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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".

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