certified in Linux in Brazil. Here is the Debian women's profiles page, where more women developers give advice to other women on how to get involved. And here's a page of IBM Women in Technology, and they share their formative influences and some challenges they have faced in pursuing a career in technology. For example, one says that sitting in the front row in science classes helped her instructors perceive her interest, drive and determination.

She approaches the issue of women becoming more involved from the angle of what women can do, although I think there is a hint or two for the guys also. But mainly she raises an intriguing thought that frankly was new to me, I'm embarrassed to say: If I want software to do exactly what I want, the sure way to make it happen is to write it myself. I have to admit, it's the very first time I ever thought seriously about learning how to program. Anyway, see what you think. And if you are interested in getting Red Hat certification, here's some special offers from Red Hat if you sign up before September 30. Here's the page on Red Hat Linux Certification. Maybe your company will send you, if you lack the means. You never know unless you ask.

MIT has a 4-week summer school for high school girls, called MIT Women's Technology Program. And here's an interview with Pat Galloway, the former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the first woman to serve in that office. She tells some of the experiences she had that could have deflected her from her career as a civil engineer. If you are a man, you may not realize how typical such experiences are, and I provide the link for illustrative purposes, even though her field wasn't software. And here's a page of resources, links to women-related science/technology sites. So, with that, here is Fernanda.


Women in Free Software

~ by Fernanda Weiden

The gender issue in the Free Software community is a big paradox: we have a community of volunteers teaching the world how to develop technology in a different way, one willing to distribute equal opportunities through free access to the software, and at the same time a community in which more than 50% of the total world population doesn't participate.

A couple of studies have been done about female participation on technology, and they suggest numbers of around 20% 1 in most countries, measuring such things as the number of women enrolling in IT courses like computer science at university, for instance.

What hasn't been studied is a different phenomenon, even worse numbers when the IT career in question is Free Software. The number of female developers is around 1.5% in general, and in some communities like Debian, it is 0.5%. What are the reasons for the lack of women in the Free Software community? I have some ideas.

When they try to integrate into the user/developers groups of the Free Software community, most women find barriers, mainly related to two diametrically opposed behaviors: either they will be treated as the most loved person in the group, over treating them, or they will be victims of sexist attacks, jokes or dating approachs.

These behaviors make 50% 2 of the women who try to join the community in the end decide not to. It's not unusual for a woman to receive a invitation to a date as the answer to her technical question, just as it's not difficult to receive other questions as: “do you have a boyfriend?” or “can you send me a picture?”. Because of that, women tend to keep a little distance from the community, from the exchange of knowledge and experience, and stay merely an observer in the communities in which they participate.

The main problem with that is that in Free Software, the user/developers discussion groups and mailing list play an important and special role, since the community increases its knowledge and makes their technique and software better based on knowledge sharing.

Another important point is that Free Software development is often done as a hobby, just for fun, and in one's spare time. Where is a woman's spare time? After their working day, most of them still have the second working journey, which is at home, taking care of the home, the children and her husband. If the men can have the privilege of doing Free Software in their spare time, sitting in front of the computer and having some fun coding what they want, women in general don't have this privilege.

All these things end up in missed opportunities for women and for the Free Software community, because both will never have the opportunity to access this knowledge which could be crucial for improving some software or other idea.

People write software to meet their needs, to make software do what they want. If women don't participate in writing code and writing documentation, they will never have the results and the answer for their needs. That's how it is. Those who merely watch have no influence on driving development, and the consequence is not having software that just precisely what you want it to do.

Another issue I see. Women also usually require too much of themselves, because they have a natural insecurity which results in less women participating in technical discussions, for instance. It's the old feeling of “I don't know enough to join this discussion. I'll let the experts talk.”

Some time ago, I was in an event attending a talk about VPN (Virtual Private Network) with ipsec. I never had submitted a paper to talk about this subject because I felt I hadn't mastered the subject sufficiently to be able to teach other people. After listening the speaker talking for 30 minutes to 100 people more or less, though, it was impossible to keep quiet and not say to him that he was spreading wrong information to the people there. And it's not so unusual in meetings around here to hear misinformation. I say that, even though I still think that I haven't enough knowledge to give a talk on VPN with ipsec. The man didn't either, though, and it didn't stop him at all.

Women need to enpower themselves with the hacker spirit, which is the spirit of sharing knowledge and ideas. They need to be aware that particularly for Free Software, all the ideas, small or big, cloudy or brilliant, are important to be merged and put together with other ideas to compose the end product -- the Free Software which we develop. Software per se is knowledge, built collaboratively by putting together lots of small bits of knowledge. That's why it's so powerfull. And no idea is brilliant until it is shared with other people. Could you imagine if Einstein had had the idea of relativity and never told anyone? Would it be a brilliant idea then? How long would it have taken until another physicist had the same idea? How much time would have been wasted?

To make sharing knowledge more natural for women, some groups have been formed in the community with the target goal of creating a more friendly community for women. The problem is that most women bring to these group the same behaviors they learned to have in the traditional groups: being merely an observer.

In the end: the female gender, known for being so communicative, is intimidated to participate in the community, to share their ideas because they fear the consequences of doing that. It's the communication acting against the natural ability attributed to women, the ability to communicate.

That's the role of the women's groups, to offer a friendly interface for women to get their feet wet and then join the community. The problem is when these groups don't have a clear target, in the end they turn in Barbie worlds that don't exist in reality. Instead of integrating the women into the community, they serve as ghettos, re-creating existing groups in the community with the only objective “being more friendly” for women.

Groups like Debian Women, 3 for instance, act to integrate women into the Debian Project, and also as a thermometer of the sexism level of this community. Putting women who work for Debian together in a group is a way to make them feel more confortable, but a reality dose is needed and should be administrated daily. So, Debian Women has no mailing list of its own to discuss specific questions about Debian. If women want to discuss that, they should go to the project's mailing lists. The group helps you to find the way, but will not create another, separate way just because you are a women. Debian will not change on its own.

Another important player in the community are the groups that works on giving to the “normal women” the opportunity to have access to technology. That's the case of Projeto Software Livre Mulheres 4 (“Women Free Software Project” - PSL Mulheres) in Brazil. PSL Mulheres works mainly on talking with other feminists/female groups to get them discussing about gender and digital divide and about how to use Free Software to solve that. It also works giving technical support to these organisations. Women in general has no access to technology. That's why they not get involved on it. In Brazil, for instance, the feminist movement is still fighting for basic sexual/reproductive rights, equality of salaries and oportunities for women and things like that, and they usually don't talk about technologies. I believe the digital divide will become a gender problem in the near future if we don't talk about it from now.

Women need to get involved in the world of technology and make it change. And I think that's the way it should be: women active in Free Software use and development helping to change the community, not passively waiting for this world to change itself.


Copyright © Fernanda G Weiden.
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".


Women in Free Software, by Fernanda G. Weiden | 177 comments | Create New Account
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Women in Free Software, by Fernanda G. Weiden
Authored by: Anonymous on Sunday, September 11 2005 @ 08:03 PM EDT

[ Reply to This | # ]

Women in Free Software, by Fernanda G. Weiden
Authored by: Anonymous on Sunday, September 11 2005 @ 08:28 PM EDT
What a great article! Ms. Weiden is right that it takes a
two-pronged approach- providing support, encouragement,
and a friendly atmosphere, and encouraging women to be
bolder & tougher, 'cause the world is a pretty rough
place, and that isn't going to change anytime soon.

Carla Schroder

[ Reply to This | # ]

Male/Female Integration
Authored by: Anonymous on Sunday, September 11 2005 @ 09:07 PM EDT
I certainly don't have all the answers, but I have some observations that may (or may not) help.

1) Dating. There is really no way around it. If you're an attractive woman, you're going to get asked out by men. It doesn't matter if it's by someone within a computer group, a workplace (usually regardless of company rules), a bar, or a church. It's part of being human, and you're going to have to learn how to deal with it gracefully. Some of us should be so lucky to have that "problem".

2) Speaking your mind. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that you are not an expert (even if you are), while also expressing your opinion. This is especially true if you've spent some time thinking about your ideas and opinions. Even then, not everyone will agree with you. There are times when no one will agree with you, even if you are clearly correct. If you let this stop you, you will get no where.

3) Sexism. If there's one thing humanity as perfected, it's ways of its members elevating themselves by stepping others. This takes many forms, and is by no means limited to sexism. You can take heart in the realization that if people are upsetting you for any reason, you can take your (and their!) toys and find a friendlier environment. It's not ideal, but you have options. Also bear in mind that not all sexism is intentional. Sometimes it's just institutionalized behavior that the members of the institution don't realize is objectionable to others. That behavior is just the way it's been, probably through simple social evolution.

4) Time. Like most professions and hobbies that are dominated by one sex, integrating the other sex is going to take time and sacrifice -- by both sexes. There are going to be inevitable conflicts and bruised feelings. I don't think there is any way to prevent this. Eventually, some middle ground will be found.

5) Merit. FOSS development is a meritocracy, and meritocracies are powered by friction. You will find yourselves in heated arguments a lot. Some people will even be unable to keep their arguments from straying to the personal. If you are the timid type, get over it or say out (for your own good).

That's all I have time for right now.

Tony O'Bryan (Maybe it's time I made an account).

[ Reply to This | # ]

Corrections thread here please
Authored by: nsomos on Sunday, September 11 2005 @ 09:33 PM EDT
Please place corrections here.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Off Topic to go here ...
Authored by: nsomos on Sunday, September 11 2005 @ 09:35 PM EDT
Please place off-topic posts here.
Clickable links if you can manage them.
yada yada yada ...

[ Reply to This | # ]

Most just not interested, for good reason.
Authored by: Anonymous on Sunday, September 11 2005 @ 09:36 PM EDT

This is not a flame, just an observation from my experience.

Of the very few women developers i've ever met, most only ever did it as a career because they thought they could earn some decent money.

They weren't particularly interested in the job, particularly the coding part of the job, and they certainly weren't going to waste their private time working on free software after work. Any that were driven by things other than the money quickly moved away from the coding jobs that are the backbone (and often direct driver) of hackers.

I must admit, that the so-called 'community' of 'hackers', is a particularly unrewarding and exclusive one, so it is completely unsurprising that women wouldn't want to take part. I've been a free software hacker for nearly 10 years now, and I don't feel part of any community. I feel excluded from any developer community as much as I feel excluded from general society by being a hacker in the first place (few things kill a conversation faster than saying you're a software engineer).

It's just a job.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Men and women are generally different
Authored by: LarryVance on Sunday, September 11 2005 @ 11:06 PM EDT
I am not setting this up as flame bait. During the past several decades I have
been in circles where men and women work and in my own home where I have gotten
to deal closely with women. I admit that I have a one track mind. My wife and
daughters do not have one track minds.

I am tenacious at working on a problem with exclusion of all else. My wife can
and does manage several tasks but with less tenacity. In general I note that
men are more inclined to take something apart to see what makes it work than a

I am not saying that there are not women that are very good at technical things,
because I have encountered some women that are indeed very intelegent and
mechanically inclined, but as a general rule the proportion is very slanted
against such.

When it comes to managing something then I see women winning the big prize.
That multitasking capability that is more generally a woman's prize than a man's
says that mothers, executive secretaries, and paralegals are the real drivers.

ours is a sick profession marked by incompetence, lack of training, misconduct
and bad manners. -- Chief Justice Warren Burger

[ Reply to This | # ]

Men aren't the only sexists
Authored by: J.F. on Monday, September 12 2005 @ 12:12 AM EDT

Another important point is that Free Software development is often done as a hobby, just for fun, and in one's spare time. Where is a woman's spare time? After their working day, most of them still have the second working journey, which is at home, taking care of the home, the children and her husband. If the men can have the privilege of doing Free Software in their spare time, sitting in front of the computer and having some fun coding what they want, women in general don't have this privilege.

That was particularly sexist. What is the stereotype of FOSS programmers? One reviewer above said it quite elegantly - "desperate geeks." Many MANY of us FOSS programmers are bachelors. We don't have wives doing all the housework while we have "some fun coding." We have to schedule time around house and yard work just as any woman would.

[ Reply to This | # ]

PJ, I could have told you
Authored by: inode_buddha on Monday, September 12 2005 @ 12:20 AM EDT
PJ, I could have told you about women in software years ago. I count many of my
own family and friends among them. They are not called "programmers"
or "scientists" or "librarians". Rather, they are called
"accountants", "division secretaries", etc.

The best ones IMHO know their subject matter as well as they know office work
such as physics and chemistry and literature. Those are few and far between, and
command top dollar in my experience. It is not a shameful thing to be corrected
by one of them. The computer is just a natural extension of that, IMHO.

Copyright info in bio

"When we speak of free software,
we are referring to freedom, not price"
-- Richard M. Stallman

[ Reply to This | # ]

oh gawd, this is a great topic!
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, September 12 2005 @ 01:07 AM EDT
First off, I'm a male. And what follows is my maley opinion. (I'm pushing 60,
just so ya know)

Speaking *generally*, men and women are different (please don't ask me to
describe "different" -- the men know what I mean and the women know
what I mean). Anyone of either gender who won't admit to that fact is living in
a cave, alone. Anyone of either gender who would like to make men and women
"the same" *should* be living in a cave, alone. I happen to like
women. Of course that's a subjective statement and doesn't say how or why or
even when I like women. o O(and what does that have to do with anything?)

Now the fact that I like women has no bearing on how they perform technically.
That depends on their knowledge, skills and experience. Many of us have been in
jobs where we have flourished, and probably have had a job or two where we were
"stifled". I think that experience is pretty much gender agnostic.

I worked as a software engineer for a number of years. There were several
engineers who were women. I'm assuming, since I'm a male, that some of them
were regarded by the male engineers as attractive. I certainly found some of
them attractive. I did not, because I could not, lay my 'maleness' aside when I
had to work closely with one of the female engineers. If I found one
attractive, she did not become somehow "neutral" or
"unattractive" by the mere fact that I was working with her. There
was the usual tension in the background. o O(why did I suddenly think of the
movie, "When Harry Met Sally"?)

Several of the women engineers (maybe even all) were sharper than me. They
wrote good code. A couple of them wrote elegant code. They were, as far as I
could tell, respected in the engineering group and were regularly promoted. In
fact, a woman was the supervisor of my group. Personally, I think she was a
little inexperienced, people-wise, for that position, and had to grow into it
some. Men have to do that too. She was very sharp technically -- and had a
degree from MIT to boot.

The company also had a product test group. There were several women in it. I
don't think they "did as well" as the women in engineering. What I
mean by that is I got the distinct impression over a period of time that they
were looked down on by their male peers. Some of it was overt.

I've worked in other technical environments with women. As a group (most were
software engineers or systems analysts) they were on par with the men. On
reflection, I think the level of professionalism in the workplace/workgroup had
more than a little effect on how the women got on with their jobs.

However, I'm saying all this as a man. I have no idea how those women felt in
the vicissitudes of day-to-day working.

I would encourage more women to look at technical careers. I don't have to work
closely with them anymore :)

[ Reply to This | # ]

Women in Free Software, by Fernanda G. Weiden
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, September 12 2005 @ 03:28 AM EDT
I have only small close experience of "women in FOSS", namely in our
LUG. For what it can be worth, here it is.
Within the 10 most active members, 3 are women. Although this might seam
initially as awfully skewed, normalizing the results for the ratio of women in
the IT business/education, it looks quite encouraging.

How did we make it to that? It's rather simple: what's written in our manifesto
about equity of *all* things (gender, nation, beliefs, whatever) we take it VERY
seriously. So, yes, there have been incidents of sexism even in our LUG, like
some spineless dude using her being a woman as a point to disprove her technical
argument or some inellegant and desperate hits for an improbable date. But what
kept things in order, was the all-too-frequent kick-ban in IRC or the
intervention of most others to make the guy step down in person-to-person
discussions. OTOH, a woman was *never* "protected" when merit was not
due: if she erred, then she erred wether woman or man. That particular
atmosphere permitted confident women to take as much active part as confident

In the business world, such a stance is still particularly difficult, either
because there is an istitutional sexism within the company's structure or
because the management favors proactive behaviour that inevitably will make
animosities grow.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Patches don't have gender
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, September 12 2005 @ 04:54 AM EDT
Enthusiasm and competence are the only required qualities.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Cultural Norms
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, September 12 2005 @ 08:40 AM EDT
One of my favorite features of MythTV is the commercial deletion capability. As
a result, we watch very few commercials in my family.

However, there was a movie that was recorded the other day for which many the
commercials were not deleted for some reason. After watching the movie, my wife
said, did you notice the commercials? Her point was that many of them (most of
them?) had explicit or implicit references to sex.

With respect to the comment that women involved in technical groups get asked
out on dates, I am not surprised. However,
it is ironic that in our "liberated" society, the level of hormonal
over-charging puts women at a disadvantage.

If our society were less saturated with sex, perhaps women would be treated more
like people and less like sex objects.

[ Reply to This | # ]

why learning how to program is hard
Authored by: chrism on Monday, September 12 2005 @ 12:33 PM EDT
I have been programming for over 20 years now and I have noticed a lot of people
have a hard time learning how to program. In particlar, I have always been
baffled at:
1. how hard it is for many otherwise technically oriented people to learn
2. how much more effective many people would be in their jobs if they could
3. how different we are all in how we learn, or what we need explained to us in
4. sometimes all someone needs is to have a few key issues explained to get them
to be able to learn something.

It seems that a certain percentage of the population has an easy time learning
how to program. I think until a few years ago, most programming books were
written by people who found it an easy subject to master. Since the need for
programmers has grown so quickly, and the price of hardware has fallen so far,
the number of people interested in learning how to program has grown immensely.
Authors have begun writing books on how to program that deliberately target
people who don't find it easy.

The book "who's afraid of C++"
( is a fascinating example of this.
The author of the book (Steve Heller) corresponded with a programming novice and
introduced programming. The things the novice got confused about were things
the author never have guessed. He let the dialog between them drive which
issues he focused upon in writing the book.

I have a suspicion that programming is not an inherently difficult activity, and
that people who find programming hard to learn are stumbling over issues that
people who find it easy to learn don't stumble over. If we could figure out
what those issues are, and take them seriously as writers of books and articles
on programming, we could make tremendous progress in bringing programming to a
larger audience.

Just look at how many people master algebra and calculus these days versus 100
years ago. Far more, BTW, than ever master programming and keep it around as a
life-long useful skill. What made that possible is that those subjects have been
around long enough for people to discover what the stumbling blocks were and to
write enough books to cover them.

The reason it won't take us another hundered years to cover the (compared to
math) young subject of programming as well is that we have the internet to help
organize the effort and subjects that can provide immediate feedback (you write
a program then run it to see if it works, you can play the piano and listen to
how it sounds) are much easier to learn than subjects like math where you need
someone else to check your work.

While we've made tremendous progress in educating programmers (I'll bet there
are 10 times as many programmers in the world today as there were 15 years ago)
in recent years, we have barely scratched the surface of what could be done.

Then again, I love programming and I want a world in which the ability to
program to some degree is as common as the ability to read and write. So
perhaps I am expecting too much ;-)

Chris Marshall

[ Reply to This | # ]

PJ learning how to program
Authored by: chrism on Monday, September 12 2005 @ 01:41 PM EDT

I am curious, based on your remark that Fernanda's article had you considering
learning programming, if you have attempted this before, what you tried, and
what you stumbled over that made you stop.

Chris Marshall

[ Reply to This | # ]

Change of flamewar
Authored by: lifewish on Monday, September 12 2005 @ 02:40 PM EDT
Now that the discussion of women in programming, and possible gender and
cultural differences and so on, has ended, how about a new topic of discussion?

Here it is ***DRUMROLL***

What language would you recommend PJ try to learn first if she does decide to
try her hand at coding? I'd recommend Python, personally (it's like BASIC would
be if BASIC was cool), but I suspect I'll be in the minority. What suggestions
do you lot have, and why?

The greed of the few trumps the need of the many

[ Reply to This | # ]

Women in Free Software, by Fernanda G. Weiden
Authored by: iraskygazer on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 01:49 AM EDT

This is a topic that has been researched at a number of California
universities. But, I believe there is a female psychologist from UCLA, who
appeared on 'TLC' or 'TDC' that stated the reasons about 'Why so few women work
in the tech field(s).' My perception of the TV article was this: 'Men like to
tinker and women simply like to have things work for them.' Please don't
criticize me for repeating the message I received from the article. But, I did
talk with my wife and she agreed with some parts of the psychologist's

[ Reply to This | # ]

She means "White Women in Free Software"
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 12:04 PM EDT
Any time I see any feminist diatribe about "women in
technology", it's almost always by one or more white women
looking to promote *other* white women in the
technological industry. As a technologist, I see this
every day.

Unfortunately, experience has taught me that *black*
American women, for example, are not viewed as "sisters"
in this "sisterhood" of feminism. None of my sisters, all
of whom are intelligent, strong people, and who happen to
be black Americans, have ever felt welcome among crowds of
white women. I asked them why. They said, "what they're
talking about would be great...if it included us."

I found this curious, so I asked several other black women
out there, and the answer, though of course worded a bit
differently, was essentially the same as my sisters'
response. On several university campuses here in the
United States, I've seen black women make real efforts to
actively participate in, for example, the Society of Women
Engineers, and they end up leaving for lack of being truly
welcomed as "sisters" by their white counterparts. They
were treated just like I was by black Americans in
NSBE--shunned for my skin color (I'm rather
light-skinned). For a long time, I didn't understand why
so many black Americans--especially black women--chose
historically black colleges and universities. This kind
of oversight on the part of the "feminist" movement helps
explain it. Were I a black woman, I might well have
considered it too.

Therefore, I must ask, given such observations, why isn't
this study taking color differences into account the same
way it purports to take gender differences into account?
My observation is that the white women simply don't care.
If this is incorrect, then by all means, I invite them to
please provide some insight.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Women in Free Software, by Fernanda G. Weiden
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, September 15 2005 @ 01:49 AM EDT
Death To women's Rights

women come in to rule men, nothing more. They see that men have created
something great and wish to claim credit for and control it (to the extent which
that is possible).

[ Reply to This | # ]

Women in Free Software, by Fernanda G. Weiden
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, September 15 2005 @ 09:06 AM EDT
"Whatever man creates woman seeks to control"

[ Reply to This | # ]

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